While almost all of my church experience falls within the Evangelical category, I hold Orthodox theology in high esteem, especially that of John Zizioulas. I was first exposed to his thinking through Alan Torrance while I was studying at Regent College. As I have read and reread his books, I’ve found his perspective provides a prophetic challenge to insulated thinking and opens doors to seeing God, church and life in new ways.
Recently, I was rereading his book Communion and Otherness. I found his opening words to be incredibly helpful:
“Communion and otherness: how can these be reconciled? Are they not mutually exclusive and incompatible with each other? Is it not true that, by definition, the other is my enemy and my ‘original sin’, to recall the words of the French philosopher, J. P. Sartre? Our Western culture seems to subscribe to this view in many ways. Individualism is present in the very foundation of this culture. Ever since Boethius in the fifth century identified the person with the individual (‘person is an individual substance of a rational nature’), and St. Augustine at about the same time emphasized the importance of consciousness and self-consciousness in the understanding of personhood, Western thought has never ceased to build itself and its culture on this basis. In our culture protection from the other is a fundamental necessity. We feel more and more threatened by the presence of the other. We are forced and even encouraged to consider the other as our enemy before we can treat him or her as our friend. Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only in so far as he or she does not threaten our privacy or in so far as he or she is useful for our individual happiness.” (1)
He goes on to write: "Radical otherness is anathema. Difference itself is a threat."
With these words, he identifies more than our actions. He is speaking of worldview. This is the world into which we are born. It names how we are trained to live. It's so natural to how we see the world that we don't even know how to see things differently. It is our imagination.
To attain a different imagination about ourselves and how we relate to each other, we need to develop an imagination shaped by the Trinity. We are persons made in the image of the Trinity, perfect love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Unity that is not uniformity. Distinction that is not division. This is the shared life that happens in-between.
In uniformity, there is no space in-between those who share life. The goal is for all to be the same. When there is division, the space in-between is infinite. There is no shared life.
Unity is discovered as we embrace one another as we share communion. Distinction is discovered as we bless one another and in blessing we release the other to be other. We embrace. We bless. And as we do these two things, we discover a space in-between. There in that space is where Christ lives, drawing us together and giving us space. We belong to one another through Jesus. When we try to relate to one another directly, we always will falter on one side or the other. We either embrace to the point of uniformity or we push people away. Creating the space in-between for the presence of Christ involves both.