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On Looking AgainBy Anthony Baker
C.S. Lewis once said that if we could really see another person—any other person—as God sees her and made her to be, we would be tempted to fall to our knees and worship her as a god. From a classical Christian point of view, that is not hyperbole. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the affirmation in the Psalms that we were made to be mortal gods, or at least human gods whose limitations are always standing in paradoxical tension with our origin, destination, and desires. We are something like the sycamore tree I planted a couple of years ago, which is now curving oddly through the shade of taller trees overheard to find the patch of sunlight above. We are creatures of earth, angling toward heaven.
This helps give some context to the theological weight of the virtue of respect. Immanuel Kant, still really the greatest of the modern philosophers, formulated respect as the imperative to see another person as an end in her or himself, and not just a means to our own end. There is something important to learn and practice in that simple formulation: Disrespect looks like not simply a meanness or a blowing off of another, but a failure to acknowledge her as anything but a means to accomplishing my own goal. If you are in my way as I go to the bank, I will shoulder you out of my way. If you interject an opinion that is different from mine into a conversation, I will interrupt and return to my point. Or I may co-opt your point as a way of making my own stronger. You are a means, I am the end.
There is something lacking, though, in Kant’s definition, and this is where Lewis and the classical theological tradition he was drawing on have something to add. For Kant, we should simply remain conscious of the demand on us to treat others as ends, such that respect is at heart the task of an individual subject. The important thing is not some truth or characteristic of the other person, but an inner attitude that I should be attentive to in myself. You may for all the world look like a jerk; it’s my job to overlook this and find the resources within myself to treat you otherwise. This Kantian imperative remains in our language when we tell our children to “respect your elders” as a nonspecific category of people, or simply “be respectful” with no object at all. It’s not wrong—it’s just not quite complete.
For while there is obviously a subjective dimension of respect that I am responsible for in myself, for Christians there is also an objective reality to respect. If I could see you as God sees you, I would be tempted to worship you. The impulse for that regard or acknowledgment of your awe-inspiring being doesn’t come initially from within me, but from you, and from my attention to you. The Latin roots of the word have this impulse built in: re-spectare, to look again. When I see you, or any other person or creature large or small, animate or inanimate, I am invited to look again. Not only to dig deep and find the habit of mind to be kind, but, more simply, to see you.
When I do, if do, I may in fact be awed. It’s as if there is a shine to any person or creature, though it’s sometimes dulled by time and hardship. It’s like something that distracts us out of the corner of our eye (“something shiny!”) that we then stop and attend to. To respect an elder is to look at her again, and see not only the shape in front of me, perhaps with some crankiness or senility or hearing impairments, but also the shining of the mysterious life she or he has led. The places she’s been, the people she has loved. To respect a person of another faith is to see not only the strange rituals and ways of praying that fail to acknowledge the Triune God, but to look again, and see if there might be the shine of a majestic and exotic life that tells a story that is beyond my imagination.
Catholic theologian Josef Pieper, writing about the medieval beginnings of natural science, tells how Albert the Great (Thomas Aquinas’s teacher) would run around the forests and lakes, crawling through the mud in his Dominican robes, looking again and again at the creatures he encountered. He learned to see the particular ways that life showed forth from them, and to imagine new ways of classifying them as God’s zoological mysteries.
When I look again, as a Christian, what I am seeing is the strangeness of an other. There is a small bit of evidence that God is at work in me, giving me eyes to see, if I can notice another being and catch little glimpses of the shining forth of the divine image, most likely in ways I never would have imagined seeing it. In this way, respect is not simply a virtuous habit of an individual, it is the way of opening ourselves to the objective truth about every being we encounter: if we could look again and see them as God made them to be, our respect would come dangerously close to worship.
How can we “look again” at people, the way God sees them?
What do I gain by offering you respect?
Are we made to be gods?
Anthony Baker joined the seminary faculty in 2004. He teaches classes in both historical theology (focusing on a figure, an era, or a school of thought) and constructive theology (the building of persuasive arguments about God and creation). He is the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology, as well as various articles in Modern Theology, Political Theology, The Journal of Anglican Studies, Anglican Theological Review, and other journals and collections.
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