Encountering Others

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic, which was recommended to me by my friend Joe. At one point in the book, Carroll discusses the difference between Catholicism in the Old World and Catholicism in America. He writes: “In the Old World, boundaries defined experience. Across generations, Jews lived in ghettos, Christians lived in confessional states. Encounters of like with unlike were the exception. In the New World, boundaries – the very frontier – existed to be crossed.” Thus, “In America, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, sooner and later, encountered each other as neighbors (as, eventually, would Confucinists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and atheists.”

There are clearly some, perhaps many, who think the Old World way is better, who think separation from those who are different (religiously and otherwise) is the best way to remain pure in our own beliefs. But reading Carroll’s description reminded me of a passage from a Barbara Brown Taylor book that my friend Richard sent to me ther other day. In An Altar in the World, Taylor asks the question, “who could be better equipped to pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing or ourselves?” In elucidation, she quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ suggestion that “the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” Only if we can do that, says Taylor can we “see past our own reflections in the mirror to a God we did not make up.”

As I reflect on these two passages together, I think the only way we can encounter God in a genuine way – the God in whose image we are created, rather than a god who we create in our own image – is to encounter those, to use Taylor’s words, “in whom we see nothing of ourselves,” to rub elbows with those who are not us.

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