to see god face to face—part III: toward a theopoetics of encounter

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part III: toward a theo-poetics and of encounter

    “I confess my lack of piety: I am unable to love God. I am unable to love anything in the 
    abstract. I need a face, a voice, the gaze of an eye, the touch of a hand.”
            —Rubem Alves, Transparencies of Eternity

 

    “We constantly fail to encounter the other as Other. Time and again we ignore or deny the 
    singularity of the Other—we don’t see even when the face stands in front of us. We still 
    need, it seems, ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’—and bodies capable of embracing without 
    grasping. Are we not confronting a paradox here? The possibility of transformation lies 
    in the encounter with the transcendence in the flesh of the Other, and yet how can we meet 
    the other as Other—as transcendent to us—if we are not ourselves transformed?”
            —Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence 

 
 

I remember Miguel. How could I forget this man and the moment of our encounter — the conditions of our encounter? I was traveling through the Borderlands of the US and Mexico with classmates from a seminar at Harvard Divinity School studying immigration in the United States. On that day in March 2015, Miguel’s world and ours touched at El Comedor, a Jesuit-run shelter and dining area, and the first building one crosses after being deported from the US into Nogales, Mexico. Miguel, who was a permanent US resident, had just been separated from his family and deported for a “moral” infraction that morning.

 

Yes, I remember Miguel. Most of all, I remember Miguel’s eyes — their weariness spoke of disorientation, sorrow and longing. His wife, daughter, and son — US citizens — remained in California. His daughter was applying for colleges. I remember how his eyes beamed with pride and immense love while tears of joy streaked his face as he talked about her. But then, almost immediately, they were pierced by worry and trauma, trauma at the pain he knew his wife and children were enduring — that he was enduring — in his swift and unexpected deportation and their uncertain future. As his story wove its way into our own, Miguel’s eyes gleamed with the fullness of his singular infinitude.

 

There is much I don’t know — and never could know—about Miguel. Yet his face and eyes, his joy and sorrow, have carved for themselves a manger in mind and heart, a seat in me`ah—a Biblical Hebrew word rich in imagery that is, sadly, often lost in its figurative translation to English as “heart,” but which literally means “bowels.”[1] Yes, to encounter anOther is to be touched, to be marked at one’s visceral, bodily depths. Indeed, my encounter with Miguel continues, both of us and the multiplicity we carry being born again–re-incarnated–every day, for

    “The transcendent Other leaves her trace in our flesh. The traces of Others whom we have 
    encountered in the past are thus also present in our subsequent encounters with other Others. 
    In each encounter, the self and the Other find themselves in indirect relation to multiple 
    Others and thus with other times and places that are not fully present, here and now. All of 
    those times and places meet, as it were, in today’s encounter…[as] we open ourselves to new 
    incarnations of their transcendence.”[2]

 

Have you ever paused long enough to peer into the tehom–into the primordial “depths”–of another’s eyes? To gaze upon the vast horizon to which they open us is to be touched and forever transformed at the depths of oneself. There is something undeniable, extra-ordinary, even magical that happens to us when “the gleam of transcendence in the flesh of the Other…induces in us a feeling of wonder, surprise, and astonishment”—when we come to see each Other not merely as “something through which an external divinity shows itself, but the very brilliance of God.”[3] Indeed, how, then, could we meet the other as Other—as transcendent to us—and not ourselves be transformed?[4] We cannot!

 

Through encounter we are “shaping each other’s otherness toward new births”[5]—metaphorically, theologically, sure, but also literally, physically, for our bodies “are porously open to each other,” “always in a state of exchange.”[6] Boundaries exist, “but they exist temporally and spatially, meaning that they are always in a state of emerging and passing away.” Our skin cells, our hair, our microscopic tissue are constantly being carried away on the winds of divine breath and “sometimes indiscriminately enter[] neighboring bodies in passing.”[7]

 

In the episode “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still” of his popular series, Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson invites his viewer to breathe with him. A brief moment later, he makes the seemingly fantastical and absurd statement that “we all just inhaled 100 million molecules that once passed through the lungs of every one who ever lived before us.” No, that’s not a typo. As he states again in an article for the Hayden Planetarium, “A single breathful draws in more air molecules than there are breathfuls of air in Earth’s entire atmosphere.” That means that some of the air you just breathed once passed through the lungs of Jesus and Mary and even Miguel. Indeed, “This process of flux and exchange characterizes bodies from conception.”[8]
 

From conception through death we are literally making each Other! We are made up of each Other!!!
 

Have you ever experienced encounter in this way–not only where you have seen the Other but where the Other has seen you (and your otherness)? A few years ago, I would not have even known what this question meant. But now—now I could never forget it! There is something undeniable, extra-ordinary, indeed magical that also happens to us when we are seen, when an Other’s touch pierces our own boundaries with a tenderness that whispers in our ear: I see you; no, I know I don’t comprehend you, but I do see you. I see that you are marked by a history of encounters—from once gaping scars now congealed to tender wounds only beginning to heal; you are marked in such a way that I—even you yourself—could never comprehend. For

You are
The Word enfleshed,
A library of sacred texts.
You are a calligraphic sketch,
A well-worn palimpsest.
In your tehomic depths,
In your bone and flesh,
Is etched
A universe’s history,
Of finitude, a virtual infinity.
Truth the tehom cannot enfold
Pours out through your flesh and bone.
Divine excess, like placenta flows
Subtending, opening, calling
“Let there be,” and
You are

Yes, to be seen, to be touched in this way is to be born anew, re-incarnated; it is to feel the cosmos shift; it is to experience a healing, a reconciliation that stuns poets to silence.

