Kenosis: The Other Within

John A. Mills


Jesus emptied himself of divinity to become human and as his life converged upon the cross he again emptied himself. This time of his will to be filled with God's will. Paul called us into Jesus' kenosis. The mathematical notion of the empty set can provide us insight into kenosis and point us to the path of emptiness. In particularly, kenosis is the utterly other within us and which we have in common with the utterly different. It is the Other that knits us into the cosmic fabric. To respond to Paul's call is to respond to the Other in our living. This paper examines the empty set in light of kenosis and suggests that God's mystery of love and care can even be found in mathematics.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Phil 2:5-11 [8]]

Called to Emptiness

Paul in this beautiful hymn exalts the kenosis of Christ, the self-emptying of Jesus to live and die with us for us. Matthew Fox helps us understand this hymn: "Jesus Christ, who underwent a divine void, a letting go of divinity in order to be fully human (Phil. 2), a kenosis, becomes the model and exemplar of what a `virgin,' that is a truly emptied person, is like. A truly emptied person is so vulnerable to beauty and truth, to justice and compassion, that he or she become a truly hollow and hallowed channel for divine grace ... [2]" Christ let go of authority, position, and acceptance. He drained himself of expectation and direction. He turned from the guilt of the past and the anxiety of the future. He risked being a human and succumbing to human joy and suffering. And as his human life accelerated to its climax, Jesus, at the end of his prayer in Gethsemene resolved, "that his will be so emptied as to become the divine will [2]." He set aside what he wanted and turned unconditionally towards God.

Paul calls us to have this same mind of Christ and to participate in Jesus' kenosis. But how can we today in our techno-society understand what this means and what this self-emptying requires of us? Our technological world offers us many new notions. One from mathematics, that of the empty set, provides a rich and insightful metaphor for kenosis. We will see in the following pages, that when we empty ourselves of every concern, every trait, every idol, every bit of selfness, what is left is the Other. God blesses us with individuality, but emptiness which is the Other within knits us all into a common fabric.

The Empty Set

In mathematical set theory, a set is a collection of things taken as a whole. The simplest, most fundamental set is the set containing nothing, called the empty set. It is the whole that contains nothing. In the algebra of sets, the empty set has characteristics relevant to our interest in kenosis. A subset of a given set is a set that contains some or all of the elements in a set. For example, consider a set representing some family: {f,m,c}. The subsets are {f}, {m}, {c}, {f,m}, {f.c}, {m,c}, and {f,m,c}. Note that a set is a subset of itself. Now, mathematicians have ascertained a way to determine the number of subsets in a given set. If n is the number of elements in a set, then 2!n (2 multiplied by itself n times) is the number of subsets. In our example, n=3 and 2!n=8. But we have enumerated only seven subsets. The eighth is the set of no members, {}, the empty set. The empty set is a subset of every set [4][6]; it is in or a part of everything, even of itself (since a set is a subset of itself). It is the only subset that is a subset of everything. The empty set is, therefore, ubiquitous. It is also unique; there is only one empty set. Two sets are identical if they have exactly the same elements. Now if two sets have no elements, they have exactly the same elements. Thus, they are the same and one occurrence of the empty set is the same set as any other occurrence of the empty set.Since the empty set has no elements, adding its elements (which there are none) to any other set just brings us back to the set. Uniting emptiness to anything results again in that anything. Emptiness is already part of everything and, being unique, adding it again yields nothing new. Emptiness plus you = you. It is an essential part of us. Similarly since the empty set has no elements, it has no element in common with any set. Therefore, the empty set is utterly other. It is dissimilar to any set. Thus, everything has nothing in common with nothingness: though emptiness is within everything, we have nothing in common with it; it is utterly other. Two sets are utterly different if they have no elements in common; they are disjoint. The intersection of two disjoint sets is the empty set. Since the empty set is a subset of any set and the empty set is utterly other, two utterly different things have the utterly other in common.

Another set operation is the difference of two sets: the set of all those elements in the first set but not in the second. Now, since the empty set has no elements, subtracting it from a set takes no elements from that set. Thus, subtracting emptiness from something leaves that same something, including the empty set. Indeed, there is no way to remove emptiness from anything. Any other element can be removed; we can subtract anything from ourselves; we can let go of anything; but ultimately the empty set remains. Even nothing; that which remains, has a character. In the reverse, subtracting something from the empty set leaves the empty set. Once we have achieved emptiness, there is nothing left to lose. It is the bare, quintessential character of all things. It is elemental and can be reduced no further.

The Reality of Emptiness

Is emptiness just an abstract, intellectual notion, useful to mathematicians? No, we can know emptiness in many ways: in the space between two forked branches of a tree; in the silence between two blasts of a train whistle; and in the space between two adjacent pages of a closed book. We can imagine emptiness as who we are before we were born or who we are to someone who is entirely ignorant of us. We can sense emptiness in our not-walking on the earth after our deaths. We can understand emptiness if we project ourselves upon the lunar surface with nothing between us and the cosmic void. Martin Gardner[3] provides many more everyday examples of the empty set.The empty set in everything and everyone is a thread that knits all creation together into one cosmic community. It is the trace of the incarnated Logos that holds the created universe together. "Because the Logos incarnate in Jesus was the Reason of God, it was also possible to see the Logos as the very Structure of the universe ... The identification of the Creator-Logos in Jesus as the foundation for the very structure of the universe and the belief that `the Logos of God is in the whole universe' had its basis in the even more fundamental identification of the Logos as the Agent of creation out of nothing ... [5]." We all have the empty set in common and, thereby, are all kin in one community in God's grace, whether male or female, whether Black, White, or Oriental, whether young or old, whether indigenous or immigrant, whether gay or straight, whether poor or rich, whether technical or atechnical, whether literate or illiterate, whether two-legged, four-legged, or no-legged, whether animate or inanimate. The empty set is a sign of the eternal presence of the Holy Spirit within us and our participation in the structure of the universe.

