Building the Culture of Encounter

Continuing the conversation with Paul Elie
Pope Francis greets the crowd after celebrating the beatification of Pope John Paul I (CNS Photo/Paul Haring).

Paul Elie’s recent Commonweal piece on the meaning of “encounter” is timely for many reasons. As he notes, Pope Francis recommends a “culture of encounter” repeatedly in Laudato si’ and elsewhere. And the idea’s intersection with the theme of synodality is immediately obvious, if also clearly undeveloped.   

What are some of the related themes—for lack of a better word—that either anticipate or at least contribute to the clarification of “encounter”? One might think of Chicago’s 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in conjunction with the World’s Fair, which Thomas Albert Howard pointed out in his comprehensive essay “Enough Bromides” [Commonweal, May 2021]. Then, from an inner-Church perspective, one might think of the basic concept of collegiality at Vatican II and the various communitarian models of the Church that developed subsequently. We remember the watchwords that hierarchical leadership conceived as exercised “sub et cum Petro”: shared responsibility, mutual respect and exchange, a participatory community not only in liturgy but in doctrine and governance—but which unfortunately also often turned into debating points as much as into inspirational ideas. 

Of great (and all but revolutionary) importance, of course, was the Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra aetate, which clearly endorses interreligious dialogue. There followed a series of significant and productive interreligious dialogues organized by the Catholic Church and its sister churches, as the Council spoke of them. With first-rate scholarship in an ecumenical spirit, they produced major documents on liturgy, doctrine, and social questions. Here “dialogue” was not only a concept, but a practice. It was a structured encounter with varying practices and procedures but with the expectation of finding common—and new—agreements (or at least mutually respected understandings). 

The pastoral letters of the American Bishops in the 1980s were examples also of dialogue, with the drafting committees holding hearing sessions that seriously influenced the bishops’ final documents. Bishops, theologians, and laity “met together” to talk over issues of war and peace and the economy. It was clearly not a scholastic exercise but a practical encounter of different perspectives within the Church in the United States. The “dialogue” was structured for experiment, discovery, and mutual encouragement. And it took time. All elements, I think, of what a significant “culture of encounter” requires today. 

Then there are the lessons that faith-based community organizing can have for the synodal process, as Michael N. Okińczyc-Cruz discussed in his Commonweal piece in July 2022: making an intentional commitment to building relationships, recognizing people’s vision and aspirations, and devising an effective strategy for achieving goals. An emphasis on building relationships brings about a radical shift for people active in faith-rooted organizing—a full understanding that one can’t accomplish anything meaningful in a community if one “goes at it alone.” Okińczyc-Cruz believes such organizing can make vital contributions to the synodal process. “There are no shortcuts when it comes to building a Church that reflects the liberating spirit of Jesus,” he writes “Building relationships with one another will help in forging a robust and ambitious moral and spiritual path for our Church, so that we can advance justice and equality and realize a greater approximation of God’s kingdom.” This is again an inner-Church perspective, but one with strong resonances with anything that can realistically be called a “culture of encounter.” 

An emphasis on building relationships brings about a radical shift for people active in faith-rooted organizing.

Various forms of “cosmopolitanism” (citizenship of the world) have their origins in Greek thought, from the Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century BCE through to the Stoics of the third century CE (who were very influential in early Christianity). Perhaps the most prominent single example of cosmopolitan thought is found in Immanuel Kant’s “Toward Perpetual Peace” in 1795. For Kant, the ideal citizen was not a freely responsible member of her own society alone but of a world society. (Kwame Anthony Appiah masterfully develops the idea in his 2006 book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.) Kant’s position is not meant to be an abstract guide but a concrete goal. 

There are also many secular counterparts to planned encounter—in universities, think tanks, and international associations, for example. To name but one: In 1965 David Rockefeller established the Americas Society, an organization dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas. Its mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of inter-American relationships. 

In the United States alone there are also major communitarian thinkers whose work should enlighten our understanding of “encounter,” among them surely Amartya Sen and Michael Sandel (as well as, in a more popular vein, David Brooks). These are authors who have expertly diagnosed the fragmentation of community in our country and suggested new mentalities to bring about what amounts to a conversion to community. 

