To Exclude or to Embrace: Considering 'otherness'

November 19, 2009

Our next issue of Case magazine will consider how we relate to ‘the other’. As I ask in my introduction to the magazine, is this just a philosophical and theological discussion to keep scholars busy? Clearly, we see it as a topic of concern to all people. In his influential book 'Exclusion and Embrace' (which I mentioned in a previous post here), theologian Miroslav Volf shows just how important the question of otherness is to all of life. Understanding and living with others, is not simply a matter of accommodating diversity. He suggests our approach to the other should reflect the character and actions of our God revealed in the person of Christ. Volf challenges us to embrace ‘the other’ in the light of God’s giving of himself on the cross—this includes our enemies. We need to adjust our very identities to ‘make space’ for the other. We have four wonderful articles that address the theme.

1. Otherness and Continental Philosophy

Matheson Russell begins the issue for us by outlining the treatment of otherness in the field of continental philosophy. While much of philosophy has traditionally centred on the self, taking its cue from Descartes’ famous thinking ‘I', a concern for the other has emerged in more recent philosophical and theological works. Russell guides us through the work of key thinkers such as G. W. F. Hegel, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt, reflecting on the lingering presence of biblical themes in this literature. Emmanuel Levinas set the scene with his observation that the Western world tends to privilege the ‘same’ over the ‘other’. In such a world, the other counts only to the extent that he or she can be made the same, leading to behaviours of acquisition and domination. In Levinas’ work, says Russell, ‘the ethical demand of the other is the demand to let the other be, to break off the struggle for dominance…in short, to lay down arms and accept peace with the ‘other’ without reducing them to the ‘same’. Russell concludes by drawing on the work of Karl Barth, and by reflecting on the need ‘to relate to God as the absolute Other’, accepting his gift of grace and recognising Christ as Lord and Saviour.

2. A Theological View of Otherness

Moving from philosophy to theology, Linden Fooks asks what we can learn from Miroslav Volf. One of the pressing questions of our time is whether religion is a cause or a cure of cultural conflict. Volf’s answer, as Fooks shows us, is not ‘no religion’, but rather more, what he calls ‘thick religion’. His is a call to engage more seriously with the peace-making resources at the very heart of the Christian faith. This will require for Christians ‘an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures’ (Volf, p.40). Embrace—the theme of Volf’s major work, is not mere cheap reconciliation, but will require deep and costly forgiveness. Volf’s theological exploration of otherness and reconciliation has had an impact around the world.

3. Otherness and Disability

In our third article, Kirk Patston explores the issue of otherness and disability. Do we live in a land of ‘apartheid’, in which the disabled are systematically ‘othered’? Patston helpfully draws on the emerging field of disability theology to explore the portrayal of disability in the Old Testament. He asks and answers a number of fundamental questions. How can we reconcile the Bible’s call to welcome the alien and stranger with the way it appears to render certain groups, such as people with disabilities, as ‘other’? How are we to interpret the Old Testament’s complex portrayals of disability? Do postmodern critiques of these texts really fit? Patston reminds us that in the Old Testament ‘we do not meet the consistent, autonomous, rational adult that Enlightenment thinkers may have imagined. But we meet a humanity that is real.’

4. What it Means to Become ‘the other’

In our final article, Susannah Macready provides an insight into what it might mean to live with ‘the other’ and thus become ‘the other’. Her experience in entering the deaf community offers a humbling example of how we can experience otherness and yet find embrace. Her reflections on becoming an alien - becoming ‘hearing’ - are a timely reminder that relating to the other needs to be construed ‘less like an act of charity…and more like the initiation of diplomatic relations with another country, a country with an enviable language, culture and heritage.’

This is a challenging topic for all of us who live in pluralistic societies. How easy do we find it to embrace our neighbours, let alone our enemies? And in a more practical sense, how does this discussion challenge us as citizens as we collectively take responsibility for aliens and strangers. Does it inform our attitude to so-called boat people? What about the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict, the paedophile and so on? What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the ‘other’ under the varied conditions of life? The writers in this issue have issued many challenges, I hope that many will read the issue and consider how to respond.

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