‘Otherness’ can be frightening and dangerous for it represents the unknown. We want enough ‘otherness’ to intrigue us, but not too much so as to scare us. ‘Otherness’ has the potential to harm us.
‘Likeness’ can be frightening and dangerous too, for it represents the disintegration of differentiation (boundaries). We want enough ‘likeness’ to be comfortably familiar, but not too much ‘likeness’ so as to loose our sense of uniqueness. Equality has the potential to eliminate us.
Despite these potential dangers, love is only possible when both ‘likeness’ and ‘otherness’ is present.
God is the most surprisingly beautiful encounter with ‘otherness’ and ‘likeness’ one can ever have.
Misunderstanding of God’s ‘otherness’ and God’s ‘likeness’ leads to a lack of intimacy, so lets look at some of these misunderstandings.
The ‘otherness’ of God can be emphasized to the extent that He becomes utterly unknowable, unpredictable and unapproachable. Transcendence is the word most often used in theology … and it’s a beautiful word if correctly understood.
A wrong understanding of God’s otherness looks like this: God is beyond anything we can imagine, beyond the time and space in which we exist, beyond the capacity of our finite minds to comprehend. The result is that this god becomes more alien than anything we have ever imagined. Whatever we think we know of him is simply a shadow in which He condescends to our level … but who he really is will never be known. Intimate knowledge of this god is impossible. For this god to involve himself with us is unthinkable; for this god to be in any way affected by us, would be to reduce his divinity.
This is the kind of ‘otherness’ in which there is no place for ‘likeness’, an ‘otherness’ that can only be feared, not loved.
‘Otherness’ as revealed by Jesus
Now there is undoubtedly something very surprising, something very ‘other’ about the God revealed in Jesus. He is beyond what we have ever imagined, but at the same time He is the God who delights in revealing Himself, not in withdrawing into utter unknowability.
How can God remain ‘other’ yet reveal Himself? Well there is so much to be revealed! He is not unknown because He hides Himself, but because the revelation of who He is will never be exhausted. In Jesus, the most essential quality of God is revealed: God is love and what we do not know about Him yet does not nullify what we know about Him.
In Jesus God did not simply condescend to our level, He fully committed Himself to our existence in becoming human. This form of existence deeply affected Him … in every way. Jesus demonstrated that God is involved and affected by humanity. He suffers with humanity … even dies our death with us. This God is more present than what we are aware of. Jesus surprises us with a God who is more like us than what we ever imagined; a God who defines Himself as God-with-us. He will never again be God-without-us.
Yet He never becomes ordinary. He remains ‘other’ in that He continues to overwhelm us with the love He has for us. Encountering God remains an astonishing event, no matter how often we have experienced it.
In the context of relationship, God has always been and will always be unexpected, astonishing, exciting, surprisingly ‘Other’. The only thing about God that is predictable is love, but even His love finds expression in the most unusual ways.
Whenever God becomes boringly predictable, you are busy with your own finite ideas about God, not with God Himself. We will never capture God with our intellect. This does not mean that God is anti-intellect. In fact, when Jesus was asked what the greatest command is, his answer was: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt 22:37)
Loving God is something we can do not only with our hearts, but also with our minds. However, no matter how astonishing your intellectual discoveries are, God remains bigger than your understanding of Him.
Similarly, God remains bigger than your feelings and experiences. This also does not mean that God is anti-feelings. But rather, no matter how intense your experiences of Him has been, there remains more to be experienced and surprised by.
In summary, God’s ‘Otherness’ is not dangerous and therefore not to be feared, for what we know beyond doubt is that God is love. His ‘Otherness’ is the exciting infinite possibilities to be surprised by a God who is better than what we’ve ever imagined. His ‘Otherness’ means we can never get bored with Him!
Jesus also reveals the ‘Otherness’ in man … more about that some other time.
Our likeness to God and God’s likeness to us can be emphasized to the extent that no distinction remains. In discovering the glorious joy of union with God, some have unwittingly described it in terms that actually reduced this union rather than valuing it for what it is. Union is not one-and-the-same. Union presupposes distinct parts. One-and-the-same leaves no opportunity for fellowship, for love does not exist in singularity. If your idea of union with God, leaves no room for distinction between you and God, you will become so familiar with God that you will soon be bored of ‘him’ and replace ‘him’ with yourself.
The ‘Likeness’ of God revealed in Jesus.
Jesus surprises us with a God who is more like us than what we ever imagined. It is this ‘Likeness’ that makes intimate knowledge of Him possible. He is so like us, that He invites us to look upon Him as the mirror of our own beings. This likeness is an opportunity to reflect the adoration He gives us. The God revealed in Jesus is so much like us that He does not flinch from becoming our equal! But this is not an equality that will produces competition, for distinction remains. This is an equality that makes the highest level of fellowship possible – a fellowship in which we share in the divine nature.
God is both surprisingly ‘Other’ and invitingly ‘Like’ us. The mystery of love is experienced in the paradox of ‘otherness’ and ‘likeness’ simultaneously present.