They are also realists who recognize the difficulty of steering our ship of state in a new direction, together with other nations and cultures that are wary of renewed colonialism and the imposition of purportedly Western (universalist) values. But whatever one calls the new vision, it is certainly not simply an “enlightened capitalism” or a postmodern liberalism. 

Appiah advocates, in fact, a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Without grounding in one’s own culture and its language, people all too easily become idealistic exporters of uncritical grand schemes. (Think of the committed environmentalist who at home is a NIMBY opponent of plans for his own community. Or, as Rousseau famously quipped, cosmopolitans who “boast that they love everyone, so as to have the right to love no one.”) One might also find a close parallel to Appiah’s conception in the development of comparative theology by Frank Cloooney, SJ, of Harvard Divinity School, which is grounded in one’s own faith but openly and sympathetically studies another. It is also interesting to note that well before Appiah’s book appeared, a faculty committee at Georgetown University, discussing over a full year how to characterize the university as a Catholic institution, coined the term “centered pluralism.” 

Creating a culture of encounter supposes serious invitation to other cultures to share the experience.

What key elements for a true culture of encounter might we draw from these and similar considerations on cosmopolitanism, dialogue, communitarianism? Thomas Banchoff, of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. has helpfully analyzed the “virtue structure” of true encounter. Archbishop Paul Gallagher has called it “a call to responsibility in an age of entitlement.” Let me suggest several structural requirements. 

The first is that creating a culture of encounter supposes serious invitation to other cultures to share the experience. Here, countless forms of psychological and social preparation will be needed—but by no means legislated. Genuinely to meet “someone else” (the fabled “other”) presupposes what? A welcoming manner. Modesty. Prudence. Patience (as Banchoff emphasizes). And a long list of other virtues of which none of us can be assured of more than a few. 

The process, particularly of cultures encountering cultures, takes time—and proceeds under a dark sky of possible oppression (from colonialist co-optation to outright war). And that is not the only risk. Truly to encounter another culture requires a certain suspension of loyalty to one’s own, its most cherished beliefs, doctrines, and practices. If we thought we “had” the truth (in its full, world-shaping meaning), then why enter into genuine dialogue with another culture? 

The answer can only be that we intimate, and for Christians the Spirit of God inspires us, that the truth of the Holy Mystery is truly incomprehensible, beyond our grasp, always admitting of only a partial appropriation of its enlivening, encouraging, liberating, and redemptive reality. So the most ardent Catholics may find, as they encounter other cultures, religions, and searching people, that our belief in the Petrine office may be compatible with accepting other ways of structuring religious community; that our Marian doctrines may be eminently worthy to speak of the Mother of Jesus but not necessarily the mode of piety of other faiths; even that Jesus as the Name above every other name does not properly “compete” with holy figures of other traditions. 

The great John S. Dunne, in “A Search for God in Time and Memory,” offered a model of such an expansion of consciousness beyond an “either/or” mentality when he wrote of Christians “passing over to the other and back to their own faith community” without leaving or compromising their Catholic faith. But Thomas Albert Howard insightfully reminds us of some of the pitfalls of religious dialogue, among them assuming in an excessively Western way that “religion” is a genus that particular religions relate to as species; selectively determining who in fact will speak for a particular religion (the “representivity problem”); neglecting the contributions of art and music; over-privileging elites; and relating violence to religious grounds when many other social factors are actually in play. 

And so the Holy Father’s encouragement that we cultivate a culture of encounter is at once promising in the extreme but likewise equally challenging, a “reason,” as Howard puts it, “for both hope and concern.” Among comprehensive students of interreligious dialogue, he is one of the most judicious and balanced, holding that such dialogue represents “a new dimension of human religiosity” but also suggesting that “perhaps the next stage of interreligious dialogue should be a willingness to re-open the age-old question of religious truth, as confoundingly difficult as this may seem.” 

We seem invited into a boat on a stormy sea that Jesus alone masters but that the Father always holds in ongoing creation. 

 

Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, is President Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Director of Mission, Jesuit Refugee Service USA. 

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