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Posts Tagged ‘the Other


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Tell me again, why do we fear the stranger?


Written by kirkistan

October 9, 2015 at 10:07 am

Rudy’s Crisis of Character

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Does your crisis need introspection or extrospection?

Rudy (not his real name) (his real name was Samuel) was pastor of a small church in rural Wisconsin. A lot of people looked up to Rudy. It’s easy to imagine the pressure to be an example in such a community. Some/much of that pressure was self-inflicted.

Rudy’s son had a drug problem. When the problem came to light—in a very public way—Rudy blamed himself. He took a break from his pastoring job and pulled his trailer out into the woods where he was going to pray and read the Bible and think about where he had gone wrong and generally plead with God. He was in good company on this—lots of people in the Bible pursued these pleading communication events when crises hit. A few days alone, or alone with God, may answer the “What next?” and “Where did I go wrong” questions.

I’ve thought about Rudy’s instinct over the years. I grew up in a tradition where sorting things out on your own was expected. “Whatever you need to do to straighten up and fly right, well, get on with it” was the general sense of how things ought to progress. That was Rudy’s primary methodology.

Yesterday I had a delightful chat with a local philosopher. We got on the subject of what happens when we encounter the Other. What is our responsibility for the people with whom we come in contact and when does that responsibility kick-in? How can we be mutually for the people in our lives—and maybe for the people on the fringes of our lives? It turns out that one way is through our conversation. Even the casual conversations—just in passing—can have a deeply cathartic effect at times when people say what is really going on. I cannot help but wonder if Rudy’s instinct might have benefitted from time alone followed by a long walk with two or three childhood friends to help him sort the flotsam from the jetsam. Followed by weeks of conversation with his wife, Carol (not her real name) (her real name was Gertie). Followed by lots and lots more honest talk—especially with his son.

Because when we speak with each other—sometimes we say (and hear) the things God would say to us.

Speaking of Rudy (not his real name) (his real name was Ebenezer). Everything turned out ok: Rudy eventually left his pastor job and he became an exemplary truck driver and was chock full of wisdom for the people on his route. And the son’s drug problem grew until it stopped abruptly when teen angst gave way to career and age and the need to pay attention to life.


Image credit: Roland Topor via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

November 16, 2012 at 10:17 am

The Moving Horizon of Engagement: The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller on TED

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How to Boil Down Levinas?

help find a way

A recent issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent article on TED talks. On his way to explaining why the talks are so popular, Nathan Heller stumbles onto  the differences between our rituals of learning in college and how college is set up to support those rituals, and compares that with the kind of learning people need outside of college—the kind that keeps expanding rather than narrowing. Along the way he mentions in an offhand way how Levinas does not lend himself to a quick recap. One must do much preliminary work to begin to understand Levinas. Philosophy, especially phenomenology and theology are useful backgrounds to begin to understand Levinas. But only as a beginning.

The author of Conversation is an Engine is well familiar with this. As he tries to explain Levinas from time to time, blank stares and hasty retreats to other subjects are typical reactions. The French philosopher and apologist for The Other is famously obscure. And fascinating. But obscure.

Heller’s offhand remark reminds me that the bigger challenges ahead of us as communicators have to do with how we let people in on the details that engage us. Over at Big Picture Leadership there was a discussion recently about what it means to witness. That discussion reminded me of an ongoing conversation a few of us have had about what makes something remarkable, as in, making me remark out loud to another person because it was that important to me. In both cases there has to be an intensely personal connection for it to bubble up through our conscious mind and cross our lips.

If we are intent on rhetoric that draws others in (and I believe it is a most excellent thing to be a passionate booster for what we love and understand), than we are constantly providing low-hanging fruit for newcomers to grab and taste so they too will become enamored by the taste and want more. This is the horizon of engagement. That horizon is growing shorter and getting closer with every Google Search.

More sophisticated discussions will always have their place among practitioners and experts. But we’re quickly moving to the point where we each need to have a ready answer about our work, or firm, and what we believe.


