"This is true of my experience of the other in my long-standing dialogue with Buddhists, as it is of my meetings with Hindus during travels through India; it is even more true, surprisingly, of my more recent experience of three-way dialogue among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In trying to pass over, for example, to the Buddhists' experience of impermanence or to the Zen insistence on non-attachment even to God, and in trying to understand and appreciate the centrality of Halakhah for Jews or their sense of uniqueness and their wariness about dialogue, I have found myself trembling before the utter, or 'frightening,' Mystery of difference. It is a difference that I cannot comprehend, that sometimes threatens me, that chides or even laughs at my theories. I have thus experienced the religious Other as the totalitar aliter — the utterly other, the incommensurable, the incomprehensible. And so I have been experientially convinced that 'common essence' or 'common experience' are gossamer theories spun out by academicians who most likely have never felt the hard, obstructing reality of otherness. Confronting the religious Other as the utterly Other or overwhelming Mystery, I must bow in silence.
"But at the same time, in a paradoxical process that I cannot explain, the religious Other, precisely by being an overwhelming Mystery, has more often than not become a 'fascinating,' inviting Mystery. What was so utterly different that I could not comprehend it also engaged me, beckoned me, held forth the promise of enriching me. This is a process that can, I think, only be experienced, not proven or clearly analyzed. In the interaction of mutual presence, in speaking and listening, in witnessing the commitments, the values, the rituals of others — the incommensurable, incomprehensible, utterly Other has become for me the possible, imaginable, the attractive. I cannot simply bow in silent respect before other believers; I must also learn from them, speak to them, somehow find myself in them. The cocoon of silence becomes the birth place of the fragile but inquisitive butterfly of conversation. Having experienced total, mysterious otherness, I find myself experiencing relatedness, even though I cannot explain such relatedness or say where it will lead. This is where Panikkar's notion of 'cosmic trust' becomes real — I find myself trusting that despite or because of our difference, we can and we must talk to, and learn from, and be changed by each other.
"For me, the suffering Other has provided help and guidance in coming to feel that the frightening otherness in my dialogue partner is an inviting other. When religious persons together listen to the voices of the suffering and oppressed, when they attempt together to respond to those needs, I have found that they are able to trust each other and to feel the truth and the power in each other's strangeness. The suffering Other becomes mediator, as it were, or conduit of trust and comprehension, between differing religious worlds. As I acted together with Jews and Buddhists in the Sanctuary Movement, as I prayed or meditated with them before the Federal Building in Cincinnati to protest U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military, as I heard their witness about why they were engaging in these activities of protest and concern, I felt that their strangeness was an inviting and affirming strangeness, one from which I could learn.
"And so my image of the religious Other as a frightening and fascinating Mystery has been complemented by an image of them as fellow travelers. By this I do not mean that we are traveling toward some kind of eschatological or other-worldly realization of truth or fulfillment. Rather, my experience— and my trust — is that as followers of various religious paths, we all can and do experience a common concern and a common responsibility to respond, as religious persons, to the widespread human and ecological suffering and injustice that are threatening our species and our planet. I am not saying that all religious persons are concerned about such this-worldly suffering and crisis. But I can say, from my own experience and from reading about the experience of others, that a growing number of believers from most religious paths are so concerned — and are experiencing themselves as fellow travelers and fellow actors with persons from other faiths."