Kester Brewin: On Loving Self (An Excerpt from "Other")

We begin with the Self, we begin with the log in our own eye, we begin at home, but all the time we will be carrying the knowledge with us that true reflection will never leave us unchanged, and thus will never leave our relationship to the world and the systems we are connected to unchanged either. Self consciousness, an appreciation of who we are and what flows and fields make up our life, will inevitably lead to our desire to see the flows of others unblocked and running free, whether this means lifting them out of poverty or releasing them into artistic practice.

It is instructive to read the gospels this way: we see Jesus born and baptised, but then, before beginning his subsequent ministry spending time in the desert. It is here that he begins to wrestle with exactly who he is and what he has been called to do. This time has become popularised as him facing temptation, but I believe that it is not simply about him learning to resist. His fasting, praying and, we assume, meditating, was a time to centre his Self, to anchor himself in the right place before embarking on a ministry to others.

The symbolic forty days he is said to have spent here may seem like a long time, but would have been laughed at by later Christian ascetics who spent years and years living alone in caves in the desert. Aside from Žižek's critique of their asceticism as fetishistic, one wonders what Jesus' reaction to them would have been had he met one. Would the monk have chastised Jesus for being such a short-termer? Or would Jesus have encouraged the monk to move on from refining the Self so harshly, and brought them back into community?

I believe he would. Jesus' time spent in the desert was essential yes, but only in that it was essential preparation. In order to deal with the other, he first needed a secure sense of Self, but he did not wait until everything was secured. Latter passages in the gospels show us that Jesus still had doubts and questions, and had to withdraw periodically to wrestle with them.

As we begin to think about 'what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others' we would be wise to follow Jesus' pattern. Whether introvert or extravert, time spent alone to reflect on our own lives is vital, for without it we lose a sense of exactly who we are. In the incessant business of modern life - rushing to and from work, dropping kids off, catching trains and gasping to get to meetings - we often lack quality time to simply be, to solidify the boundaries of our selves and resist city's attempts to count us as simply part of the crowd.

I cannot tell you who you are, nor do that work of reflection for you. But, over the course of the next few pages, I want to hold up some reflective surfaces, some sketches of some the sorts of selves our post-modern, technologically advanced world might be forming. They will be caricatures only, but, as with that form, may help us to see our selves more truly, selves that are under constant reformation by family, story, joy and pain. What elements of these selves will help us to live in harmony will only become apparent as we take the time to get to know them. It is in the mode of Jesus' desert experience that I want to argue we can best do that.

To use another metaphor, the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote of becoming more aware of the 'clearing' - Lichtung - the suddenly opening space in the midst of the packed woods, where light can more easily penetrate:

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting... Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.[i]

Jesus spent time in the desert, and returned yet in Heidegger's sense it is not that we come upon these 'clearings' at various times along our journey, rather that the clearing already exists within us, and we need to become better aware of it.

In other words, it is not necessary for us to spend days fasting under the fierce light of the desert sun; rather, we must carry that desert place, that differently lit place within us and learn to pause periodically to centre our vision on it. It is only here, as Heidegger points out, that we will begin to be able to engage both with others, and with the core of ourselves. It is in the light that our boundaries will find clarity.

As he sat in a Parisian café, drinking coffee and smoking in the sun, the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described this need for a life lived in lichtung in different terms. A life outside of the clearing, he put it, would be a life lived in 'bad faith.'

The story goes that as he observed the bustle of the café around him, he noted that the waiter serving him was acting in a far-too-waiterly way. In other words, despite the radical freedom that Sartre ascribed to every human being, this waiter appeared to be restricted by an obligation to play the role of waiter as others expected it. He was thus reducing himself to something approaching an automaton, a robot programmed to do exactly what a waiter ought.

Looking further round the café, Sartre saw - in fact he must have imagined it - a girl out on a date. During the date, the man moves his hand and places it on hers. The girl, thinking about the situation in a disembodied way, decides that it is very possible that the man is only doing what he is doing because he is attracted to her physical beauty, and he is not much interested in her as a person. However, since he is just touching her hand, and her hand is not really an inner part of her self, she does not need to decide at this moment what she feels and whether she will have sex with him. She can do so later.

