Published by Worldview Publications
July/August 2004 

The “Other” Question

True reality is the complete opposite of traditional philosophic and religious assumptions. There are, in fact, no ultimate substances, essences or ousias! Ultimate reality is not matter. Nor does ultimate reality have relationships or relationality. Rather, ultimate reality is relationality. Furthermore, ultimate reality is active. It is not static being but dynamic becoming — not only as a procession or extension of relationships or relationality, but as the presence and manifestation of relational reality as “otherness.” For “otherness” is the disclosure of relational reality. As Sharon Bassett declared, “Otherness is not the alternative to being, it is the necessary circumstance of being.”1

Imagine two persons, Bill and Bonny, chatting at lunch in a local café. In their dialog Bonny is one “other,” and Bill is a second “other.” Bill and Bonny are thus two distinct and separate individuals who are nevertheless related. Yet defining their dialogical relationship requires a third “other” — their work, romance, family, friends, school, church, neighbors, or some other “other.” This third “other” is their common reference or standard, their common background or purpose, their common tastes and interests.2 The threefold or triune relationality involving Bonny and Bill is known as “external otherness.”

However, let us now imagine Bill as a single individual seated in the same café before Bonnie arrives. Bill is quietly waiting at a table, reflecting on his earlier encounters with Bonny. This reflection requires the inner “otherness” of his reflective self. Bonny then enters the café, and Bill sees her and beckons her to join him. This invitation involves the outer “otherness” of Bill’s social self. Yet both his inner reflection and outer social gestures also involve Bill’s memories of events, intentions and mutual fulfillment that represent his third or referential “otherness.” This threefold or triune relationality is known as “internal otherness.”

These illustrations demonstrate that relationality demands more than a “monism” of oneness or sameness — more than a “just me.” Relationality also demands more than a simple “dualism” — more than “you and me” or “he and she.” The relationality of all reality requires the presence or manifestation of a threefold or triune relational “otherness.”


The term monism is used for the belief that all reality is a single, unified whole. According to monism, there may “appear” to be differences in structure, form, action and substance, but everything and everyone are ultimately an essential oneness. However, monism itself has assumed different forms. For thousands of years some monists have claimed that there is a universal substance or essence called “God.” Known as pantheism, this form of monism claims that God is all. God is everything and everyone, and everything and everyone constitute one God. A related form of monism, known as panentheism, claims that God is in everything, and everything is in God. For panentheism all “things” are merely shadows or appearances for the presence of God. An example of this view was furnished by the famous English mathematician, scientist and philosopher, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). He believed in an infinite universe that was only the garment or apparel for God himself.

Primitive pantheism and panentheism are now being revived in our postmodern world. Tragically, this revival is a reversion to an archaic, infantile mentality. In this view all actions by what are only God’s shadows or appearances must finally be irrelevant. Thus, monism has no ultimate explanation, reason or purpose for the shadowy appearance of anything or anyone. Because everything and everyone are dispensable, destiny only involves a final cosmic oneness or sameness.

Another form of monism has been proposed by certain evolutionists who deny the existence of God and therefore regard themselves as atheists (without God). For them the entire universe is ultimately a substance, essence, pulse or vibration — that is, “nongod.” In the view of such atheists, the universe simply happened and continues to happen. The universe may continue expanding, or it may eventually collapse and return to its primal pulse or vibration. For this monism, too, there is no ultimate explanation, reason or purpose for anything or anyone. Again, everything and everyone are disposable, and destiny is a final cosmic oneness of the “nongod” god.

The term dualism is used for the belief that all reality consists of or can be explained by just two fundamental entities such as physical and spiritual, mind and matter, created and uncreated. However, dualism is actually a concealed or derivative form of monism, since it presumes that the “other” is transient and dispensable. Thus, the spiritual must ultimately triumph over the physical, the mind over matter, and the uncreated over the created order. The final destiny of the universe is therefore the return to an eternal monism or sameness. Recurring religious philosophies such as Gnosticism have long contended that the good God is temporarily imprisoned in Creation but will ultimately be liberated to cosmic oneness. Such Gnostic views are today rampant in many religious movements.3

Triune “Otherness”

The view of patriarchal Judaism was very different from the beliefs that reality is grounded in a universal oneness or sameness. Patriarchal Judaism contended that the universe is not based on a single substance or essence (monism) or on opposing substances or essences (dualism). Rather, the universe is founded on the counterintuitive truth that all reality is relationality. Primal relationality precedes and pre-exists all manifest entities.

For Judaism the fundamental metaphor for relationality is “covenant.” The concept of covenant requires two parties to a formal agreement together with the mediating agency of the agreement itself. Covenant is therefore neither monistic nor dualistic. Rather, covenant is a triune relational reality.

Let us press this matter still further. Ultimately, God is not a Party or an Agent to the covenant. Rather, God constitutes the Covenant (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:8)! To use postmodern terminology, God as divine Reality, Self or Person(s)4 was constituted as Internal “Otherness.” God is not “Sameness.” God was, is and becomes “Otherness.”

