The church in the West is straddling through some mammoth culture changes. In some parts of N America, it feels as if “we” have become extinct – no longer viable in the society we’re ministering in. Some of us label this situation “post Christendom.” In the following weeks, I offer a series of posts on six images that I believe help us think through what these culture changes mean for the practices of the church. I find the terms “post-attractional, post-positional, and post universal (language)” helpful descriptors of these new cultural conditions we (at least some of us) are ministering in. I call them “the three posts” (not to be confused with blog posts) and will expand on these “conditions” in the posts to follow. Today I want to discuss the image of “the Other,” that empty faceless shapeless figure that we encounter when we engage someone who is not a Christian out of a Christendom mindset. I think it helps us think about evangelism and mission in the America’s new cultures of post Christendom
The image of “The Other” – as described famously by the Continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas – describes the one we encounter outside ourselves. It (he/she) is that which is otherwise than my self. Levinas complains that the modus operandi of the West has been to reduce the Other to the Same. It is what our individualist autonomous universalizing modes of reason do as we encounter someone. We all know that feeling, when getting to know someone new, of being categorized by him/her as this or that – of being shoved into someone else’s categories before we have been truly heard. This is what Levinas means by “reducing the Other to the Same.” In the process, the Other – is objectified – “deprived of its alterity” (Totality and Infinity p.42).
It is the habit of Western knowledge (epistemology) to interject a middle – supposedly neutral – term that ensures we comprehend the object. You are a “republican,” a “democrat,” a “liberal,” a “conservative,” you have “guilt” because you have sinned against God (although you don’t know it yet), you are always trying to achieve righteousness on your own, aren’t you? We conceptualize reality – the way we think things are – and then expect the Other to conform into it, submit to it. It is unconscious. Perhaps unintentional. In the process however, the concept becomes the means of stripping the person of his or her alterity (Totality and Infinity, 33-34). We reduce the Other to the Same. It is this denial of alterity in what Levinas calls “the concept” which produces domination, tyranny and violence.
This is the image of The Other, that faceless stick figure that we import all our pre-conceptions into. This faceless stick figure always fits nicely into our existing categories so that we can feel comfortable and in control of it (not a him or a her). Levinas pleads – we must always call into question the habit of reducing the Other to the Same. A space must be opened for the presence of the Other. We must call into question (what Levinas calls “ the egoistic spontaneity of the Same:”) that instinctual Western habit of always putting the Other into our own conceptualization, without questioning, as if it were self evident, the way it is. Over against this habit, Levinas calls for a disposition that seeks “the face to face encounter” with the Other, the strangeness of the Other, his/her irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions (Totality and Infinity, p. 33). We must recognize, that the Other, in order to remain the Other, must always come into our awareness, our consciousness by first obliterating all our categories.
Levinas’ “the Other” is very intuitive. Obviously I am over-simplifying Levinas bypassing much of his profundity (including his theological work on how we might know the ultimate Other, the Infinite – or the “Otherwise than being”). But I think this small description of the Other gives us the image we need to understand how we must reorient the entire practice of mission and evangelism for the new cultures of post Christendom.
Up until recently (WW1/WW2 in Europe and post WW2 here in N America) the church a.) has been in this unusual homogenous world where the language of Christianity has been somewhat universal (in the West), b.) has been in a posture of respect/authority in culture, where c.) people gravitated towards it, especially on Sunday for issues having to do with God. And so in communicating the gospel, in preparing people to evangelize others with the gospel, in attempting to engage surrounding culture – we have been able to do it LARGELY ON OUR OWN TERMS. Today, in post Christendom, these Christendom habits persist – and now – in a post universal (language), post positional and post- attractional culture, we Christians appear hideously commercial, abusive of power, and grotesquely presumptuous. In the words of Levinas, our methods of evangelism smack of “Reducing the Other to the Same.” Here are three examples:
1.) We Reduce the Other to the Same WHEN WE ATTRACT PEOPLE TO COME TO US: By asking people to come to us into our churches to hear “the gospel message,” we assume a position of power, we assume that they will know our language, that our language is THE LANGUAGE, and that we do evangelism largely on our own terms. One of the things Levinas’ “The Other” helps us see is that when we produce large attractional events to get non-believers into the mega building, we in essence deprive them of their alterity, agreeing to overwhelm them by the excellence of the production, a one-message-fits-all presentation of the gospel that denies the alterity of each person. The attractional events have certainly worked well in Christendom, where we could assume a mono-cultural initiation into basic-things-Christian. There also was a common formation of most people into the same set of cultural problems. This is why Billy Graham was a proper (and successful) response to Christendom America in the 50’s-thru 80’s. Today however, the lost person is coming with a vast array of lostness and brokenness that must be met in a relational “face to face” encounter. This is where the gospel can be received in post Christendom. In these contexts, we must give up squeezing each person into one grand attractional scheme, as individuals through a pipeline to proceed through 4 bases (or pillars, or steps) in order to become a contributing member to an organization.
2.) We Reduce the Other to the Same WHEN WE APPROACH INDIVIDUALS FROM A POSITION OF POWER: As people trained for evangelism in the habits of Christendom we come with a script, with a pre determined outcome – with a method how to lead everyone to the same sinner’s prayer. It comes off as a reduction of “the Other” to the same – going for results, presenting a message and expecting a response, adding up numbers, making people part of our church growth agenda. As the new post Christendom cultures have swept over us, we have not adjusted. We still seek to sell a message, just make it more relevant, appealing, drawing people into the aura … so that they will hear a message. These are still signs of the assumptions of power – just come to us on our terms.
3.) We Reduce the Other to the Same WHEN WE ASSUME THEY KNOW OUR LANGUAGE: Our Christendom tools assume words, sentences and of course a knowledge of the Story that are no longer the currency of our places of ministry. So now, in post Christendom, when we talk about sin, they ask “what is sin?” When we talk about God, they say “which one?” and we in essence talk right past them. We have in essence, reduced the Other to the Same expecting them to already know and live in the cultural world of Christianity
All of the above are signs that we still are working under the Western habits of reducing the Other to the Same – the Other who we must now assume is different than us, who will not come into our orbit unless we do something sneaky to attract him/her in, who will not understand what we are talking about, who will consider it an act of violence to assume we are right and they are wrong. In short, WE FACE THE CHILLING CHALLENGE OF THE OTHER, and of OVERCOMING OUR HABITS OF EVER REDUCING THE OTHER TO THE SAME.
Elsewhere on this blog, and in my speaking, I have proposed that we seek to do evangelism in the rhythms of everyday life, not through attractional means, that we become onramps for the gospel as opposed to transaction salesman, that we look for ways to inhabit our neighborhoods as Christ, incarnating the gospel in our ways of life within the contexts we serve (not asking them to come to us). The image of “the Other” helps us understand why this kind of reorientation of our evangelism is so important. Thank-you Levinas.
OK, having said all this, I am open for your push-back. Are there ways the attractional churches engage non-Christians apart from the violence of “the Other”? Peace in Christ everybody.