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Living With the Other

By Miroslav Volf

Although I seek to be faithful to the broad Christian tradition; and, as I consider living with the other, I cannot speak authoritatively for all Christians. Nobody can because ecclesiastically Christians are not a monolithic group. Even within a single church there is often disagreement and spirited debate.

In an attempt to present what Christian tradition says about living with the other, I will try to answer three questions: (1) Who is the other? (2) Who are we? and, (3) How should we relate to each other? I will then conclude with a brief reflection on the relationship between the universal reach of Christian love (any and every person) and particular obligations toward those with whom we have special relations (such as family, ethnic, or religious groups).

Who Is The Other?

Some people think of others as people from distant lands with a variety of cultures. We read about them in books written by explorers and anthropologists; we travel to see them in their natural habitats as they fascinate us and repel us at the same time; then, we return from our imaginative or real excursions into their world to the familiarity and tranquility of our own homes. This is the exotic other.

In our global culture the exotic other is increasingly becoming a rarity. We travel with ease over vast expanses. Mass media has placed vivid reports from even the most hidden and impenetrable regions of the globe at our disposal. It would seem that we have come to understand others much better, but this is generally not the case. A real understanding of others requires a deeper knowledge than can be obtained through written reports, films, or short visits. The ease of access to others has only stripped them of the aura of the exotic. They have become more ordinary — but still misunderstood.

The same communication networks that make it easy for us to meet and learn about distant others have also brought multiple others to live in our immediate proximity. This is the neighborly other. These others live next to us, at the boundaries of our communities, and within our nations. Put differently, we increasingly live in culturally and religiously pluralistic social spaces. For Western countries, this means that the pluralism of civil associations existing under the larger framework of liberal democracy has become more complex. Formerly Christian countries have become religiously diverse nations.1 But this is not a diversity of anything goes. For the most part, we do not think that all religions and all values are either relative or that there is parity between them.

To say that our societies are culturally and religiously pluralistic is not so much to prescribe how each cultureshould be evaluated and how cultures should relate, but to note that a plurality of cultures is a social reality. We live near or with people whose values and overarching interpretations of life differ from ours. They also have sufficient social power to make their voices heard in the public square. In terms of living with the other, the main challenge today is rubbing shoulders with diverse people in an increasingly pluralistic world.

The history of relations with the other has often been fraught with violence. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes, “Many people — many nations — can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ ”2

Religious, cultural, and racial differences are a major source of conflicts around the world. We believe ourselves better because of the color of our skin, and put down others whose color is different from ours. We often oppress them economically and marginalize them politically.

Whites are known for their sense of racial superiority, but racism is not a monopoly of whites. A student friend from Ethiopia who was a target of many racial slurs in the former Yugoslavia told me an Ethiopian story of creation:

“When God was creating man, God formed him out of the dust. God put him in the oven to bake him, but He turned up the heat too high. When He pulled the man out, he was a bit too burned. This is how black people were created.

“God tried again. This time He set the oven too low and out came the whites, whom He could not do much with because they were underbaked. On the third attempt, the beautifully browned Ethiopians came out.

“Ethiopians have no better opinion of the whites,” my student suggested, “than the whites have of Ethiopians.”

In recent years, cultural and ethnic clashes have left behind scorched land, rivers of blood, and mountains of corpses in the Third World (Rwanda); in the former Second World (Chechnya or Bosnia); and in the First World (the Los Angeles riots). Today, as in the past, conflicts rage around religious differences. Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, and Hindus and Buddhists are finding it difficult to share the same social space without conflicts, some of which have been extremely violent.

Who are the others? They are people of different races, religions, and cultures who live in our proximity and with whom we are often in tension and sometimes in deadly conflict. But who are we?

Who Are We?

It is not possible to speak of the other without speaking of the self, and to speak of otherness without speaking of identity. For the others are always others to someone else. Just like someone else, they are to themselves simply us as distinct from them. How should we think of ourselves? What does it mean to be a bearer of identity?

We often define ourselves by what differentiates us from others. The ways in which we differ from others are properly and exclusively our own; and, we sometimes think it is what is exclusively our own in which our identity resides. If we operate with such an exclusive notion of identity, we carefully watch to make sure no external elements that might disturb the purity of our identity enter our proper space. In situations of economic and political uncertainty and conflict, we insist on pure identity. If race matters to us, we want our blood to be pure, untainted by the blood of strangers. If land matters to us, we want our soil to be pure, without the presence of others. If culture matters to us, we want our language and customs to be pure, cleansed of foreign words and foreign ways. This is the logic of purity. This logic attends the notion of identity that rests on differences from the other. The consequences of the logic of purity in a pluralistic world are often deadly. Some people keep the other at bay to avoid contamination — even by means of extreme violence.

