Opening the Fissure

I have the occasional privilege of wrestling with Chris Olshefski over lunch; he calls it dialoguing. Some of our conversations, like his and Caitlin’s blog posts, are unsettling; they force me to hear ideas that are challenging, question my own beliefs, and follow arguments that sometimes have no conclusion (as a scientist, this is hell for me).

Disclaimer: I only disagree with him about 18% of the time on significant issues. I am grateful for this because dialoguing with him exercises the muscles I need for engaging with some in my theologically conservative church (disagreement 45% of the time), my woke progressive friends (34% of the time), and my politically conservative family (97% of the time).

I have been reflecting on what it means to have relationships with those we disagree with on significant issues (possibly up to 97% of the time). Refusing to engage isn’t always a viable option. I could avoid Caitlin, but I work on the same floor as Chris. Maybe I’ll just keep asking him about the state of his faith.

I see two options. First, I could ignore and minimize any differences, but then friendships would lack intimacy – what psychologists describe as inclusion of the other into the self, in which we feel our identities to be known, validated, and cared for. Second, I could deliberately engage with others despite the discomfort they bring. I’ve been trying the latter, which has had a strange effect on me: it has grown my identity to include others. We enter conversations acutely aware of the incompatibilities of our identities; there seems to be little shared basis for communion. In the midst of dialogue, we may not change our positions on any issues, but I find myself knowing, validating, and caring about others in ways I didn’t before.

In this, I have received help from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Because I’ve read the book, Chris asked me to share how Volf’s ideas have helped me to embrace the Other.

Keep them out

Volf observes that we are constantly in conflict with Others because of loyalty to our own cultures (based on ethnicity, nationality, or ideology). We regard our identities as ‘pure’ so long as they are not tainted by identities from competing cultures. We do not understand their identities, and fear validating them (lest it be mistaken for endorsing their positions), which allows us to care less if we choose to disassociate from them. This allows us to say with pride that we do not (or no longer) associate with a person or group. Our identities are defined by who we are not. We are not them!

Volf calls this the sin of exclusion: a will to push Others out of our identities and cultural worlds. This can take several forms. First, we might cut off the Other from communion and relationship. This is exclusion by abandonment (e.g. ignoring, excommunicating) or elimination (e.g. genocide). Second, we might forcefully shape or limit the identities of Others to ‘permit’ them space amongst us. This is exclusion by assimilation (e.g. silencing) or domination (e.g. slavery). Exclusion in any form entails violence against the identities of Others.

The sin of exclusion is inescapable; I am either a perpetrator, or a victim of it. When I am excluded, I exclude in kind. Both parties are locked in a mutually-reinforcing dance of exclusion. This dance seems never ending, but Volf outlines a way forward.

Volf writes, “Christians take a distance from their own culture because they give the ultimate allegiance to God and God’s promised future” (p. 51). The Cross serves as the foundation of a new community, allowing us to live with one foot in our cultures and another in God’s new creation where we are reconciled to God and others. Where our identities were previously incompatible with others, in communion we become catholic personalities – enriched and shaped by our relations to others, even those we are prone to exclude. To Volf, this is accomplished by God’s working: “Being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in” (p. 51).

Let them in

In contrast to human relationships marred by exclusion, Volf uses the metaphor of embrace to describe the healing of human relationships and communities. This willingness to embrace the other precedes any conditions we place upon them. Volf writes, “The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any ‘truth’ about others” (p. 29). Volf describes the drama of embrace playing out in four steps, a metaphor that mirrors a literal, physical embrace.

I. Opening the arms

This signals to the other your own will and desire to embrace. This requires a recognition that our own identities require others for enrichment and healing. Volf writes, “Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other” (p. 141). We may have a desire to embrace someone, but have we signaled it to them in a way they can perceive?

II. Waiting

Open arms extend to – but stop short of enveloping – the other. Embrace must be entered freely; to embrace someone without waiting for them to enter our open arms is to do violence against them, to invade their identities with ours. Volf speaks of waiting as a modality of love: postponing our will and desire to embrace because we place the needs of the other before ours. Am I impatient with others, demanding embrace on my terms and according to my timing?

III. Closing the arms

Once the other accepts the invitation and approaches, there is reciprocity: a gentle closing of the arms by both parties; two independent identities now stand as a single entity. I must not close my arms too tightly and suffocate or assimilate the other, and I must resist any assimilation of myself. In embrace, “the identity of the self is both preserved and transformed” (p. 143). In embrace, a lack of understanding may emerge (as when we notice the strange smells and contours of another in close proximity), but there is more knowing when we see past our caricatures of the other. There is a certain amount of mystery to how one self includes another. Am I comfortable allowing that mystery to shape me?

IV. Opening the arms

A single embrace does not last forever, just as two identities cannot become one. Embrace is a habit that we return to, a dance that gets repeated over and over. Each time, we release the other and retreat to ourselves having been changed and enriched by the other’s presence.

Practicing embrace

Dammit. This means that to embrace those with whom I disagree, I might (to my horror) have to change – my identity has to make space for them. But what if they don’t make space for me? That might in fact be the case, but I still feel we would be better off putting Volf’s ideas into practice, resting in God when faced with the uncomfortable tension.

I think about Volf’s ideas every time I observe ideological and theological disagreements in the Church. Many of us (especially American Evangelicals) have the habit of diagnosing the theological positions of others, to determine where their identities stand in relation to ours. Would anyone trust me to teach in a church context, or do people worry about my views on the creation account and gender? Are Chris and Caitlin in the fellowship, or are they people I’m supposed to ‘reach out to’?

The habit of diagnosing others’ positions usually comes from a good place – a sort of spiritual triage where a stronger sister tries to determine if a weaker brother is in need of correction. The unintended effect, as I’ve observed and felt, is that a contingency is placed on the relationship. Dialogue can easily become an attempt to convince, and without intending to, carries an implicit threat of exclusion (should the convincing fail).

What if instead of trying to identify whose views needed correction, I took a dialogic stance towards them? What if I had a will to embrace that preceded my judgments about others and their beliefs? We might hear each others’ voices and perspectives in a fresh way, and regardless of whether there is any agreement, our identities would be enriched by inclusion of the other. This does not mean we cannot make judgments about what is true or reject untruths, but it means recognizing that truthful and loving judgments can only be made by identities willing to hear the voices of others and be shaped by them.

I wish we in the Church embraced embrace as a practice more. Perhaps we could all share in the meal that Jesus shared with us. Presently, we fence our tables, to ensure that those we break bread with believe the right things about the meal before partaking. While beliefs about communion are not unimportant, this seems akin to emailing my family ahead of Thanksgiving, insisting we work out all conflicts before we’re allowed to share a meal.

In the real world, families work out conflicts over meals – we share meals not because we have managed to come to some ideological agreement, but because our identities include each other. In fact, there may be little agreement. My racist uncle might end up sitting next to me at the table. I’m supposed to embrace him simply because he’s my uncle, even as I reject his views.

Perhaps it would heal us to break bread with those whose beliefs are unsettling to us, recognizing our shared communion as the basis for dialogue and fellowship. Can we embrace others and include their identities in our own? I know that when I don’t, I grow increasingly narrow in my perspective, not realizing that it has covered the fissure in me, leaving no room for anyone to enter.