We Differ, Therefore We Are

By Jeff Mallinson

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I don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, using sonar to “see” the world, though I find the idea of using electric impulses on the tongue to help the blind see awesome in the old sense. The closest analogy I have is riding motorcycles on busy streets. When I ride through the desert, I tend to listen to the sweet tunes of Calexico, and lose myself. Recently, when two-wheeling in China, something different happened. In just one stretch, I had to maneuver through a moving maze of jaywalkers, cars on sidewalks, scooters riding right at me on the wrong side of the road, and flocks of bicycles. Given my usual experiences, relying merely on immediate line of sight and lines on the road no longer worked. I didn’t die. I didn’t even come close to a collision. In fact, after about an hour of practice, something strange happened. I started to use my ears (unplugged from music this time). I listened not only to the sound of motors in my blind spot, but also to the gentle honks from everyone as they crept up and around each other. What I originally took to be impatience and aggression, I soon learned to receive as a polite way to keep me from becoming road kill. Each honk helped develop a 360 degree picture of where everyone was in this frantic dance of commuters and tourists. Other senses started to kick in. Rumbling vibrations from vehicles helped determine the size of the vehicles approaching. I amazed myself, and felt almost like those incredible bats, who fly though branches, grab moths in the air, and make dramatic turns throughout the night sky.

This experience helped me to reflect on something that has long been important to Continental philosophers and sociologists: the idea of the Other. For all the negative press the postmodern Continentals get, I believe they had at least one thing right as right gets: the idea that philosophy ought to start with ethics. Or, at least, to get past epistemological impasses, understanding the Good may be a pre-requisite for getting to the True. There are many ways in which this may be so. But one way resembles my experience on the Chinese streets. By an awareness of the other, I was able to properly understand where I was. Likewise, by recognizing my place before the Other, whatever or whoever that Other might be, I come to know myself.

Descartes famously started with himself. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. The Cartesian project may have been fun, but I think it ultimately foundered. Moreover, Descartes’ starting place may have led the modern world to the negative things typically associated with postmodernity. If the whole thing starts with me, abstracted from relationships and the uncertainties of concrete life, it will naturally lead to a form of hyper-modernism. Indeed, some strands of Anglo-American postmodern thought look to many wise observers as little more than the rational rubble of a rational tower of Babel.

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But there are many strands of this phenomenon called postmodernity. In many conservative churches, postmodernity is identical to a decadent and un-restrained relativism. These same conservatives identify this postmodernity as the agent of disintegration for traditional family values and universally-held truths. What these conservatives often don’t realize is that it is precisely their children who tend to talk like relativists. Having grown up imbibing conservative beliefs, they have a hard time defending those beliefs when they find that their roommate who’s Muslim isn’t a terrorist, their Atheist roommate has at least some sort of ethical compass, and their gay friend is less promiscuous than their straight youth group buddies. In the face of this, they seek to get along without anyone having to change or grow. All they need to do is conclude that everyone is entitled to, and thus possesses their own unique truths. That’s how kids roll. But not the most interesting Continental thinkers, who don’t just seek tolerance, aim at using the phenomenon of otherness to generate deep understanding and personal transformation.

Take Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), for instance, who called ethics the first philosophy. An individual discovers the ethical not as abstraction and theorizing, but by recognizing that he or she stands before another, face-to-face. This produces both a strange sense of intimacy and yet infinite distance. We sense a presence nearby, but can’t grasp another’s consciousness. Thus, Levinas writes, “I owe the Other everything, the Other owes me nothing. The trace of the Other is the heavy shadow of God …. ” [Difficult Freedom (Johns Hopkins, 1990), 8.]

Just as the presence and expressions of the motorists and pedestrians in China danced their wild traffic dance, when we get outside ourselves, we ironically start to understand ourselves. Moreover, we begin to become better selves, especially when we actually draw near and desire to understand the Other. Levinas writes:

“The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching. Teaching is not reducible to maieutics [the Socratic method]; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain.” [Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis, (Kluwer, 1969), 51.]

Many sixteenth-century thinkers would have understood the gist here, if not the peculiar terms. Through the classical skeptical sources, they had learned to appreciate that certainty, in this earthly kingdom, was impossible. We could rest certain in the revealed promises of God in Christ, the Christian humanists believed, as did Luther, but we had to muddle through the rest of this earthly business with fallible reason and senses. The solution for many was the value of dialectic, something that depended on intersubjective human conversations, and consensus, the role of a community in coming as close as possible to a rational understanding of the natural world.

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Conversation with people who are different expands the intellectual gene pool, as it were. We exist, and understand our existence when we recognize there is at least something mysterious outside our own thoughts. Getting outside ourselves, I might venture to propose here, is not just a fun touristy thing to do, but rather a moral obligation. Getting outside ourselves is the topic for this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast. Rest assured that the podcast tackles the theme without reference to philosophers. But thanks to you, dear reader, for indulging the strangeness of this post.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping nothing but puffing on the last embers of a blackberry flavored hookah, amidst the self-locating sounds of exotic rhythms and Arabic singing, all between chapters of  William Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism.