Metropolitan John Zizoulas of Pergmon has emphatically stated:

What can we learn about communion and otherness from study of the Trinity? First, otherness is constitutive of unity. God is not first One and then Three, but simultaneously One and Three.

God’s oneness or unity is . . . expressed through the unbreakable koinonia (community) that exists between the three Persons, which means that otherness is not a threat to unity but the sine qua non of unity . . . 5

The Episcopal scholar, David Cunningham, has shown that, from the “beginning,” God was constituted as the internal “Otherness” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his treatise, These Three Are One, he states:

God, then, is an internally self-differentiated being. At first, this seems similar to the neo-Platonic descriptions of “emanations” that flow forth from God, forming a great chain of Being in which all beings participate to a greater or lesser degree (depending on their distance from God). But that picture is decisively altered in the Christian tradition, in that the divine emanations do not flow forth and animate the created order; rather, they are described as wholly internal to God. Moreover, this is not merely an act of self-duplication on God’s part; it is an act of self-abandonment, a giving up of oneself in order that there might be an Other to oneself.

The idea of an “internally self-differentiated being” is a difficult one; in the created order, there are no perfect analogies to describe it. Yet because . . . this matter is highly technical, a concrete example will be needed, however imperfect it may be. The best example, in my view, is . . . the example of pregnancy. The formation of a child in a woman’s womb is a good example of “going forth from oneself,” which is the notion behind the divine processions: the mother gives her own self to the “other” within her, becomes “other” to herself, yet does not thereby diminish herself. Again, the analogy is not perfect; she does not do this as a pure act of her own will, and the production of the “other” is not entirely internal, since it requires at least one sperm. Nevertheless, despite its imperfections, this analogy will help us think about the concept of internal, self-differentiating processions. . . .

The processions within God would seem to imply [real] relations within God. . . . A “real” relation is not merely logical or external; it belongs to the very nature of an act (as in the relations of giving a gift and receiving it), and is not merely accidental (as in the relations among the books scattered across my desk). Real relations also arise when something has the same nature as that from which it comes; in that case, “both that which issues and that from which it issues belong to the same order; and so must have real relationships with each other.” Since the divine processions are of the same nature as the source from which they come, they give rise to real relations in God.6

. . . [Traditional English language substantives for the Relational God use such triadic terms] as “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” “God, Word, and Spirit.” . . . [These terms have a long history reaching back to biblical texts themselves, but t]he result is that, by and large, very few Christians can make sense of trinitarian theology. It is already difficult enough to imagine that anything could be exhaustively defined by processions and relations (since we tend to think of relations as something that occurs “between” two entities). The task of explication is rendered yet more difficult under the influence of the traditional English formulations, which seem — certainly at first glance, and perhaps at second and third glances as well — to posit three individuals who are theoretically separable from one another. This is not what trinitarian doctrine proposes with respect to God; it posits not three persons who “have” relations, but rather, three subsistent relations. As Nicholas Lash has put the matter, we tend to speak of human beings as having relations, God, on the other hand, is the relations that God has.7

In defining the three subsistent relations within the Godhead, Cunningham suggests using the metaphor of water, with the term “Source” for the Father, “Wellspring” for the Son, and “Living Water” for the Spirit. These metaphors for the One God have their roots in both the Old and New Testaments. Thus:

. . . for my people have . . . forsaken me, the fountain of living waters . . .” — Jeremiah 2:13, RSV.

. . . they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. — Jeremiah 17:13, RSV.

On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem . . . And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. — Zechariah 14:8, 9, RSV.

. . . whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — John 4:14, RSV.

And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.” — Revelation 21:6, RSV.

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb . . . The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. — Revelation 22:1, 17, RSV.

Again, let us be clear that reality is ultimately relational and that relationality demands “otherness.” First there was the subsistent relationality of the Godhead. This was God’s own internal “Otherness,” which existed from all eternity. But God has never been satisfied with internal “Otherness” as Source, Wellspring and Living Water. The One as Three and the Three as One could not be satisfied except by proceeding with, and “becoming” in relation to, the external “otherness” of Creation.

When God in and as “three subsistent relations” embarked on the creation of “otherness” external to the Godhead, God created the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). To create out of nothingness means that God was not at all dependent upon any substance, essence or ousia. In fact, in creation God emphatically excluded any ultimate substance, essence or ousia. As John Milbank declared, “ . . . [A]s for the finite world, creation ex nihilo radically rules out all realism in its regard. There are no things, no substances, only shifting relations and generations in time.”8 Furthermore, creation proceeds out of the Godhead so as to exclude such confounding concepts as immanence and interpenetration. Thus, “the Spirit of God was moving over . . . ” (Genesis 1:2).

