July is the month we say goodbye to writers who are retiring or moving on to new adventures, and this is Alex’s last post. He has been writing with us since August 2019.
Writing about theology and religion is something I’ve simultaneously wanted to do and painstakingly avoided for the past two years. It being July and due time to step back and hand over the mic, I supposed it was now or never.
Unpacking the breadth and depth of my religious views wouldn’t make for punchy prose and is an exercise I’ll save for therapy. For the purposes of this post, let’s call me a curious agnostic. I don’t know where the heck we came from or where the heck we’re going, and I stopped going to church years ago, but I think about things like God (who might could exist), morality, and the world often—almost daily. And whenever my thoughts stray into this territory, there’s one idea that I can always muster a measure of confidence in, because it just feels right: at the very least, an aspect of God is the people.
The Greeks had this concept called xenia, which I think is relevant here. Xenia is an abstract noun that best translates to English as “hospitality.” Xenia is what a person should have when interacting with a xenos, a stranger or foreigner. We do have an English word that is cognate with these terms: xenophobia. Xenophobia is a fear of foreigners, or a fear of someone who is different from you.
Anyways. For the Greeks, xenia was a sort of unspoken set of guidelines for how you should treat a stranger. Someone from a different village showed up at your house? Be hospitable to them. But this concept actually went both ways: you’re travelling and staying at someone else’s house? Be hospitable back. Take what you need and don’t abuse someone else’s generosity.
And there was a weight behind it. The reason it was important to have xenia was because you never knew if this stranger was actually a god in disguise. In Greek myth, gods sometimes took human form, so you had to be careful. Wouldn’t want Zeus to start chucking lightning at you because you didn’t offer him tea.
I think understanding xenia is useful not as a theology, but as a stepping stone to understanding a moral way to interact with our community at large. A cynical eye will notice that the purest form of Greek xenia is little more than a scare tactic to encourage conformity. But there’s something useful here. Take it a step further, from “you never know if…” to “you can safely assume that….” You can treat others as you’d like to be treated. Sure, that works. You can also treat others like they’re something holy, and that’s a different way to think about it.
I’m going to jump parallel one more time. A phrase I learned from a mentor that has helped me a lot as I’ve progressed in therapy is “your insides are looking at their outsides.” It’s a pithy phrase that functions for me like a mantra, and it has a couple of implications. When I interact with someone, I know how I feel because I’m feeling it, but I don’t know how they feel. So a person I meet might look like they have it all together. Their outsides don’t show sadness, or anxiety, or inadequacy, so maybe they don’t have any of those things? But they probably do. I just wouldn’t know it, because I can only see their outsides, not their insides.
But the converse is also true. I know my insides, so I know that I’m a person (thanks Descartes) who loves and feels and generally wants good things to happen. It’s easy to forget that the same is also true for everyone else when you can only see their outsides, not their insides. You never know who you’re talking to—who this xenos is, what they feel, what they love, what they’ve already gone through today, what they’ve already gone through their whole life, what their families have gone through for generations. Your insides are looking at their outsides.
Religion as a human convention has many functions, from metaphysics to eschatology to community. One function that I can most completely get on board with, at least in theory, is forming a road map for morality. My insides can only see outsides, so a little help where I can get it is useful. This is why I like a God-as-community approach. It gives things like social justice the weight of holiness. Who are God’s people? We all are. In fact, we might as well be one and the same.
And hey, who knows? I might as little know that I am a functional aspect of God as a tiny hair on my knuckle knows that it’s a functional aspect of me. It’s just an idea, but it’s an idea I like.
 Shoutout to Dr. E. Vander Lei with the dual modal.