An alternative way to construe identity is to always include the other. This is an inclusive understanding of identity. As persons or cultural groups, we define ourselves not only by what distinguishes us from others and by what we need to keep pure from others. Instead, though, we need to define ourselves by what distinguishes us from others and by what we have in common with them. This notion of identity is consistent with the Old Testament account of creation.

In Genesis, God created by separating things (the light from the darkness) and binding them together. When God created a human pair, God separated Eve from Adam and then brought her to him so they could become one flesh. Distinct-and-bound creatures necessarily have complex identities because they are what they are not only in and of themselves but also in relation to others.

Nine years ago I became a father. I have a wonderful little boy named Nathanael. After I became a father, I remained the same person in the sense of having permanence and continuity over a period of time. But I did not remain the same person in the sense that my personality remained unchanged.3 Nathanael has integrated himself into my personality. He has changed not only how I see myself and how I act (my private person), but also how others see and act toward me (my public person).

In addition to everything else that I was (Dragutin and Mira’s son or Professor Volf), I am now Nathanael’s father. When I pick him up at his preschool, a parent of another child might say, “Ah, so you are Nathanael’s father.” And I wonder whether this is good or bad. I am not simply other than Nathanael; Nathanael is also part of who I am. My identity is inclusive, not exclusive.

The same holds true of our other identities. To be a white American is to be in relation to African-Americans, including the history of slavery and discrimination. It is no different with gender identity. What it means to be male may change over time and differ from place to place, but it will always be correlated with what it means to be female.4 As Paul Ricoeur puts it in Oneself as Another, the “selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other.”5

For such inclusive identity, two things are critically important, and they both concern boundaries. First, to have an identity you must have boundaries. Imagine a world without boundaries. You cannot. For without boundaries you would not have a world. Everything would be jumbled up and nothing distinct would exist. To have anything other than infinite chaos, you must have boundaries. Hence, when God creates, God separates.

If boundaries are good, then some kind of boundary maintenance must be good, too. Hence, when boundaries are threatened (as they often are in a variety of ways), they must be maintained. Second, if to have identity one must have boundaries. Then, to have inclusive identity one must have permeable and flexible boundaries. With impermeable and inflexible boundaries, a person or a group will ultimately remain alone, without the other. For the other to come in and change the self or a group, the other must be let in — and, likely after a while also politely let out.

Our homes provide good examples of complex and dynamic identities circumscribed by permeable and flexible boundaries. When I go to a foreign land, I like to buy a work of art. I bring it home and place it in our living room, or my office.

A space that is ours contains some foreign objects. They are windows into worlds that have become part of me — Cambridge, Madras, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Zagreb. As such, they are also symbols of an identity that is not self-enclosed, but marked by porous boundaries and, therefore, shaped by the other.

Occasionally I move a work of art to a different room to make space for another. Sometimes it may even end up in the basement. Something analogous happens with our identity. As we enter new relationships they shape us; certain things recede into the background and others receive new importance. We live as ourselves, and things that make up our identity multiply, shift, and change. Our boundaries are flexible and our identity dynamic.

Some identity change happens to us. Others with whom we are in close contact change, and consequently, we change too. When Nathanael came into our family, I changed — whether I wanted to change or not. Moreover, I changed in ways I could not fully control.

Relationships are by definition made up of more than one actor. People can react to the presence and action of others, but they cannot fully control what they will react to or the conditions under which they will react.

Chance and unpredictability come with having permeable and flexible boundaries. At the same time, we can refuse to move our identity in certain directions, and we can initiate movements in other directions. In encounters with others, we are not a rudderless boat on high seas. We can significantly craft our identity, and in the process we can even help shape the identities of others.

Who are we? We are people with inclusive and changing identities; multiple others are part of who we are. We can try to eject them from our lives to craft for ourselves an exclusive identity, but we will then do violence not only to others but also to ourselves. Who is the other? Earlier I argued that others are our neighbors who differ from us by culture and whose otherness is often a factor in our conflicts with them. Now, after discussing inclusive identity, we can say that the others are not just others. They too have complex and dynamic identities of which we are a part if we are their neighbors.

