David Tracy, the eminent intellectual, submits that perhaps the biggest challenge confronting us today is that of facing our differences, of accepting, truly accepting, otherness. This challenge confronts us at every level: social, political, cultural, moral, religious.
Here are his own words: “For anyone in this troubled, quarrelling center of privilege and power (and as a white, male, middle-class, American, Catholic, professor and priest I cannot pretend to be elsewhere) our deepest need, as philosophy and theology in our period show, is the drive to face otherness and difference. Those others must include all the subjugated others within Western European and North American culture, the others outside that culture, especially the poor and the oppressed now speaking clearly and forcefully, the terrifying otherness lurking in our own psyches and cultures, the other great religions and civilizations, the differences disseminating in all the words and structures of our own Indo-European languages.” (On Naming the Present, Maryknoll, 1994, p.4)
But that’s not easy, despite a lot of glib rhetoric to the contrary. Most of us claim to accept otherness and difference, but, as Thomas Aquinas might say, we’re there in desire more than in actuality.
We burn lots of politically-correct incense in front of the shrines of multi-culturalism, ethnic diversity, global community, gender equality, wide religious tolerance, alternative lifestyles, and befriending our shadow; but, as we’ll all admit when we’re honest, the reality isn’t as easy as the rhetoric. The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It’s not easy to be comfortable, at home, welcoming, to what’s other, different, seemingly deviant. More often than not we try to put up walls against it.
We see that today in the rise of fundamentalism and paranoia of every kind. Everywhere, and not just on the right of the ideological and political spectrum, there seems to be an excessive itch to circumscribe, to reign-in, to exclude, to punish anyone or anything that doesn’t fit our mold (all of which are simply other phrases for “circling the wagons”). For all our talk of global community, wide tolerance, and acceptance of differences, there is, almost everywhere, a growing obsession with boundaries and with protecting one’s own kind in terms of ethnicity, culture, language, religion, gender, idealogy, lifestyle.
Not that all of this is bad. True community can only be predicated on the strong self-identity of those who enter it and true ecumenism can never be rooted in people abandoning their own cherished values and beliefs. True acceptance of otherness and difference only means something if someone first has a strong identity, complete with real boundaries and cherished borders to protect. Fundamentalism, which is not going to go away any time soon, arises precisely when human beings feel adrift, cut off from their own roots, without clear boundaries. We need to protect what we cherish.
But protecting cherished values and defending necessary boundaries are a good place to start from. Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, the foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we’ll find it impossible to avoid what’s foreign to us. What’s strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighbourhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.
Moreover, welcoming what’s other and different is, in fact, a key biblical challenge. In the scriptures of all the great religions, Christianity no exception, we see that God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what’s beyond imagination, as outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God “Holy”; “Holy”, first of all, not because of some moral quality but because of some ontological quality, namely, otherness and difference from us.
Thus, biblically, we have the great tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, in what’s different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. Since God is Other, strangers, among all others, are the most likely to be carrying God’s revelation.
There’s a Chinese greeting that works as both a blessing and a curse. You say to someone: May you live in interesting times!” We live in such times and, indeed, it’s both a blessing and a curse. We’re being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing’s safe for long. More than any previous generation, we’re being stretched beyond what’s familiar. Sometimes that’s both painful and disorienting. It’s not easy to have our boundaries, values, and ideas under constant redefinition, especially when we believe in eternal truths.
But we’ve never grasped those truths deeply enough. We have them in part, in small pieces. That’s why we call them mysteries. Moreover, and this is the point, a lot of the pieces we still need to fill out those mysteries lie precisely in what’s foreign to us, in what’s other, strange, different.