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During the pandemic, many of our relationships with others, known or unknown, found a new low as we were, for a time, unable to be with them and have our shattered perceptions of them re-calibrated. So here is the challenge of the modern post-pandemic world, especially for the Christian: our social discourse feels intractably conflictual. Politics, race, the church, maybe our own families, and often combinations of all of these at once. We are commanded to first love God with all, and second to love the neighbor.

Loving Neighbors Requires Seeing People

In Kierkegaard’s Works on Love, he makes the argument that true love is necessarily infinite in nature. It never runs out, gets tired, or makes excuses. While we nearly always protect it, guard it, quantify it, limit it, and create prerequisites for it, Christ literally emptied himself until nothing was left in death. His love was a gift not earned and freely given. Kierkegaard shows that the impossibility of actually loving others is clear when we look back on our past and see only consistent strings of failure, realize today we have failed (probably at least once while reading this essay!) and know this will not change tomorrow. This realization can thrust us into a state of despair as we are commanded to do possibly the one thing we appear incapable of actually doing. As such, all of us are in a state of despair with possibly a thin veneer of distraction barely covering the top: vacations, events, money, careers, TikTok. All of us, that is, apart from those who have left the brokenness behind in repentance and taken on the identity of Christ anew in forgiveness. Only then, with an identity proven through love can we go out to love. And daily, possibly minute by minute, repeat so as to continue loving.

This possibility of a renewed identity is all well and good, but living the call to love is a constant reminder of the need for Christ. That is, back in September when I was running through possible conversations with my friend (see the part 1 post) I had turned into a caricature, the one thing I did not have for him at that moment was love. At that moment I had ripped away the image of God within him and replaced him and his personhood with a place-holding object. I replaced him with an objectified shard within a fractal of his identity. And this person is a good friend of mine. I absent-mindedly, out of habit or nature, converted one created in the image of God into an object and then interacted with this object as if it were my friend. If we are prone to see and focus on ever-shrinking fractals of even those we love, how much more do we do the same but more easily to those we do not know or even those we do not like?

The problem for the Christian seeking to love their neighbor is that much of the time this barrier, the fractal conversion of persons to objectified pieces, to real relationships with others is that the process is invisible. Surely so with those we do not know or those we do not like. Our objectification can never be corrected. Thus the need for repentance in pursuit of love can never take place. And we are worse for it. I am convinced that just as people are unique in part because of their relationships with others, people also become less than the persons they could be when their interactions are with objectified others and not persons. If people make me who I am, what do I become when I only and unbeknownst to me interact with objectified fractals of persons? Not only do I reduce who they are or could be in reality, but I also lose pieces of my own personhood in the process. And we are all worse for it.

It seems to me that this inability to see others as persons brings us to the crux of the challenge for the Christian today. Mistrust seems to run deep. Politically, racially, one Christian to another. The list is long. I would wager a sizable amount that nested within all of these guarded and scornful relations is an objectified projection of the other. Often when the social goal is to win, destruction comes easy, and love is scarce. This consistent tendency towards objectification instead of love makes the call for the Christian hard, painful, and as outlined above quite literally impossible. Impossible, that is, outside the context of the relationship with Christ himself. So, what does this mean for us when we so automatically and maybe even invisibly rip the God-given personhood away from those around us, evidencing a dearth of love? We are commanded to love persons, an impossible task outside of a relationship with Christ. But the majority of our life is defined by interactions with objectified fractals and not love. Where is Christ in our own lives, and what defines that relationship? Have we also taken the reality of the personhood of Christ and formed a fractal that fits our increasingly depersonalized self?

After all, Kierkegaard argues that the judgment of who we are is found in our orientation to others. If a life of repentance and seeking the person of Christ in our life produces love, but there is a plethora of the opposite in our own life with even people we like and want to love, we are left with an uncomfortable conclusion. Maybe, at least for a time, it would be good for us all to live in some level of existential discomfort as we work to seek the personhood in everyone around us. If we are naturally prone to depersonalizing others, even those we love, when separated by time or space, then now as we enter post-pandemic society and rebuild “normal” we may best be served by fostering a generous and charitable baseline in how we think of all others around us. Probably especially those we feel like we have the most evidence to think ill of. It may not be reciprocated but love never demands, requires, or expects reciprocation. As people and their identity are both the cause and the product of interactions, we must find some way to see persons created in the image of God and not the lazy objectified fractal of a person we gravitate towards. There, in an interaction between persons and not objects, we will find that the real reward is the possibility of a self. And just imagine the effect of that in a whole community.

Stable and flourishing communities can be found within the nonsensical context of love, ideally a love that is reciprocated.

Aaron B. Franzen

Aaron B. Franzen is an associate professor of sociology at Hope College.  He is broadly interested in identity formation, and especially in how beliefs and values influence the interactions between individuals and groups, often within the context of medicine.