Just as we are inhabited by others and have a history with them, others are also inhabited by us. If persons and groups are attuned to such complex and dynamic identities, they will not relate to each other according to simple binary schemata, such as “I am I and you are you” (in case of persons) or “you are either in or out” (in case of groups). Their relations will be correspondingly complex. How do such complex relations look?

How Should We Relate To Each Other?

The relationships of persons with inclusive and dynamic identities fall under four headings: (1) The will to embrace the other; (2) inverting perspectives; (3) engagement with the other; and, (4) embracing the other. These four headings follow an order of priority, but they are not sequential in that when you complete one step you go to the next. Since each aspect is significantly involved with each other, they are best done by emphasizing one or the other while simultaneously not disregarding the others.

The will to embrace the other

In a sense, the commitment to live with others is the simplest aspect of our relationship with them. Yet, this is often the most difficult one. Instead of considering others as my own diminishment, I need to imagine them as potentially enriching. Instead of thinking that they disfigure my social landscape, I need to think of them as potentially contributing to its aesthetic improvement. Instead of thinking of them as suspecting enemies, I need to see them as potential friends.

We have reasons for wanting to keep others at bay. First, we fear for our identity. We fear being overwhelmed by others and their ways. The German word for this fear is Ãœberfremdung. This word describes a guest in your home who brings in her own furniture while rearranging or removing yours; cooks foods and plays music you do not like; and bangs around working when you would like to be sleeping. You might politely say to your guest, “This is my home, and this is not how I want to live. Go back to your own place; there you may live as you please. Here we will live as I please.”

Earlier I mentioned that globalization brings others into our proximity. The consequence is often the feeling of Ãœberfremdung. Smaller cultures, like the Croatian, are threatened by the huge wave of global monoculture washing over them. They are attracted to many of its features, but they fear their rich, centuries-old traditions that give them a sense of identity will be replaced by a foreign and shallow culture. Prosperous Western democracies worry that the processes of globalization that bring people in search of better living to their lands will undermine the very culture that made possible the freedoms and prosperity they enjoy.

Second, we fear for our safety. The myth of an innocent other is just that — a myth. Relationships between people are always sites of contested power — with a permanent danger of misuse of power, especially between those who are reciprocally other. Yet we should guard lest we, in refusing to accept the myth of the innocent other, embrace two other myths at the same time: the myth of the innocent self and of the demonic other.

Third, old enmities make us hesitant to live with the other. Old wounds can lead to new injuries. History repeats itself. Even when our safety is reasonably assured — either because we have become more powerful or because both parties have been inserted into a larger network of relations that guarantees our safety — we may still be hesitant to live with the other on moral grounds because positive relations with the other would amount to betrayal of our ancestors who suffered at the others’ hands. Would we not betray ourselves if we reconciled with our former enemy?

Finally, the brute fact of enmity pushes against the commitment to consociation. Just like sin, enmity has power. Once established, it is a force beyond the individual wills of actors, and it perpetuates itself by holding enemies captive.

If our sense of identity, fear for safety, and old enmities all militate against our will to embrace the other,why would we want to embrace the other? First, it may be in our interest to do so. The alternatives — building a wall of separation or perpetuating enmity — are often much worse. As proximate others, we are intertwined by bonds of economy, culture, and family. Severing these bonds can be worse than trying to live together, as the war in Bosnia shows.

Second, and more important, living with the other in peace is an expression of our God-given humanity. We are created not to isolate ourselves from others but to engage them and contribute to their flourishing as we nurture our own identity and attend to our own well-being.

Finally, for Christians, the mostimportant reason for being willing to live with others and positively embrace them is the character of God’s love as displayed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for all human beings because He loved them all.Though not divine and incapable of redeeming anyone, human beings, too, should indiscriminately love every human being, including the other and their enemy.6

We may be persuaded that it is good to embrace others, and we may want to embrace them, but still find ourselves unable to do so. Our fears and enmities may get the best of us. Our previous failures may cause us to lose hope. How do we acquire the will to embrace the other? How do we sustain it through difficult times? Let me try to answer these questions with a story.

I was in Zagreb, Croatia, speaking at the promotion of the Croatian translation of my book Exclusion and Embrace. As I was explaining the idea of will to embrace, which is central to the book’s argument, I noticed a person in the audience who was listening intently, but restlessly. After I finished my lecture andthe crowd had cleared, he charged toward me and asked, “But where does it come from?”

I replied, “Where does what come from?”

He answered, “Where does the will to embrace come from?” He was agitated. He went on, “Is it inborn? Can one learn to will in such ways?”