Characteristically, the empty set represents the utterly other in us that we share with those that are different from us, even utterly different. Should we lose everything, this Other remains as our terminal into the christic network of the universe. The empty set is a sign and symbol of God's presence within us and of the ultimate interconnectedness of God's creation. Significantly, this weaves us together with each other and with everything in creation. The unique empty set underlies our common kinship; we are akin because we are different. Meister Eckhart told us that "[a]ll creatures have been drawn from nothing ... Outside of God/ There is nothing but nothing ... God is nothingness; and yet God is something... God is being beyond being and a nothingness [1]."

The Utterly Other

What is the significance of the empty set to us so we can do God's will and live in God's presence? We have within us the utterly other in common with the utterly different. Even when we may believe that we are utterly different from someone else, we have nothingness in common. And being utterly different is being utterly identifiable. What the other is not, you are and together you can share nothing less than emptiness. This distinction, I and Thou, is the sole ontological distinction. If we return to Paul's christic hymn, Jesus emptied himself of divinity to be filled with the otherness of humanness, and then in Gethsemene emptying himself of his human will, was once again filled up by the otherness of the divine will. When we are of the same mind as Christ, we too empty ourselves of our guilts, anxieties, authority, position, acceptance, expectations and direction - to discover the Other within ourselves. To be emptied is to touch the Other. To touch the Other is to be vulnerable to the beauty, truth, alienation, and pain of others, and to act with and for them. When we step beyond our self-made boundaries, to hear different people, life-styles, and viewpoints, we will empty ourselves of some small clinging. The more we are challenged by the Other, the more hollow and hallowed we become. Finally, we will discover nothing of our will and much of the will of the Other. The wills of others, like our own are obscured with selfness, but as we encountered one other after another, we come closer and closer to the Ultimate Other, to divine God.Our busy, rational lives are often bereft of mystery. We are disconcerted when we do not know something and so try to uncover every mystery, expose every unknown, learn every fact. We strive for omniscience. Yet God casts mystery before us even in the midst of the most rational of sciences, mathematics. To resist this mystery and to control our world, we endow with divinity created things that we can manipulate to yield us omniscience. A creation, such as mathematics, becomes our ultimate concern; that is what we have faith in and rely on to explain every mystery and leave us in control [7]. The uncreated God is ultimate mystery and we rebel against the logic of this: that we can never know enough and be certain of our safety and insure our salvation. Science and its offspring technology has proven to be a very efficacious tool for us to seduce ourselves into believing we can be omniscient and omnipotent. Today, this idol is crumbling.

The character of the empty set defies us to put our faith in anything created. Anything created that may be our ultimate concern is provisional, ultimately reducible to nothingness. When we set up something as our idol it becomes our measure of rightness. We become it and whatever is Other than it is wrongness. Its limits define our universe; anything outside is beyond reason and acceptability; we must make the Other either invisible or demonic. Yet, as we have seen, the Other is ontologically a part of us; we cannot escape it. Are we, therefore, condemned to bear wrongness in us? Our faith in creatures must lead us to this conclusion because no matter what our idol is, it will be bounded and leave an other out - but the Other remains within us. Surely, this is not evil (or we are gnostics believing in the fundamental corruption of the material creation).

How then should we be? In seeking emptiness, we seek the utterly other and the destruction of barriers. Distinctions and walls are only conditional and we must always push beyond by examining and re-examining every notion for its congruence to the will and pattern of God. This search and examination is lifelong and never finished. God's creation is endlessly diverse, nothingness at every turn, God's potential around every corner. We must be open to change and newness. In this openness, we can become receptive to God's grace of emptiness. Discerning emptiness in our lives, in the world, in science and mathematics, is a window into the mind and heart of God. This is one more way in which we are drawn into God's embrace through our study of divine creation, done to the glory and praise of God.


[1] Matthew Fox; Meditations with Meister Eckhart; Bear & Company; Santa Fe, NM ©1983.

[2] Matthew Fox; Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality; Bear & Company; Santa Fe, NM ©1983.

[3] Martin Gardner; Mathematical Magic Show; Alfred A. Knopf; New York; ©1977.

[4] James M. Henle; An Outline of Set Theory; Springer-Verlag; NY ©1981.

[5] Jaroslav Pelikan; Jesus Through The Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture; Yale University Press; New Haven ©1985.

[6] B. Rotman and G. T. Kneebone; The Theory of Sets and Transfinite Numbers; American Elsevier Publishing Company, Inc.; NY ©1966.

[7] Paul Tillich; Dynamics of Faith; Harper & Row, Publishers; NY ©1957.

[8] New Revised Standard Version Bible; ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.