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3 thoughts on “We Differ, Therefore We Are

  1. Interesting take on differences between people, and yes, we find good atheists with ethics, and Muslim co-workers who are not terrorists, and nice liberals, generous progressives, and mean spirited conservatives…..but…..what good is all this if one is unsaved, an unbeliever, a rebel aligned with the world and the flesh and doing the work of the devil? On your death bed, on mine, on anyone else’s…..all these musings are like the noise of my old wind chimes moving with the breeze on my backyard porch. In the end…one is saved…or lost. Some very nice people who rejected God and His grace, who despised Jesus and the cross, will go to eternal damnation, while some rascals, scoundrels, poor in spirit but them who clung to Jesus….will find eternal life.

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  2. Good thoughts, and I’m glad to hear from you, John. First off, I don’t think that absolutely everything we do in life has to be about converting people. Secondly, if you were indeed trying to convince someone of the importance of salvation in Jesus, then the best way to do that would be to have a conversation. So I stand by my call to get outside ourselves and have genuine conversations. Let’s assume that the main goal one has is evangelization of unbelievers. Then what I say above is all the more important. If I’m a missionary in a Hindu village, I should probably start to have some deep conversations with actual Hindus, instead of just reading books about Hinduism. Otherwise, much of my religious conversation will not make sense, nor will it hit on the right points. Etc. etc.

    But that’s not what this post was about. It wasn’t about endorsing difference, it was about the ethical transformation and self awareness that comes from conversation with difference. For instance, I was getting pretty bummed about the aesthetic lack in American Christianity, as well as the kitsch so common in non-denominational American evangelicalism. I always had this idea that the Buddhists were way too cool for that. Then I kept seeing Buddhist trinkets just as tacky as Christian book store trinkets. It was an important realization for me. Likewise, in Japan, by having real conversations with Buddhist moms I was able to learn why the historic argument for the resurrection wasn’t that interesting to many: the Buddhist seeks a path that is self-justifying. That is, one tries it and sees if it works experientially. So, they wanted to know about the Christian experience as the basis for belief. After realizing this, we were able to start talking about the idea of the theology of the cross and the hiddenness of God in a rich and rewarding way.

    On top of all this: getting to know different people (surely some of them might be “saved” right, even though they eat spicy Sichuan soup) is one of the most enjoyable things a human can do before one breathes his or her last breath.

    This reminds me: on Cindy’s blog, I got a bit feisty with you. I can assure you that were I in your home, drinking your coffee, I would have been more respectful. I bet you have brought much joy and love to those around you. You may have served your community and country in self-sacrificial ways. Sitting in your home, even when I might passionately disagree with you, I would be more likely to be deferential to your wisdom and experience, as a gentleman who is older and probably more naturally intelligent than I am. That’s part of what I’m saying here. It’s real easy for us to be cruel to one another without realizing that we stand before ANOTHER, there is a gaze. There is a face. And it is looking back at us. And it comes with the heavy shadow of God. You and I, as believers, happen to be the larvae dei, the Masks of God. Let’s be the best masks, brother.

    Thanks again for reading.

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  3. Jef, you make excellent points, and I respect your views even when we have differences of opinion. And yes indeed, if we were having a cup of coffee together, we would likely be friends. I enjoy people and basically am humbled by the things I have learned by reading, conversing, and listening to others. The Christian in me is continually in conflict with the “natural man.” I think the best we can wish and pray for in ourselves and others is to have a close, personal, and reverential relationship with Christ, because in the end it is what really matters. But we are here on earth until God calls us, and we must seek wisdom in our life with all the inward and outside things influencing us. My comments to Cindy, in a previous blog entitled “Overwhelmed” were too insensitive and snarky, as I look back. I struggle against my New York attitude and shortness of patience when looking at some things….a lifelong effort to improve….and many times falling short. But for the most part….healthy debate is good and I have learned more in life from old fashioned conversation, where we look at facts, explore ideas, and take nothing as personal attacks even when heated disagreements occur. Anyway….God bless. Keep up the good work. I might add that one day somebody might write a piece on the ramifications of the Kim Davis jailing. It is, in my view, an indication of what is coming. Here we have a clerk who refused to issue same sex marriage licenses. The judge could have fined her, recommended her municipality fire her, suspended her any prison time….but instead..he remanded her to jail. Consider this: When municipal clerks in other municipalities issued marriage licenses to gays when the law prohibited it….they were never put on trial. When Obama and Holder refused to defend DOMA, or enforce it….even though it was the law of the land…nobody complained, no jurist, no court, no member of the hypocritical American media. But Kim Davis? She gets the full treatment. Go figure. Double standard? You bet. Selective enforcement? Yes indeed. These are the times that will test our faith, our courage, and our wills in the face of coming persecution.

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