Archive | September, 2021

The Gospel and Our Situation —part2

13 Sep

II. Othering: The Human Condition


The term othering points to a fundamental element of our dis-ease—the social dimension.

We were created in a condition of oneness with God and all of the creation. Tillich called this the condition of “dreaming innocence.” Matthew Fox called it the “ original blessing.

Whatever those terms refer to, it did not last. Perhaps it refers to the pre-human stages of evolution, the un-selfconscious condition of most (but not all) non-human animals. Humans are characterized by self-awareness. If the myth of the Fall makes any sense at all, it is because it refers to the transition into self consciousness. Tillich provocatively called “the fall into selfhood.”

I agree with Tillich, who was my first theological mentor, but I want to add a different nuance. Our emergence as Homo sapiens and our entry into selfhood is also a fall into otherness.

We define ourselves over against our world. This is nowhere more evident than in our relations within the human community and even with other living things. Over-againstness is another way to describe this basic human condition of othering. Our individual existence, as well as our social existence is a lifelong attempt to negotiate this over-againstness. That we struggle so to negotiate is a testimony that our pre-human oneness is deeply embedded in our being, it holds the primacy in human nature.

At the individual level, this negotiation is a matter of human 

human development—from infancy through adolescence to adulthood, aging, and dying. At the social level, it is fundamental to both intra- and inter- group development.  Inter- and intra- over-againstness was a challenge to pre-historic humans and it persists. At some points, we make gains, mutuality blossoms where hostility once ruled. Many persons have devoted their lives to the effort to reconcile differences between individuals and groups, some at the level of ethnic groups and nations. But the lack of synchrony, asynchrony, if you will, never goes away. Its deep rootedness is an indication that it is intrinsic to  our nature as we emerged into the human phase. The theological tradition names this phenomenon as “original” sin—not the “first” sin as Augustine wrote, but the “sin of our origin,” as Gregory of Nyssa explained.

The fall into otherness is a deviation from the truth that all living things and all humans emerged within the same evolutionary process within the same planetary ecosystem. It is  a condition characterized by fundamental dualisms. Over-against ness is a primal dualism. We  begin by defining ourselves as humans over against other animals. Dualism between humans and nature, between humans and other animals is deeply ingrained in our condition. The term “other” animals is deeply offensive to our dualistic outlook. We consider ourselves to be over-against an intrinsically different set of creatures that are qualitatively different from and inferior to us humans.

Othering marks, as well, our relationship with other ethnic groups, with other cultures, with other sexual orientations

There are a number of reasonable explanations of our social othering. 

Turf wars

Turf wars have characterized human history from prehistoric eras to the present. The history of the United States was significantly shaped and tarnished by the confiscation and exploitation of land on which natives lived—a gigantic turf war. This same confiscation and exploitation marked in general  the period of  colonization by European powers in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America in the so-called “Age of Discovery and Exploration,” from the 14th to the 19th centuries. The so-called “discovered” lands were already occupied. In nearly every instance, the native occupants were othered and in some cases considered not even human.

Consider the current battles over the Crimea and the Ukraine, for example, and the dispute between China and India over territory in the Himalayas.

Hatred and Assertion of Supremacy

We also talk about hatred and the desire to make ourselves and our group supreme over others, “white supremacy,” for example,  as it is spoken of today. Underneath racial supremacy and hatred, however, there lies the lack of a sense of fit, of being out of sync, a fundamental discomfort at the idea of living with “others” and sharing equally with them.

Racial hatred aims at keeping the other away and subordinating them. It imagines a threat from the other. In cases where the others are considered less than human,  they are consigned to subhuman living conditions. Theories of racial supremacy are formulated to justify the hateful treatment of the other. Sadistic cruelty is justified by these theories.

We can be instructed by considering the encounter of the Spanish conquistadores and the natives of Americas in the 1500s. They faced a dilemma, they thought, because they were uncertain whether or not to deal with the natives as humans. If they were human, they could be converted to Christianity; if not, they could treated as animals. They asked Spanish theologians for a the judgment.  Bartolomé de las Casas, was one of the first Spanish settlers in the “New Lands”; he became a Dominican priest and the first bishop of Chiapas. He not only argued in behalf of the indigenous people, he was instrumental in the enactment of the New Laws of 1542 that protected these peoples from abuse. The Spanish settlers, who insisted on enslaving the peoples, pushed back against these laws with such vigor that he was forced to return to Spain.

Strategies of enslavement, segregation and anti-miscegenation have the same intention: to keep the others apart. The idea of otherness is undermined if the other can participate equally in the dominant society, intermarry, have biracial children, and become leaders in the society.

Sexual and gender othering

The condition of othering is nowhere more prominent than in sex and gender relationships. In this context, I employ the term  “sex” as a biological marker, while “gender”  is a social construct. In recent decades, our ideas about sex and genders have changed dramatically. Conventional ways of thinking have been blown to smithereens. Othering  and overagainstness characterize this present situation, while at the same time some cultural forces seek to overcome the tension.

Even though men and women seem to be natural pairs, who can experience deep intimacy together, their relationships have been marked by othering from the outset. History and mythology are replete with description of this mutual otherness. Woman was associated with Moon amid Earth, accentuating fertility. Man was depicted as Sun, King, Warrior, Trickster. However interesting, even charming, these images may be, they remain strategies of stereotyping and othering. Our contemporary strategies, revealing some roots in these older archetypes, have evolved in their own ways.

Our understanding of sex and gender in Western cultures has tended to be binary—straight and lesbian/gay. The phenomena of non-binary thinking and transgendering reveal the inadequacy of traditional thinking. In  an explosive way, they call into question the othering import of traditional ways of thinking about sex and gender.

In all situations othering frequently takes  the form of aggressive hostility, the desire to dominate, the desire to hold fast and refuse to share with others—often involving cruelty. Today, strategies of othering are being challenged by individuals, groups, and larger forces that resist, refusing to allow themselves to be othered. 

The binary thinking about race is proving to be equality inadequate in the face of significant interracial mixing.

(c) Phil Hefner 9/13/2921