“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
A key epistemological concept in our post modern world is the role of alterity – the other. The relationship with, and the existence of, the other puts us under question. We cannot hold a closed-up analysis and dialogue with our solitary self; we are relational beings and in that relationship, we define our being.
The obligations of one to another are fundamental. I cannot just have it my way when someone else – including their culture and worldview, is involved.
This contact with another may create all sorts of destructive fireworks and/or creative opportunities as the other presents himself as a possible catalyst for our own self discovery.
The Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who introduced the existential works of Husserl and Heidigger to France in the 1930’s, saw how much the concept of experience and being was fundamentally shaped by the introduction of the other. Levinas drew upon his Judaic lore and the ethics of the Torah that told people to love their neighbour as themselves.
The story of the patriarch Jacob in Genesis 33:10 relates an episode in which he is reconciled with his brother Esau.
“For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Throughout his writings he explores the greeting, the “Shalom” in the face of our brother that calls us to mutual service and defines our basic humanity.
Many can only find God’s word hidden away in a book somewhere, others find traces of his transcendent conversation in nature, while Levinas, in his book The Proximity of the Other, insists on the encounter of God’s word in the face of the other.
“There is, in the face, the supreme authority that commands, and I always say it is the word of God. There is the word of God in the other, a non-thematised word.”
Compare this view with that of the other famous French existentialist thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre. In his courageous quest for freedom he saw the other as someone to be overcome – the essential object to my subject.
“Hell is other people,”
which seems in direct contrast to Levinas’ proposition that we may actually discover Heaven in other people!
Sartre’s chemical reaction seems pretty violent as we see from his conclusions in Being and Nothingness:
“We must either transcend the Other or allow oneself to be transcended by him. The essence of relationships between consciousness…is conflict.”
Are you in the rejection or welcome mode? Are you catalysing conflict or nurturing embrace. Are you experiencing heaven or hell in the other?
We no doubt waver between the two, but here’s another interesting quote from Jung:
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
I’ll end with a final, uplifting quote from Jesus’ lips in Luke 15:20, which speaks about the ultimate embracing of the other by a Father who found his own deep love shining back at him via the son.
Perhaps God defines his own greatness by embracing our fragile failures.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
Indebted to Kevin O’Donnell and his book Postmodernism