Romantic Distance vs. Vexing Proximity: the difficulty of real up-close interfaith encounters

My research on interreligious dialogue and engagement has reinforced an old cliché: absence makes the heart grow fonder. When two people are distant from each other, it is easy to idealize each other. It is easy to recall them enshrouded in mists and to dream of an incandescent, ecstatic reunion. It is easy to gleefully ponder peaceful Buddhists, loving Christians, intellectual Jews, dutiful Muslims, and obedient Confucians.

This distant romanticization happens on an interpersonal level but it also happens on a larger scale, with institutions and ideals. Catholics in South America and Asia (ie, far away from the Vatican) tend to be enthusiastically devout, to think of the papacy as God’s hand on Earth. And in my ethnographic interviews about interfaith dialogue, people who don’t do it think it is an incredibly effective and natural pursuit.

The opposite of that cliché is also true: nearness makes the heart grow critical. Being up-close can be very uncomfortable because you are forced to see the real, irreconcilable differences that you could idealize or disregard from a distance. The anxiety of difference is so much to bear that we may suppress these differences, or use them as an excuse to abandon altogether the painful contrasts. Intimate relationships are incredibly challenging, as proximity forces incompatibility to the surface and shatters idealistic, romanticized projections of the Other. In my ethnographic research, I find that people who actually do interfaith dialogue are altogether critical, realistic and doubtful about its efficacy. They know exactly how complicated and exhausting it is to inspire widespread transformation of attitudes and behaviors.

Also, getting up close means you develop a sharpened sense of how truly unknowable other people are. We can “know” each other better when we can use labels, generalizations, and sweeping descriptions. But on the granulate level, we can continue to break levels down into infinite parts, and “knowing” starts to seem less and less thorough. The closer you get to someone, the more you know that they are irreducibly unknowable, even to themselves. As Rilke said, “even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist.”

We also see the inversion of idealism and proximity in Rome amongst typical Italian Catholics. Historically, Romans have characteristically displayed a sense of humor, factuality, and defiance toward the Church in their midst.  For example, Vatican state license plates read SCV (Stato della Citta del Vaticano). Romans joke that it stands for Se Cristo vedessi…. (if only Christ could see this…!). They also say, morto un papa se ne fa un’altro… (if the Pope dies, we’ll make another one). Today, while the Pope may be a folk celebrity in many parts of the world, in Rome the papacy has been an imminently human institution, deglamorized through familiarity, acknowledged by media and vernacular idioms as humanly corrupt and politically astute. In fact, anticlericalism is a longstanding tradition of Romans. In 1870 when Rome was secured as the Italian capital city, hoards of Romans rioted to promote their anticlerical, national interests. The popular frenzy swelled, and when Pope Pius IX’s casket was carried in procession to internment, Romans smeared it with the guts of rotting fruits and vegetables, and nearly ransacked and thrust it into the Tiber River.

In Professor Patrick Allitt’s lectures on American Religious History for the Great Courses, he references something called “The Wasatch Effect” in his lecture on the history of Mormonism, which describes the inverse relationships between religious piety and proximity to the “ground zero” of that religion. “The Wasatch Effect” shows that many young Mormons grow more critical and disenfranchised with the LDS church the closer they live to Salt Lake City, or the more they progress in their long mission trips.

Psychoanalytic theorist Jessica Benjamin writes a lot about the anxiety of difference. She says, “the breakdown of tension between self and other in favor of relating as subject and object is a common fact of mental life. For that matter, breakdown is a common feature within intersubjective relatedness–what counts is the ability to restore or repair the relationship….relatedness is characterized not by continuous harmony but by continuous disruption and repair…If the clash of two wills is an inherent part of intersubjective relations, then no perfect environment can take the sting from the encounter with otherness. The question becomes how inevitable elements of negation are processed.”

This is the paradox of pluralism. The further we get, the more beautiful and easy it seems. The closer we get, the realer it gets, and the tensions arise. This is the demand of pluralism–that we continue to dance with partners who hear and step to a different tune entirely. The important thing is that we keep dancing, even if the dance floor looks a little uncoordinated. Even if the dancing is sometimes painful, or scary.

The encounter with otherness is only survivable, physically and psychically, if the encounter is contained by ethical principles of nonviolent behavior. In dialogues robust and diverse enough to uncover irreconcilable polarities, parties must accept respectful, irreconcilable difference. This difference can be threatening, but it can also serve to strengthen convictions. An assertion of the ego-less, trans-religious, radically inclusive force of love may be stronger than ever after dialogues with people who tout exclusivist claims. Those people may believe that it is indeed their love for the other and for the activity of dialogue that allows them to sit in the uncomfortable presence of a fundamental difference.

At the end of the day, when in dialogue with someone who doesn’t agree with what I KNOW to be true, it is my own responsibility to reflect and investigate whether my insistence on my claims is an act of ego, the result of cognitive dissonance, or a simple statement of I AM. (Exodus 3:14–“God said to Moses, ‘I AM who I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”)

It’s not easy to get up close. It might be impossible for some people, for various reasons having to do with temperament, upbringing, resources and civic conditions. But I believe that those gifted with the ability to bear the anxiety of absolute difference—those who have the ability to say I AM—must lead the way. As any Spiderman fan knows, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I should also add the end of that wonderful thought from Rilke: “once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.”

Photo courtesy of the author.

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