Sober reflections on Orthodox Christian thought, culture, and spirituality

  • The Other

    It was at an academic workshop in the Netherlands where I first heard the word “other” used as a verb (it was quite jarring to the ear). I was invited to offer my assessment of the historical tension between Christians and Jews in Late Antique Alexandria, but soon learned that my thoughts would be woven into a larger project concerning the ways in which humans create divisions based on belief systems. I was, as yet, unfamiliar with the sociological approach to religious studies. I quickly learned how out-of-touch I was with the latest methods.

    According to this approach, to “other” is to emphasize or exaggerate the differences between people groups. The term may also be applied to individuals who put themselves in opposition to one another based on race, class, gender, or any other identity attribute. Leaving the problem of stereotypes aside, “othering” is commonly invoked anytime someone points out a real difference in culture, politics, or religion. As I delved more deeply into the literature on the topic, I learned that some sociologists believe any emphasis of human variation to necessarily be a bad thing; and yet (paradoxically) these same experts promote an agenda of absolute diversity. Apparently we are to embrace all differences while simultaneously never pointing out what actually makes us different.

    There is something deeper at play here. In many ways, the problem with the contemporary West is not the problem of “othering,” but of “saming.” Internally, the movers and shakers of Western society have tried to steamroll over differences in order to create a bland monoculture lacking the verve of any traditional society. And externally, they have shipped our way of life to every corner of the globe, displacing (if possible) any vestige of authentic culture. The justification for this program is the market. A modern axiom: anything that can be monetized will be monetized. Thus we have evolved from homo sapiens to homo consumptor.

    Once upon a time, advertisers undertook extensive research into cultural differences in order to sell their products to various people groups. They struggled to understand the components of personal and collective identity in order to appeal to the customer. Marketing was hard work. But how much easier would it be to turn a profit if everyone were cast in the same mold? The same products could be sold to all (demographics be damned). We need only pretend human nature to be a raw substrate, devoid of real cultural differences that would get in the way of making a sale.

    Human nature as it actually is (not as they’d like it to be) remains an hypostasized reality: it subsists ontologically as unique persons. Traditionally, each individual was shaped by an organic process resulting in layers of identity, the coalescence of overlapping modes of belonging: family, tribe, nation; religion, language, culture; and, of course, geography. All these identity markers were rooted in relationships to others within the various manifestations of community. And for all but the philosophers, meaning was received as part of a grand tradition, not discovered anew through self-exploration. But it’s hard to sell your newfangled wares to traditionally-rooted persons. For the sake of progress, producers of goods and services had to become the high priests of culture. Although they started out with rather rudimentary techniques (buy Ovaltine!), they quickly learned how to use psychological methods (akin to propaganda) to lure the consumer into their web. The genius of Edward Bernays could be used by both Philip Morris and Joseph Goebbels to push their product. One such approach that emerged was dubbed “positioning,” a strategic process that involves associating goods and services with deep-rooted images within the customer’s psyche. Don’t tell them that Smirnoff Vodka is better than Absolut, simply evoke imaginings of nostalgic snow-laden Russian villages (à la The Nutcracker) and attach them to your brand. Appeal to sentiment, not reason. It’s no wonder we’ve become such an unreasonable people.

    Eventually, the marketeers realized they would not even need to appeal to specific segments of the population if society-at-large believed and thought in the exact same way. So now all the West is abuzz with a new ploy: Diversity and Inclusivity. This is a device only a marketing exec could have dreamt up. Yet it’s not what it seems. To believe that true cultural diversity is what is meant would be farcical. The engineers of this brave new world have no intention of allowing traditional cultures and ideas to coexist in the same space as their New Speak. They envisage a sort of pseudo-diversity: our bodies will superficially appear different, but our minds will be the same. Identity will merely be a construct based on what is available in the market. Ironically, many of the proponents of this vision publically attack late-modern capitalism, ignoring that their entire lifestyle is organized around it.