Image Credit: Martin Morazzo via thisisnthappiness

I Wish More Churches Observed This Convenient Fiction: Outsiders Are Among Us

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Outsiders seeking truth won’t settle for bland spirituality

Our church is at its best when we say to ourselves there are people here kicking the tires of Christianity. I think it can be true, but in the church I attend, I rarely meet anyone who has not already bought the car. Still—don’t we all keep kicking the tires?

Saying there are outsiders lets us drop the clichés and insider language. It lets us jettison the assumptions about being good or put together. It makes us all a bit less stodgy and a bit more honest. Even the most deeply devoted person keeps thinking through the issues of her or his life where they are still kicking the tires: can I trust God in an economy that keeps swirling in the toilet? Or to guide my grown-up kid to make good choices? Can I still trust God when (perhaps) more years lie behind me than before me? Life constantly changes, of course.  There is always more living than there is faith to meet the next challenge. But then we watch together for how God intervenes even with faith to move forward.

I like boiling down clichés and disposing of the club mentality that insider language inevitably fosters. But this is not the same as the traditional understanding of seeker-sensitive, where actual content is tossed aside in favor of a bland spirituality. No, Christianity has some barbs that are difficult to understand and hard to come to peace with. The key is to present the barbs honestly and admit we struggle with them too. All while hearing regularly from the ancient texts that have always informed the church. That is a text that speaks to any outsider willing to listen–and is the time-honored antidote to bland spirituality.


Image Credit: Max Streicher via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

June 24, 2012 at 5:00 am

You Scare Me

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What can you expect from a conversation with another?

Levinas Says Why

I’ve always felt the problem with others is they keep talking about themselves. It’s always what they need, what they want, what they think. Their opinion. There is far too little about me in what they say.

You might think I’m joking. I’m not. It’s what many of us truly think just under the surface and it hints we are not far from that three year old phase of shouting “Mine.” You know I’m speaking truth because you’ve thought the same thing: waiting for someone to stop talking so that you can voice what is important to you.

Emmanuel Levinas was another 20th century philosopher who knew something about finding people interesting. He penned his first book while in captivity in a Nazi prison camp. His imprisonment proved valuable in forming a set of thoughts that went a very different direction from what others were thinking. Levinas was concerned with what happens when we encounter the “Other.”

Levinas understood that the Other was outside of ourselves. Painfully obvious? Maybe not. We humans have this tendency to force every encounter through our grid of experience, our intent and, frankly, our ego. We too often reduce others to something that looks very much like us. So while we hear the person beside us talking, we may pick up only on the words they say that affect us and miss the words that don’t affect us. We may routinely miss the words that oppose our intent along with the ones that describe the passion of this other person. Anyone with an old married couple in their lives has had first-hand experience with the practice of selective hearing.

“Wait,” you may say. “I’m a people person. I love being with others. Surely I have no natural aversion to others?” But Levinas pointed well beyond personality concepts like introversion/extroversion. He pointed beyond the contexts that inform our relationships: how we respond differently if the person before me is a subordinate or a boss, someone from the executive suite or a lowly clerk who can (should?) wait while I finish my dinner before I deign to speak with him. You can perhaps see the problem: how we interact, how we even think of the person before us—whether we even see the person before us—all is rooted in our context. It is rooted in how we perceive ourselves in culture, how we understand our position and our role. Standing is a very encultured episode.

Levinas invites us to strip away these contexts and come face to face with another. You’ve already had encounters like this, where context has been entirely scrubbed clean. Maybe you were at a party and met someone who later you found out was “Someone.” But during your chat you treated him or her like any other schlep.

How we deal with others, what we expect from our interactions, how often we assume others thinks like us and/or read that into our interactions—all these instinctual reactions limit our listentalk. Maybe they even derail our listentalk.

Listentalk means embracing the notion that others around us have much to contribute. And possibly that others are integral in helping us become the humans we were want to be. Levinas also awakens the very faint hunger in all of us to hear from The Other—God. And listening to God is a crucial piece of successful listentalk.


Written by kirkistan

March 11, 2011 at 8:26 am

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