The only image of God is the face of our neighbor, who is also the sibling of God’s First-Born, of God’s own likeness (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Our human neighbor now becomes a “sacrament” of God’s hidden presence among us, a mediator between God and humanity. Every authentic religious act is directed toward the concreteness of God in our human neighbors and their world. There it finds its living fulfillment and its transcendent point of contact. Could humanity be taken more seriously than that? Is anything more radically anthropocentric than God’s creative love?
Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 175-178). Kindle Edition.
Is there a God?—For many theologians and philosophers, there is no greater question to debate than the question of God’s existence. Some may even consider it the quintessential theological task. It is the worrisome and nagging question by which all of theology (and some philosophy) is built upon. After all, an unfavorable answer (at least for theologians) would quite rightly call into question the entire theological enterprise. Consequently, the question—God’s existence—remain at the very least unanswerable.
The question of God’s existence is an intellectual one. For most of us it’s a playful question of idle speculation. As a culture, many obsess over how we answer the God question. Personally, I’ve never devoted much interest into national and global polls regarding God’s existence. Quite frankly, how a society answers that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. It’s fun for pundits and pollsters to argue about a nation’s growing or waning religiosity, but to me such questions fail to adequately consider the values, ethics, and actions of a nation of society. Does a belief in God translate into moral and ethical behavior—who knows? Supposedly somewhere around 80% of Americans believe in God, which is much higher than most European nations. From this we’re lead to believe that somehow this tells us something meaningful about Americans and Europeans—though what that is I can’t begin to determine.
Our answer on God’s existence—yes, no, maybe—supposedly sheds light on who we are as individuals. Perhaps it does, though I doubt it’s anything deep or insightful. But in terms of what matters, the most important question to consider is not God’s existence. The most important question, the only question that truly matters is—Where do we encounter God? For this question should take precedent over every other question we might ask of God. Thus, the question isn’t if there is a God, rather it’s a question of how we see God within the world. Our answer to this seemingly simple question has profound implications on how we live, act, and work within the world. It influences our morality and ethics. It shapes our actions and behaviors. The question about God is a question of encounter not existence.
The question of encounter is important because it is a matter of what we seek in asking the question. Do we seek to debate or prove an idea—the concept of God—or do we seek to find and experience God within the world? Because ultimately, it’s a question of how we see others.
Where do we encounter God?—Within this question lies our understanding of morality, ethics, community, and mostly importantly, love. In Poverty of Spirit, Johannes Baptist Metz suggests a radical shift of our (theological or otherwise) perspective of God. This shift doesn’t employ the use of lengthy systems, logical constructs, or arguments from nature that we typically find in apologetics. His work isn’t a defense in that sense. But subtly, Metz forces us to reconsider how we see God through simple but powerful statements such as, “The only image of God is the face of our neighbor.” This isn’t a new or novel idea, but it is one that Metz positions as critical to our own humanity. Our failure to see God in others is a failure of humanity.
In the judgment scene, God is visible only in the visage of other human beings. Blessed are they who have served their neighbors and cared for their needs; cursed are they who have selfishly disregarded their brothers and sisters and rejected the light of love and human community. The latter, in trying to enrich and bolster their own selves, have turned their neighbor into the enemy and thus created their own hell.
Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 183-185). Kindle Edition.
For Metz, the question of God is a question that considers others. It’s a question of place rather than moral, metaphysical, or ontological arguments. Met’s claim that “God is visible only in the visage of other human beings” is both radical and freeing. In one fell swoop, Metz simplifies the whole of Christian though and theology. Consequently, there is only one theological question worth considering. It’s a question that doesn’t ask but convicts. What do you see when you look into the face of your neighbor? Metz doesn’t so much care if we believe in God—at least the God of the theologians and philosophers. What he cares about is where we meet God. This is a question we must ask of ourselves.
Metz creates a dichotomy between those that see God in others and those that only see themselves. The one who sees God within others is moved to care for those others. The one who looks with selfish rejection of the other is only moved to reject and abandon. For Metz, the question of God carriers with it the upmost seriousness. It suggests the difference between love and fear, charity and hate. The question about God is a question that reflects our values.