For Sartre, both the waiter and the girl are living in 'bad faith.' His reasoning for this view is based on the fact that humans are different from objects in that our consciousness is 'non self-identifying.' A table is a table because it fulfils all the properties that we attribute tables as having. But even if we made an infinite list of all the properties of a person, we would never succeed in fully describing their personality. In other words, we aren't simply human because we do human-like things.

This is why Sartre is critical of the waiter: he is feeling an obligation to display the attributes of a waiter, even though there is nothing that should force him to do so. However, he is also equally critical of the girl because, even though she refuses to be described by the facts of her actions, her transcendent position - positing her hand as something outside of her self - is also a denial of the true situation.

Sartre thus sets up this paradox: we are what we are, but precisely part of our being is that we are not simply what we are. In his language, we have both facticity and transcendence: there are undeniable facts about who we are and what properties or attributes we have as people, but while these things can be used to describe us, they can never fully do so. There is always something 'beyond' about us too.

Žižek puts this in more theological terms in his verbal duel with Radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank:

I am here as part of substantial reality, and what I am I am at the expense of others, demanding my share of reality. But this is not what makes me a unique person. [...] What distinguishes me are not my personal idiosyncrasies, the quirks of my particular nature, but the abyss of my personality.

This is how man is made "in the image and likeness of God": what makes a human being like God is not a superior or even divine quality of the human mind. [...] It is only at the level of person, [...] this abyss beyond all properties, that man is "in the image of God."[ii]

To live in 'good faith' then, to live a life in 'the clearing', is to accept something of the paradox of who we are. By accepting both our facticity and transcendence we are, to rework Heidegger's original meaning slightly, attempting to access this 'passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to those that we are.' We are also thus attempting to live as we were designed to be, in the image of God.

It is perhaps to this paradox that Jesus turned his thoughts in his time in the desert. Indeed, it is perhaps this paradox that was towards the heart of all his moments of anguish that we read about in the gospels. Was he God, or was he man? The facts were plain: he was physically alive and in time. He felt pain and emotion. He had a name, parents, family, friends, skills... all pointing to a strong human facticity. But there was something else too. Something that transcended these physical attributes, these lists of human properties. There was an abyss of divine person within him.

The miracle of the incarnation is that Jesus refused to collapse this paradox of his existence either way. He would not simply give in to human needs - turn stones into bread and eat - but nor would he disappear into unreachable transcendence, jumping unscathed from the Temple. In the Passion we see the endgame of this battle with the devil to force Jesus into bad faith one way or the other. Here on the cross is a man in full physical pain. The nails are no pretence. The thorns are no metaphor. And yet, just at the moment where Jesus appears to have collapsed into facticity, his God abandoning him to death, we see him transcend that death by rising again. The hopelessness of Easter Saturday is that Jesus was nothing more than a man. But the joy of Easter should not be in the realisation that he was God, but that he was still both divine and human.

It is into this existential paradox that we cast ourselves when we follow the path of Jesus because, as Žižek has pointed out, Irenaeus' motto that 'God made Himself man, that man might become God,' needs to be completed with the admission that 'God made Himself man, that man might become God who made Himself man.'[iii] In other words, our desire to repair God's image in us is a task that makes us simultaneously both more God-like and more human.


[i] Martin Heidegger, 1971 (1935): 53

[ii] Žižek, S. and Milbank, J., The Monstrosity of Christ - Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, MIT, 2009, p. 30

[iii] ibid. p. 31


An excerpt from Other: Loving Self, God and Neighbor in a World of Fractures. By Kester Brewin (June 2011, Seabury Books).

Brian McLaren said "With Other, Kester joins the community of leading public theologians for a new generation of thoughtful Christians. Kester, who lives in London, will be making a special US appearance at the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC. He'll be speaking Friday, June 24 at 8pm in the Geodesic Dome on Loving Others in a World of Fractures. He describes his upcoming presentation: "From noisy neighbours to racism, fundamentalism, issues about immigration and terrorism, the problem of dealing with 'the other' has been at the centre of our conflicts, both internal and international. Roping in pirates, poetry and quantum physics, as well as unhealthy doses of TAZ, dirt, Facebook and theatre, Kester will seek to uncover what Jesus' instruction to love others might mean in our paradoxically fractured-yet-networked world."