Monday, July 16, 2007

My Neighbour, My Self (part II)

Maggi linked to my sermon from last Sunday (Thanks, Maggi!) and reminded me of an idea I had hit upon that I wanted to expand a bit.

I said, in reflecting on the part of the 'great commandment' which says 'love your neighbour as yourself':

Who is our neighbour? Suddenly, in the logic of the parable, we’re not calling the shots; we are not so sure just who our neighbour is. Suddenly we’re not so sure just who our self is. If I’m to love another as my ‘self’ then the upshot is that I’m not even totally familiar with who I am, as I seem constantly to find that self facing me in others. And here we find the most radical challenge, for in this we see that no boundary will finally stand in the way of us and our neighbour, if we are to love them as our self. There are certainly distinctions: yes; love doesn’t seek to make everything else the same. But boundaries? No. There are no boundaries to our neighbours, no limits to whom we are to find our very selves in, no restrictions to whom we are to love unstintingly in God.

What I was trying to get at, although I probably did not develop it as well as I should have was the ambiguity of 'as'. Usually we simply think that we love our neighbour 'as' ourselves, in the sense that we love them 'in the same way' we love ourselves. Then the debate becomes - what if we don't love ourselves? or do we always love ourselves regardless? And other generally unhelpful things to dwell on.

How to get around this to something else?

I noticed that 'as' is ambiguous - it doesn't just need to mean (in English, at any rate) 'in the same fashion as'. And the way we usually parse it out with this verse, it simply assumes - reifies, really - our sense of self as something independent, interior, not essentially relational. Thus, there are two 'selves', which are basically complete and independent: neighbour and oneself.
But what if our 'self' is not something (completely) independent and self-subsistent? What if it is in process and something which is not possessed but given - by God, and by others? In that way, we discover who we are gradually through others (and eschatologically in God), and our failure to love another as our self is indeed as failure to love oneself, because it is in the other - in all of their individuality and otherness, to be sure - that our 'self' is found.

This sounds REALLY abstruse, when I put it this way! I arrived at it more intuitively than anything, in reflecting on the relationships in my life: spouse, child, parents, friends, mentors, strangers, etc. I wouldn't be - couldn't be - who I am without those people, most (or all) of whom I couldn't have anticipated. In that sense, my self is a gift (i.e. given to me rather than created by me) in the way that these others are gifts.*

Again, I want to emphasise that in saying that I find my 'self' in others, I am not colonizing others and co-opting them into my 'self'; just the opposite, in fact. The upshot of this all is not that the other is my 'self', but rather that my 'self' is not something I control and construct, but is itself - to a degree - 'other'.

And so, it is in loving others that we properly love ourselves, for it is only there that we truly discover, in God, our self; and we also then have the delightful opportunity - and the dreadful responsibility - to help the other, to some small degree, discover in us, and in God, their own 'self'.

Maggi helpfully clothed this all with a more concrete example: "Love your neighbour as if he was you" means I look at the homeless guy and realise that at the deepest level I too am vulnerable, lost, fragile, and so to offer him love and respect is to see myself mirrored in him. I love him, because I realise that I must also love myself as I really am, not just the exterior impressions that everyone else sees."

The only thing I could add to this is the sense that we don't just see ourselves mirrored in him, but who we are is extended through him, in a way it wouldn't be if we hadn't met him, or hadn't loved him.

A final thought is this: I don't think that Jesus had in mind all of the technical - and perhaps tortured - explanation I have just provided when he said 'love your neighbour as yourself.'** But I am also convinced that he didn't have in mind our usual sense of 'self' as something self-identical, self-created, and independent. I suspect that the sense of 'self' present in his culture would have been far different than our modern sense. But I offered this take on the passage not to 'read Jesus' mind' as if this is what he truly meant, but rather to attempt to faithfully expand on several implications of the gospel for our day, particularly having to do with our day-to-day lives and encounters with others. In this way, I think it is faithful to Jesus' teaching to 'love your neighbour as yourself.'

*I am aware of the fact that some of how people are given their selves - being defined by others through racism or sexism for example - is not at all a gift in a good sense. But I am not sure that the dynamic of one self only coming through others would be any different in an utterly virtuous and Godly community. The response, I think, is not utterly independent self-creation, but rather a restored communal creation.

** In fact, in Luke, it is the lawyer who says this, anyway.

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