Interfaith Thought: The Otherness of Neighbors and Alterity of Ourselves

At its heart, I believe the idea of interfaith is about two things,

  1. the common experiences of believers across faith groups
  2. and the value of otherness.

It’s this “Otherness” I want to share with you, in hopes that we will find a greater thankfulness for this grand diverse creation.

Right now we are living in a world that feels smaller than ever before, but we are also experiencing profound pain as people’s cultures, beliefs, and moral foundations collide. It is sad to say but stereotypes frequently rule our encounters with one another, even as we try desperately to overcome this protective instinct. As we have all found, stereotypes don’t make us many friends.

At the core of this painful collision, is our under-appreciation of the value of otherness. We are taught to engage diversity by looking for a common self or a common thread that runs through all of humanity.

This is an honorable task;

Especially when you consider that we are all looking for a friend in this world.

Yet looking for similarities is only part of engaging diversity. We have to learn to love and to see others, not simply as an extension of our own selves, but as the stranger.

There is a story of Abraham in the Tanakh in Genesis 18:1-5. During this story, Abraham is looking out of his tent to the hillside. There he sees three strangers standing on the hill near him. When he sees them, he exits his tent and runs to meet them. Bowing down before these strangers, he opens his home to them and provides, rest, water to wash the dirt from their feet, and a great feast.

Here is a story about a man who has learned to see beyond his own tent. He has lifted his eyes to the stranger. Not only does he greet these strangers as they passed, but he engages in hospitality, and opens his home to them.

If we are going to embrace the idea of interfaith perhaps it is appropriate to begin with Abraham’s example. We have to learn to see beyond our own tent. The tent in a way represents the self and the things common to it. Abraham looks beyond what is common to him, and sees the foreigner and the stranger.

I was presented with this idea of seeing beyond your tent when the Burlington Clergy Group, not long ago, held a meeting in a sukkah. It was a new experience for me.

The idea of seeing beyond our own tent is more than looking for what we have in common. When you allow people to be what they truly are, to be the stranger, you create opportunities for virtues such as hospitality. When my brother comes to my house, you would find that I am not hospitable. Don’t imagine that when he comes over I throw a drink at him. He is my brother, I love him. This is not hospitality because he is family, everything I have is his. But when a stranger comes into my house, it allows me to entertain someone new, someone unlike me and my brother. To that person I show hospitality. I might even clean the house up a bit.

Similarly the virtue of compassion takes on new meaning when you demonstrate care for someone you do not know. My family has helped me many times when I have been in need. When my sister learned that her daughter had ultra-cycling bipolar disorder, we were all there for her and her daughter Taylor. But when we have compassion on a stranger we are doing something different because it is not compulsory. We could have just as easily walked on by, but we didn’t. We had compassion.

You see when we care for those who are like us, we are many times, acting on behalf of ourselves, or on behalf of common practices, or common rituals. Our lives are shaped by the liturgies of our tent. Stepping outside the tent forces us to engage our minds, and to practice ethics, and to put our virtuousness to the test.

After Abraham sees the strangers, he calls to his wife Sarah to help him provide a banquet for his guests. After the food is cooked, Abraham stands near them as they enjoy the feast under the shade of a tree. What a beautiful scene of one person’s altruism and love.

Here is the result:

Because of Abraham’s hospitality, the strangers pronounce a blessing on him and his wife Sarah, saying that they will have a son come next year.

What Abraham discovers, or at least what is revealed to him is that these strangers are not ordinary men but rather divine agents.

This is the miraculous truth of this story:

When you lift your eyes to the stranger, you may be surprised to find that what makes them “other”, adds to your own human experience.

So, follow Abraham out of your own tent, and let people give you a new revelation. Share yourself as well because to them you are the other, you are the stranger.

Christians like myself, have a common saying from the book of Hebrews, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

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