Encounter and Discernment

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Indeed, the hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me.

John 16: 2-3

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Protagonists and antagonists are largely identified by the outcome of conflicts. The Church to which the gospel of John is addressed was seen as heretical and potentially destructive of the great and divinely ordained tradition of the Judaism of its time. As the gospel of John points out, those opposing the Church will see themselves as serving God, as did the Christian believers in their turn. From our historical distance and our tradition’s perspective, we readily identify what is of God and what is not. Yet, as Pope Francis constantly points out, discernment in the moment is a difficult task.

No human being is capable of knowing “the truth.” Both individually and in the cultures that we create, we are the blind persons in the ancient Indian tale of the several blind persons and the elephant. The “elephant” that is before us is known to us only in its limited aspect which we are able to touch. Yet, we are all also driven to totalize and absolutize our limited perspective. We then desire, as the opponents of the early Church, to eliminate whomever or whatever is a challenge to that view out of what we believe is “worship to God.” We become defenders, not of God but of our very partial understanding of God.

It is for this reason that at the heart of all the great wisdom traditions is the call to humility, to never forget the limits of our perspective. Such humility is very different from a kind of fuzzy relativism. It does not insist that every perspective, no matter how perverse, is equally moral and valuable. It knows, at least to some degree, the limits of the possible or valid. Yet, as we see when God enters the world in the flesh, God’s actions are often a challenge to our established limits of thought.

Some years ago the philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote a book entitled Disgust and Humanity. In that book she considered the role of the human emotion of disgust in the creation of law and society. She argued that often it is the experience of disgust at what is foreign to us that leads to the creation and rationalization of certain laws and prohibitions, and that to become more just it is important to recognize and acknowledge our disgust as determinative of where we stand with certain others and concerning certain social issues. The same can be said of any of our bodily and emotional reactions. It is often true that fear of another, that frustration and impotence, that conflicted sexuality or a need for power and dominance can influence our laws and our doctrines. There are many forms of blindness that limit our attempts to discern the presence and call of God in the word.

Pope Francis speaks often of the “mystery of encounter.” In order to discern where the summons of God lies in a situation, it is imperative that we encounter what is other than us and beyond us. Our capacity for encounter is a spiritual potency, far more human and potent that the emotions and reactions that are based on our early cultural and social formation. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were those who were able to see their tradition as capable of including the revelation of Jesus and then expanding to include “gentiles” and “non-believers” while others could not. Likewise, in our own time, we need to ask ourselves what are the limits and enclosures of our own hearts. What precisely are those who see themselves as “guardians of the faith” guarding? What is the need to exclude others who are different but seeking?

Jesus’ warning about doing violence in the name of worshipping God is not a historical artifact. It is a necessary caution against a universal tendency of the human condition, and so of each of us, to confuse our own beliefs and even prejudices for God’s word and way. Throughout the gospels it is clear that the dispositions of the kingdom of God are illustrated by those marginalized, sinful, and often repugnant people who enter the circle of Jesus and his disciples. it is what doesn’t already fit that points the community toward the reality of God’s love and mercy.

Openness to the foreign, strange, and even “disgusting” is difficult for any group because it is difficult for each of us in our own life. We spend more effort than we’d like to recognize in keeping the unseemly parts of ourselves out of our consciousness. Thus, when the unwelcome and challenging others intrude into our carefully polished self-image our first tendency is to designate them as the unacceptable other and eliminate them. We can, at such a moment, confuse this worship of self-image with worship of God. The kingdom is a place where, beyond appearances,  the deepest truth of the other is attended to and heard. Discernment can never begin with exclusion, but only first with encounter. Violence of any kind, with ourselves or others, is never a form of “worship to God.”

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.
And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.

Christian Wiman, After Dante

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