Poverty of spirit does not bring us from human beings to God by isolating these components into separate rate little packages: God-me-others. (God can never be just one more reality alongside others.) It operates through the radical depths of human encounter itself. In total self-abandonment and full commitment to another we become completely poor, and the depths of infinite mystery open up to us from within this other person. In this order, we come before God.
Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 185-188). Kindle Edition.
To seek God within others is to abandon the easy compartmentalization Metz describes as “God-me-others.” God-me-others is about estrangement. It represents the separation between myself and you, you and God, God and others that characterizes the deep divisions within our society. To overcome these divisions, Metz asks us to consider another possibility. One where we live in the knowledge of the encounter. The knowledge that we encounter God in the faces of those we meet each day. That meeting the other is nothing less than an encounter with the divine mystery that should stir within us love, compassion, and humility. Because ultimately—and I believe Metz would agree with this sentiment— encountering God in others is the only way God makes sense.
God is the God of encounter, not the principles and logical notions of the philosophers and theologians. God is the God of the mercy, not the name we print on money and national seals. God is the God of humility and love, not the God we piously insert self-importantly into public ceremonies and sporting events. God is the God of weakness and service, not the God of the politicians who only care about power. The God we so passionately debate about and argue for isn’t the object of our inquiry but is the God who dwells within the faces of those that suffer injustice at the hands of the powerful.
The question of encounter is one we must ask ourselves every day, not as an intellectual curiosity, but as a moral imperative. Where do we encounter God? is the imperative that moves us to acknowledge that we have a responsibility toward other people. We must care for others—not as those alien or foreign to us, but as those who carry the image of God. As such, we cannot act as if other people are unimportant or inferior to ourselves. Because in them, especially those abandoned by society, we encounter God.
We often keep the other person down, and only see what we want to see; thus we never really encounter the mysterious secret of their being, only ourselves. Failing to risk the poverty of encounter, we indulge in a new form of self-assertion and pay a price for it: loneliness. Because we did not risk the poverty of openness (cf. Mt. 10:39), our lives are not graced with the warm fullness of human existence. We are left with only a shadow of our real self.
Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 255-258). Kindle Edition.
The inability to see others as bearers of God’s image leaves us only with the cruel mirror of our own selfishness. Others then must bear the symptoms of our selfishness, a selfishness of denial and rejection. It is the selfishness of separation and objectification, which leaves us only with lenses of power, cruelty, hatred, and greed. We “only see what we want to see; thus we never really encounter the mysterious secret of their being, only ourselves.” Consequently, this denial of God-in-others leaves us bitter and alone. And as lonely and separated people, we’re unable to temper our worse impulses—the symptoms of selfishness.
What I want to consider is the person as a liminal space of encounter. This begins with a radical departure from the ways we typically talk and think about God. Moreover, it involves a radical reorientation of the questions we ask about God. It begins with asking ourselves not what we see when we look into the face of another. Such a question should move us toward an honest engagement with how and why we treat others the way we do. The other, as encounter, offers an alternative to introspective questions about God that offer little in the way of relevance or practicality. However, questions about God that begin with an outwardly focus suggest a better starting point for engagement. More importantly it puts on a path to seriously consider how we view others in real and tangible terms. And hopefully better enables us to encounter the mystery and the divine image of God with our neighbors. The other offers us the opportunity for compassion and love.
I don’t know how to stop people from treating one another with cruelty and hatred. I frankly don’t understand our society of selfishness, greed, and apathy toward others. Nor do I understand how we can justify the ways we treat the marginalized and poor within our own society. We have a lot of work to do if we cannot see the face of God in the little children arriving at our border. The separation of immigrant children from their parents demonstrates that when we look at others we only see ourselves—American First.
I believe that human kindness begins with an intentional and sustained effort at seeing others not as strangers, but as people who bear the image of God. Where do we see God?—What we may see may surprise us if we’ll allow it.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:35-40 (NRSV)