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Exocentricity: Human Openness to the World
Reflections on the nature of the self based on reading Wolfhart Pannenberg.

By Ed Knudson

Words open our minds to fields of reality outside ourselves. To learn a new word is to open the mind to that which we did not see before. I was especially reminded of this again when I sat down to re-read a 1985 book by German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg entitled Anthropology in Theological Perspective. The word I found there that I want to discuss is exocentricity.

This word defines basic human nature. How human nature is defined is, of course, a very major issue among the various contesting religious views in current public context. The most prevalent view today is that carried among those denominations associated with the religious right in both its fundamentalist and pentecostal expressions. This a mechanical view of nature taught in the 19th century. The focus of this view are the "laws of nature" explored by Isaac Newton; the world is like a big machine, such as a clock, with its own laws which regulate everything in the world. Human beings are able to study these laws and come to know how nature works. Although fundamentalists fought against science in the late 19th and early 20th century they in fact have adopted this view of nature as presuppositions for their own current thought. For example, the test of faith is to believe something that is "supernatural", that interupts the otherwise firm laws of nature. And, human beings themselves should never interfere with the laws of nature since these are God's laws.

Thus, for example, the religious right is totally opposed to abortion because it interferes with the natural process. What they are really doing is raising a particular view of nature to the level of the divine itself. To put it another way, this view claims to be able to absolutely know the mind and intention of God since God is fully revealed in natural processes. Human beings who know this God, then, can be totally certain of what is right and wrong.

The fundamentalists do not realize that they have adopted the attitude of the scientist in this understanding. That is, the scientist assumes that by empirical study he or she as a knowing subject is able to come to know how the external world works. Notice the focus here is on the "knowing subject," the human individual. It is this individual knowing self which is at the center of Enlightenment thinking. Rene Descarte, for example, said that "I think therefore I am." The thinking of the individual is the basis of human being. This is reflected also in current economic and political philosophy as well where the primary unit of analysis is the autonomous individual self as either economic actor or citizen.

Exocentricity points to the idea that one's self is centered outside one's self, that the human self develops, for example, not through autonomous exertions but through interaction with others. I can come to know myself not by myself but only through interaction with others. I do not have choices about whether or not to interact with others; my interaction with others create the very conditions for the choices I may have.

Pannenberg summarizes modern anthropolitical understandings with the phrase "openness to the world." That is, human beings are naturally open to that which is outside themselves. A simple example is the fact that to live is to breathe, to take the air outside ourselves into our lungs and to then exhale. Some may say "we are what we eat", that is, to eat is to take food into ourselves from the outside that provides the nourishment we need for living our lives. And so also socially we become who we are through openness to others, through interaction with them, through the words and relations we experience with others.

And, of course, ultimately we are open to God, the source of our lives and others and all the universe, from whom we define ourselves and come to know who we are. Centered on the ultimate other outside ourselves we come to know whose we are. Jesus says it clearly, love God and neighbor. But this is not just a command, as if it can be disobeyed. No, it is a description of how we naturally are as human beings. Without relationships with God and others it is impossible to be human, to be a self, to be a person, whether we are consciously aware of these relations or not.

And this presents a wholly different view of the natural world from the mechanical view of unchanging nature. History is made, including natural history, through the ongoing relationships between God and human beings. What humans do affects both God and nature. Nature changes, it is not eternally regulated through absolute and unchanging laws. Unless this was true there would be no basis for human freedom within relations with one another, with nature, and with God. Because of that freedom, and the freedom of God to be different, the future is always different from the past. What human beings do within these relations, then, makes a big difference, and that, in turn, is why ethics is so important. We find our purpose in exocentricity, in that which is outside ourselves.


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Date Added: 10/2/2004 Date Revised: 12/21/2004 1:04:13 PM

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