We went through different possibilities. “Ultimately,” I said, “the will to embrace comes from the divine Spirit of embrace, who can open up our self-enclosed sense of identity, dispel our fears, and break down the hold of enmity over us.”

Inverting perspectives

To live out the will to embrace we need to engage in inverting perspectives. Before we discuss inverting perspectives, it is important to note one important feature of otherness: It is a reciprocal relationship. If others are other to me, then I am an other to them. This is especially important to keep in mind when otherness is used not as a neutral term to describe difference but even when otherness acquires derogatory connotations — when to be other means someone is not as good in some regard as I am myself.

For example: When I was a doctoral student in Germany along with many other Croats, as well as Greeks, Italians, and Turks, I felt like a second-class citizen. I was an Ausländer.

For many Germans, Ausländers are by definition deficient in some important ways. Once I was given a ride to Croatia by a porter of my dormitory who was driving there for a vacation. After we crossed the border I made a joking comment, “Now you are an Ausländer.” He did not think this was funny. In his mind, a German was a German and never an Ausländer. And yet, that cannot be. If I am an Ausländer in his home country, then he is an Ausländer in mine; the relationship is reciprocal. The denial of reciprocity is in part what constitutes a prideful and injurious denigration of the other.

Once we understand the reciprocity involved in the relationship of otherness, we have more reasons to be interested not only in what we think about ourselves and about others, but also in what others think of themselves and of us. This is what I mean by inverting perspectives. There are pragmatic reasons for this endeavor.

Rowan Williams commented on the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in, Writing in the Dust, “We have to see that we have a life in other people’s imagination, quite beyond our control.”7 Not attending to other people’s imaginations of us may be dangerous, but there are also moral reasons for inverting perspectives. Commitments to truth, justice, and life in peace with others all require it. We cannot live truthful, just, and peaceful lives with others in a complex world if the only perspective we are willing to entertain is our own. To be unwilling to engage in inverting perspectives is to live, as Immanuel Kant put it, as a self-enclosed, one-eyed cyclops in need of another eye that would let him see things from the perspective of other people.

What does inverting perspectives entail? First, we need to see others through their own eyes. It is natural for us to see them through our own eyes, from our own perspective. To see others through their own eyes takes a willingness to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong and others could be right in their own assessment of themselves; a leap of imagination to place ourselves in their position; a temporary bracketing of our own understanding of them; and receptive attention to their own story about who they see themselves to be.

Second, we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Sometimes we think that if we know anything well, it is ourselves. But we can fail to see something well not simply because it is too distant, but also because it is too close. Moreover, when it comes to myself, I have a vested interest in seeing myself in a certain way — noticing what is positive but not what is negative; or, letting what is positive overshadow or relativize the negative.

Because we often fail to see ourselves adequately, we need to learn how others perceive us. Take for example the debate on so-called orientalism (the stereotypes that the Christian West has about the Muslim East) and occidentalism (the stereotypes the Muslim East has for the Christian West). Where the West may see itself as prosperous, the East may see it as decadent; where the West may see itself as freedom loving, the East may see it as oppressive; where the West may see itself as rational, the East may see it as calculating.8 It is important for the West to see itself from the perspective of the East, and to seriously question the adequacy of its own self-perception in light of the way it is perceived. The same also holds true for the East.

Inverting perspectives is second nature for the weak. In encounters with the strong, they always need to attend to how they and their actions are being perceived by the strong. Their success and even survival depend on their seeing themselves with the eyes of the other. The strong are not in the habit of taking into account what the weak thinks of them; they can do without inverting perspective. If the weak do not like what they see, so much the worse for the weak. If the only thing that matters to the strong is power and privilege, they will charge ahead without regard for the perspective of the weak. But if they want to be truthful and just, they will want the weak to free them from their own false judgments of themselves and from their strained relations with others.

Engagement with the other

To see oneself and the other from the perspective of the other is not the same as agreeingwith the other. As I invert perspective, I bracket my own self-understanding and the understanding of the other, and I suspend judgment. After I have understood how the other wishes to be understood and how the other understands me, I must exercise judgment and either agree or disagree, wholly or in part. This is where argumentative engagement comes in.