Let us be very clear. God in his own subsistent relationality constituted Original and Internal “Otherness.” Then God proceeded to extend relationality to “otherness” external to the Godhead. This involved the external “otherness” of the created order. However, true “otherness,” whether internal or external, involves communion. It is communal. It is dialogical. God’s creation of “otherness” therefore involved a stepwise process:

1. God began by creating time, space and the quantum field. These constituted a threefold “otherness,” but they were neither communal nor dialogical. God could not engage in communion with them, nor they with him.

2. God then created multiple forms of matter and energy. These also constituted “otherness,” but they also were neither communal nor dialogical. God could not personally engage inanimate matter or energy.

3. God proceeded to form galaxies, stars, planets, and all the myriad cosmic entities. But the vault of the heavens could not commune with God, nor he with it.

4. God then created life and the living forms of microbes, plants and animals. This was a profound advance, but life alone did not constitute communion with God.

5. Finally, God crowned his work with the creation of mankind. “So God created man in his own image . . . ” (Genesis 1:27). Originally, mankind was constituted by internal “otherness” alone. This internal “otherness” involved an inner “other” or self, an outer “other” or self, and a referential “other” as the “god-consciousness” of early mankind.9 This was a major advance over animality, but the internal, possessive “otherness” of god-conscious mankind was incapable of relating communally either to other members of the race or to the Godhead.

6. Therefore, thousands of years ago, God took another step in creation. God withdrew the instinctual god-consciousness of mankind and gave mankind three gifts: the gift of language, the gift of self-consciousness, and the gift of freedom to accept or reject the associated emergence of a new and communal “otherness.” As Cunningham has noted, God thus took enormous risks:

God creates, redeems, and sanctifies the world . . . not [as] a series of rearguard actions, in which God attempts to rectify the mistakes of the past. They are all necessarily bound up with the creation of an “other.” If this other is truly other — and is thus endowed with the freedom and power to turn away — then we should perhaps not be completely surprised when it chooses to exercise that power. If its creator wants it to turn back and be reconciled, then such a creator must also be willing to expend the energy — and, if necessary, to pay the price — to call the other, again and again, into communion.10

In fact, mankind did exercise that freedom and rejected the external “otherness” that God bestowed. Mankind chose to reject the gift of external “otherness” in the false assumption that it could return to the supposed original essence of God himself! Thus, for mankind external “otherness” became the enemy. God has since been faced with the massive challenge of reconciliation of his own “Otherness” with the “otherness” of mankind. Eastern Orthodox scholar, John Zizoulas, has addressed this ultimate challenge. In his dissertation on “Communion and Otherness,” Zizoulas states:

Communion and otherness — how can these two 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 Jean-Paul Sartre?

Our western culture seems to subscribe to this view in many ways. Individualism is present in the very foundations of this culture. Ever since Boethius in the Fifth Century had identified the person with the individual (“Person is an individual substance of a rational nature”), and St. Augustine emphasized the importance of self-consciousness in the understanding of personhood, western thought never ceased to build itself and its culture on this basis. . . .

All this implies that 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 a 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 insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness.

There is no doubt that this is a direct result of what in theological language we call the “Fall of Man.” There is a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.

This is a result of the rejection of the Other par excellence, our Creator. . . . The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam [mankind] chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.”

. . . [If we want to be faithful to our true selves, we must] mirror the communion and otherness that exists in the Triune God.11

However, as part of the created order, we as mankind find that by ourselves we are incapable of reconciling ourselves to communion with “otherness.” Although we could exercise the freedom to reject “otherness,” we are incapable of transforming ourselves to genuine triune “otherness.” We alone cannot achieve either the true internal “otherness” that will constitute ourselves, nor can we alone achieve the true external “otherness” of communion with our neighbor and with God. In this predicament we must therefore turn to that astounding axial event that embraces all history and all eternity. Through this event the Creator himself acted to become the Human “Other.” He acted to expend the energy and pay the ultimate price necessary to call the “other, again and again, into communion.”12

Notes and References

  1. Sharon Bassett, “Recovering the Mask of Ordinary Life: Encounters with Nihilism and Deconstruction,” at (go back)
  2. See J. Allan Cheyne and Donato Tarulli, “Dialogue, Difference, and the ‘Third Voice’ in the Zone of Proximal Development,” at (go back)
  3. See Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster Trade, 1993). (go back)
  4. The Latin word persona, from which three “Persons” evolved, was employed to describe the mask or role an actor used on stage. However, with the evolution of language “three persons” has come to mean three people. Yet no good theologian of the church catholic has ever taught that God is three different people. (go back)
  5. John Zizoulas, “Communion and Otherness,” at (go back)
  6. David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), pp. 59, 60. (go back)
  7. Ibid, pp. 70, 71. (go back)
  8. Ibid, p. 41. (go back)
  9. See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977). (go back)
  10. Cunningham, These Three Are One, p. 75. (go back)
  11. Zizoulas, “Communion and Otherness.” (go back)
  12. Cunningham, These Three Are One, p. 75. (go back)

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