    We mustn’t think that diversity itself is the problem. God loves diversity. The Church Fathers saw a reflection of divine beauty in the plurality of fish in the sea or the many races of man upon the earth. God loves diversity, but not in the way Robyn Whitaker understands it. In an incredible act of eisegesis, she sees a spectrum of being lurking amidst the binaries listed in Genesis 1. Between darkness and light she inserts dusk and dawn, as though she knows the mind of the Author better than he does. Except that these acts of God are an answer to the problem of “chaos and the void,” and must therefore be interpreted within this framework: division entails order, and multiplicity entails fullness. In the first instance, God establishes boundaries, setting opposites in stark relief; and in the second he fashions a plethora of creatures, “each according to its kind.” At the apex of this chain of existence we see man and woman, both created in the image of God and therefore accorded the same dignity. In their complementarity they reflect the order of God; but in receiving the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” the diversity of humanity is presaged. They were to go forth and enlarge the borders of Paradise, subduing (ordering) the cosmos in God’s stead. In time, their descendants would have developed into local populations shaped by the identity markers that naturally emerge in old communities.

    As is usually the case, sin got in the way. The outcome of their rejection of God would be rejection of the other. Rather than becoming one flesh (unity in diversity), Adam and Eve initiated the battle of the sexes. This would not be the only way their successors would create strife: in Genesis 11, we discover that the root of tribalism is also sin. The descendants of Noah were offered a new start after the flood, and instructed to once more “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Gen 8:16-17); and yet they came to the land of Shinar and decided to embark on a project to prevent this. They broke ground on a ziggurat that would reach to heaven, intending to call God down (as if he were a petty deity at their beck and call). Indeed, he did come down, not to serve man but to judge. In separating the tongues, and hence the peoples, God confirmed the link between sin and otherness. Had humanity followed the command to “go forth,” a natural diversity would have prevailed as clans gradually emerged bearing different cultural markers. Instead, a lack of faith has spawned a world in which diversity leads to friction as we put ourselves in opposition to one another.

    A right understanding of sameness and otherness must be understood within the metanarrative of salvation, which is also the story of mankind. The distinction of male and female are resolved in spiritual harmony, the highest ideal being a Christian marriage. The man is to emulate Christ (and thus die to himself for the sake of his bride), and the woman is to image the Church (freely offering herself to her bridegroom). But the resolution of this binary is not reserved for matrimony alone; St Maximus the Confessor envisages the possibility that every man and woman may establish concord through a self-sacrificial mode of being.

    The same applies to the plurality of persons throughout the world. The market cannot unify, nor can it create authentic diversity. No manmade ideology can bring human beings together in cooperation and mutual respect. The Metaverse® may offer us unlimited choices to identify with, but it can never be a substitute for authentic human relationships which are necessarily embodied in time and place (a viewing of the 2013 film “The Congress” will disabuse one of any thought to the contrary). The anti-culture of the marketplace is possessed of a spirit, but not the Spirit of God. Therefore it lacks the power to overcome hate and distrust, or even to illumine the beauty of culture. This is only possible through the miracle of Pentecost, when the tongues of fire overcome the sin of Babel and unite “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11).

    There was a time when the genius of the Gospel began to change the hearts and minds of men; a time when cultures were purified and sanctified as persons and families were baptized into Christ. What was compatible with faith remained, while the dross was burnt away. Only sin has gotten in the way of this project. When even the Russian Orthodox “other” the Ukrainian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox “other” ethnic groups within their own church and nation, we can be sure we live in the ruins of Christendom. And yet we still inhale the lingering fumes of a faith fairer than any idea ever concocted by mere mortals (even advertising agencies). Even if distorted or perverted, the desire for diversity in unity—for authentic personal identity and cultural symbiosis—is a vestige of this bygone era. It is unlikely that our civilization will suddenly return to God en masse; yet we can hope that the ancient Christian vision of community, in all its resplendence, will once again inspire a world longing for connection.