I could refuse to engage the other with arguments. I could insist that I am right, but the result would be an irreconcilable clashing of perspectives. In the absence of arguments, the relative power of the social actors decides the outcome. True, we cannot argue interminably, for life would then need to stop. We are, in fact, acting even when we are waiting to resolve our own intellectual questions — there is no exit from acting, as William James has argued in The Will To Believe.9 We will, therefore, be acting even as we are waiting to argue through our differences in perspectives. But we can act in our best light, and then return to argument. In fact, this is what citizens in well-functioning democracies do: they argue, they vote, and then, if some of them do not like the result, they argue and vote again.

Positive engagement with the other is more than just a matter of arguments. Even when arguments fail to bring consensus or convergence, we can still cooperate in many ways, unless a dispute concerns acts of grave injustice. The belief that we must agree on all essential valuesto live in peace is mistaken. It ultimately presupposes that peace can exist only if cultural sameness reigns.

Even if one considered sameness desirable, it is clearly unachievable. Take major world religions as an example. A consensus between them on overarching interpretations of the world is not on the horizon in the near future. Does this mean their adherents must be at war with one another? No. They can live in peace and cooperate, their fundamental disagreements notwithstanding, and they can do so out of their own properly religious resources. Even though the practice of Christians sometimes seems to falsify this claim, everything in the Christian faith itself speaks in favor of it, from the simple and explicit injunction to live in peace with all people (Romans 12:18) to the character of God as triune love.10

Embrace of the other

A willingness to embrace the other will not suffice. A further step in embracing them is needed. As we argue with others about issues of truth and justice, we are making sure that embrace, if it takes place, will not be a sham, a denial of truth, and a trampling of justice. As we are engaged in inverting perspectives, we have started embracing others in that we have taken them, even if only in a symbolic form and for a time, into our own selves; we have made their eyes our own. But for embrace to take place, more is needed. We need to make space for others in our own identities and in our social world (though how that space will be made remains open for negotiations). We need to let others reshape our identity so they become a part of who we are without threatening or obliterating us but rather helping to establish the rich texture of our identity. Just as after the birth of my second son, Aaron, I let him be inserted, so to speak, into my identity, we also need to let our proximate others be a part of who we are (adjusted, however, for the differences between family and neighbor relations). To use a local example, this would mean that Croatians would not see themselves as pure Croatians; they would see themselves as Croatians, whose identity consists in part in being neighbors to Serbs.

Such welcome is possible on Christian terms because Christians should not think of themselves as having a pure national, cultural, racial, or ethnic identity.Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, believe that all human beings are creatures of one God. Therefore, the humanity that unites them is more significant than any difference that may divide them. Furthermore, an image of the Christian life that looms large in the Bible and in the Christian tradition is that of a pilgrim.

A pilgrim is not defined primarily by the land or culture through which he is traveling, but by the place toward which he is going. His primary identity comes from the destination, not from any point along the way. The land Christians are moving toward is God’s new world, in which people from all tribes and languages will be gathered. Being a pilgrim does not exclude a whole range of secondary identities, such as being a citizen of Macedonia, ethnic Roma, woman, or mother of three rebellious teenagers. But in Christian understanding, all these identities ought to be subordinated to the primary identity of being a person on the way to God’s new world.

The unsettling of Christians’ sense of cultural identity cuts deep. The apostle Paul wrote that Christians are not their own. This is a strange thing to say. Many things are my own, and I guard them carefully. It would seem that what is more my own than anything else is myself. Yet, Paul insisted that we are not our own, but belong to the Lord. As a Christian in Paul’s sense, I am so much not myself that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Christian identity is taken out of our own hands and placed into the hands of God, and by this it is both radically unsettled and unassailably secured. Because Christ defines ouridentity in the primary way, Christians can confidently set out on a journey with proximate others and engage without fear in the give-and-take of relationships with others that mark an inclusive identity. What will be the result of this engagement? Like Abraham’s, it will be a journey of faith and hope toward a land that one has not yet seen.

MIROSLAV VOLF, Ph.D., is Henry B. Wright professor of theology, Yale University Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut.


1. See Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001).

2. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 9.

3. See Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 2–4.

4. For this notion of gender identity, see Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 174–176.

5. Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 3.

6. In the Christian tradition, the universal scope of love was historically grounded in the common Adamic descent of all human beings and in Christ’s death on the cross for all human beings (see Gene Outka, “Universal Love and Impartiality,” in The Love Commandments: Essays in Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy, ed. Edmund N. Santurri and William Werpehowski (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1992), 9.

7. Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 55.

8. See Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, “Occidentalism,” New York Review of Books, January 2002. Online at

9. William James, “The Will To Believe,” in The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 1–31.

10. See Miroslav Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” (forthcoming).

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