Matthew 25:44 asks, “Lord…when did we see you a stranger?” 

I was a 19-year-old undergraduate student when I first glimpsed the meaning of transcendence. I was a lonely, struggling fundamentalist from a trailer park studying philosophy at Dallas Baptist University (DBU). After a lecture on our reading of Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” my naive view of God simply disappeared from my mind’s eye.  

I’ll be honest: my previous vision was of a white-bearded man resembling the Disney villain Jafar. Please don’t ask. I don’t know why. 

Without this childish image, I visualized only the darkness of space in the universe, but as a fullness rather than an emptiness. 

I have been unpacking that moment ever since. The “deep, full darkness” seems nearly as naive to me now as the bearded man did then, but the image no longer matters. 

Last November, I completed my PhD dissertation examining the relationship between individuals and society. I studied this relationship by comparing Christian theologian Karl Barth and Jewish phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas. I applied this analysis to political philosophy, but the transcendence I first experienced in a cramped townhome at DBU is the key to its implications. 

Levinas has a unique, profound approach to ethics primarily concerned with “encounter with the Other.” I borrow a particular interpretation of Barth’s theology to argue that encounter with the Other, in Levinas’s terms, clarifies something of utmost importance for the church. 

If we take God’s transcendence seriously, understanding that God exceeds the grasp of human comprehension as the originator of the entire knowable universe, then we think of God as the Stranger. God, the creator, is Other than all creation. God is the Stranger to everything we can know. 

There are two primary implications to confessing God’s transcendence. First, our talk about God must recognize its own limitations. Second, our relation to God the Stranger shapes how we interact with strangers daily. 

To the first point, Barth’s theology is uniquely “dialectical.” This means different things in different contexts, but Barth uses it in reference to Kiekegaard’s emphasis on the confrontation between the infinite God and finite humanity. 

For Kierkegaard and Barth, we do not “study” God as we would study a deep-ocean species or a distant galaxy. Instead, God confronts us, grasps us in the moment of encounter, and, in that moment, reshapes and redirects us. We experience God’s Self-revelation not as the “Aha!” of self-discovery but as the “Woe to me!” of Isaiah 6:5. In that moment, everything we are and know and everything familiar to us is called into question by something strange, beyond, different, and other. 

If theology aims to know the transcendent God, then our task is to point to the moment of encounter beyond our grasp and control. As Barth repeatedly mentions through his extensive writings, we are like John the Baptist in the Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing with a gnarled hand at the Son of God. 

Theology is not a systematization of data but an ongoing response to “encounter” that remains forever open to revision and reform in relation to the transcendent God. 

To the second point, and in fulfillment of numerous biblical passages, encounter with God the Stranger reshapes how we interact with the strangers we meet in everyday life. As God cares for us creatures, strangers to the infinite goodness of God’s being and character, we are called to care for the strangers we meet. Matthew 25:31-46 primes us to treat the stranger as Jesus, God the Stranger in human flesh. 

The image of God in my mind’s eye no longer matters because it could never grasp the transcendent God. I find the image of God in the strangers I meet—the person of a different race, faith, gender, sexual orientation, politics or any other signifier of difference whom I have the pleasure to meet. Because God the Stranger cared for me, I am called to care for the stranger, hear their needs, and take action to address them. 

In his philosophy, Levinas refers to this call to care for the stranger as “infinite responsibility”: the concrete, material needs (as opposed to spiritual or otherwise immaterial) that humans impose upon us and shape us. As individuals, we are shaped, first and foremost, by our responsibility to the stranger. 

The contemporary social-political moment confronts us with the stranger—Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, ultra-nationalists and migrants/ refugees, and the member of your family, congregation or friend group who becomes a stranger by ardently arguing against you on any number of these topics. 

Levinas and Barth lead me to ask: What would it change if our ethics, politics and faith were predicated upon care for the stranger rather than on their domination and destruction?

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