 

Once we open ourselves to the transcendence of the Other in encounter there is no returning, for in that intimate moment of vulnerability we discover how intricately and inextricably our humanity is intertwined. The earth and all that is in it transfigured before our face, we discover that the truth of the cosmos is not “I think, therefore I am,” but rather “I am human because I belong,”[9] for “to be born human is to be born angled toward an other and others.”[10] Indeed, we only realize our humanity as Others participate in it and as we participate in theirs. Thus it is to encounter the infinite multiplicity of divinity in its irreducibly singular incarnation. Thus it is to encounter the glory of God; to be fully human; to be fully alive.

 

Indeed, our response to the Other—especially in the face of one hanging from the gallows before us—“is not a secondary response to the encounter with God, but it’s primary moment.”[11] As in a manger in Bethlehem, at table in Capernaum, and the hillsides of Galilee; as on a mount called Golgotha and the road to Emmaus—still today: a single encounter with the Other alters histories and universes beyond our wildest imagining—if only we have narratives that open and move us to embrace each Others’ irreducible mystery as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

 
 

part IV: faint rumblings of an ethics of encounter

    “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because 
    your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”

            —Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970s

 

    “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. … Injustice 
    anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, 
    tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

            —Martin Luther King, Jr,. “Letter from a Birmingham jail”

 
 

Jon Ames, the grace-filled and aged country pastor in Marilynn Robinson’s masterpiece, Gilead, writes in a letter to his young son whom he will not live to see grow up: There is something important I must tell you, “which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person…it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”[12] Yes, to encounter an Other is to have a question put to you; or, perhaps, is to put yourself into question. It is to put the western narrative of individualistic altruism into question. It is to re-imagine ethics.

 

For many, charity, justice, and love are viewed hierarchically—even if unintentionally. In encounter, this narrative manifests as: I help you because I have what you need—because you are a poor, unfortunate soul, and I, in my comparable riches have much to offer you. I am moved to action through pity. I / We come to save you / them. As I have emphasized throughout, such a narrative is not only misguided in its predication on encounter as a one-way exchange, but it also inherently undermines human dignity.

 

The question that arises from our theopoetics of encounter, then, is this: what might our ethics look like if we saw our becoming from a place of inextricable interconnectedness, interdependence, interbeing? How might this differ from what often narrates our lives (if we’re honest with ourselves): an individualistic and self-aggrandizing “altruism”?

 

The implications of such a re-imagining and re-framing of ethics are nothing less than earth shifting; they are radical in the truest sense of the word: they go to the root! As Lila Watson, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many Others have given their bodies, indeed their very lives, to proclaim: (yes, hear the euangelion–“gospel” / “good news”–again, as if for the first time) our liberation, our freedom, our healing, our reconciliation, our salvation is bound together! All of these are relational realities. No one is an island. Injustice in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Pine Ridge, Gaza City, Nogales, the Tohono O’odham Nation–injustice anywhere–is injustice against all of us. Do we perceive it yet? Since before our birth, by no choosing of our own, we have been intrinsically interdependent. We begin and are ever on the Way, becoming, together.

 

 
 

postlude

I do not want to decipher the mystery. I want questions that provoke, evoke, inspire and impel–questions that carry me off my feet and, like the Breath of God, blow me where they will. I do not want answers that enclose and confine. “I want the sea and not the harbor.”[13] For

We are transfigurines
Bodies of glory as of one never seen
From stardust to stardust conceived and returning
Irreducible infinitude ever re-incarnating
Before each Other’s eyes, face, and body

Is our imagination faithful enough…
Is our faith imaginative enough…
Have we the openness to see
Divinity enfleshing humanity
Even if only in a mirror dimly?

 

 

/ / /

 
 

“provocations of incatenation”*

by eric j. ogi


 

there are songs inside of our souls
that we can hear in eagles’ wings,
in a caged bird taking to flight–
no walls or bars can hold it inside.

 

unraveling balls of thread
weave the blankets on our beds.
but they cover more than our weary souls,
they tie our hearts together and never let go
they never let go. . .

 

can you see your face in mine
when you look into my eyes
can you begin to paint a world you’ve never seen
beyond the foreground of your own reality?

 

are border walls our salvation’s crown?
the crucifixion of the Other, fear’s embodied song.
have we forgotten the story’s tune?
christ was crucified only to return.

 

yes, stories are what we need–
mirrors to infinitude beyond our grasping.
provocations of incatenation,
we are webs that can’t be undone,
we can’t be undone. . .

 

can you see your face in mine
when you look into my eyes
can you begin to paint a world you’ve never seen
beyond the foreground of your own reality?

 
 
 

*this song was birthed out of my travels through–and encounters with individuals in–Israel-Palestine and the US-Mexico borderlands (the latter for a class at Harvard Divinity School on immigration in America). the chorus–“can you see you face in mine…”–is a question i imagine being put to me by Others. it is a question that confronts, provokes, implicates, and ultimately invites into a new way of being.
 
 
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[1] Cf. Jeremiah 31:20; Isaiah 63:15; Lamentations 1:20.
[2] River, The Touch of Transcendence, 116-117.
[3] Ibid., 138.
[4] Ibid., 119.
[5] Ibid., 122.
[6] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 159.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday. 1999, 31.
[10] Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence, 129; here she is quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
[11] Ibid., 71.
[12] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. New York: Picador. 2006, 119.
[13] Rubem Alves, The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet, 9.

 

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