The Otherness of Us


Sometimes, a question in an interview can be thrown with a backward spin. Recently, I was asked, “What do you say to people who claim that religion is the cause of war?”

The answer to that was easy. “Religion doesn’t cause war unless it is corrupted by politics.”

Much later, I thought we had missed the most important question: “Why do people need religion?”

As far as we know, we are the only species that have this restlessness, this desire to put shape to the sense of Otherness that invades our lives.

There is no evidence that animals have such an inclination.

It has always been in us. The history of humankind fills us with searches for meaning beyond ordinary sensory experience.

We have created religious art and artefacts for thousands of years.

It’s as though we are constantly reaching out for a greater reality we have forgotten. It lies wordless within us, and in the knowing of our unknowing, we call it God.

We recognise it in the parables of creation and culture and in the richness of the rituals we make for it. Great teachers help us to grow in its mystery but still can’t explain it.

What we can say for sure about the Otherness is generous. It is abundant. It will fill any space we make for it and take us to a larger place.

It brings me to my life-long connection with Christ Jesus, whose Otherness becomes Oneness.

I reflect on that.

Then I think of my youngest son who, after two hours of filming the Dalai Lama, became a Buddhist, and my friend Nourina whose face shines with the beauty of Islam.

I acknowledge a wise Hindu friend, Swami Damodarananda who was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and had that statue in his temple alongside the usual Hindu aspects of God.

Then there was Rabbi Larry who lectured in a Wisconsin seminary and emailed me Torah studies all about the Otherness that could not be named.

For Catholics, Otherness makes us one in the Eucharist, where the presence of Jesus reminds us that life is all about being blessed, broken and handed out to the world.

The abundance in all religious traditions takes me back to a present I received for my nineteenth birthday.

It was a tiny wooden Buddha.

My fundamentalist stage of growth could not cope with it.

I put it in the fire.

I actually thought my religious intolerance was virtue.

Twenty years later, in Taiwan, I walked by a river gorge where white marble boulders sat in blue water, and bush covered banks were alive with butterflies.

I heard a waterfall and saw a small path leading to it.

The path went down through a mist of spray and disappeared behind falling water.

Behind the waterfall, was a small shrine with a white marble Buddha and some joss sticks in a jar.

The beauty of that shrine with light dancing through the curtain of water brought a spacious feeling of peace and healing.

I felt Jesus Christ smiling in the white marble.

Later, more words came – fire and water, crucifixion and resurrection, the abundance of the Otherness.

Now, all of that brings me back to the big question that was missed in the interview.

Why do we need religion?

That answer also is simple.

It’s because we are religious beings.

This is our sacred inheritance.

The sense of Otherness and the need to acknowledge it is within us all.

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.


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