The Practice of Encountering Others

“We have just enough religion to make us hate one another” Jonathan Swift once observed, “but not enough to make us love one another.” Because we are human, which is to say essentially self-interested, we are always looking for ways to add a little more authority to our causes, to come up with better reasons to fight for what we want than “Because I want it, that’s why.” If we can convince ourselves that God wants it too–even if that means making God in our own image so we can deny the image of God in our enemies–then we are free to engage in combative piety. We are free to harm others not for our own reasons but in the name of God, which allows us to feel holy about doing it instead of just plain bad.

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What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get–in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing–which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead.

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Excerpts from An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

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