Julia Mourão Permoser is visiting professor of political science at the University of Vienna and senior research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Innsbruck. Her research focuses on the relationship between migration, religion, liberalism, and the European Union. Her publications have appeared in the European Journal of Migration and Law, Religion, State, and Society and the Journal of European Public Policy, among others.
In his illuminating keynote address at the conference on “The Culture of Encounter: An Imperative for a Divided World,” Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., highlights one crucial aspect of the notion of encounter. Encounter, he points out, must be cultivated first and foremost within our own cultures, before it can be a tool to develop peaceful relations between peoples of different cultures. He points out that the path towards encountering humanity and seeing in each and every person “a citizen of the world” must be developed through three consecutive stages. The first stage consists in a critical reflection and awareness about one’s own culture. The second stage consists in understanding and valuing other human beings and their cultures. The third stage relates to mutual enrichment: sharing with others the value of one’s own (critically examined) culture and being enriched by the contributions of cultural diversity. It is by following this tripartite path that the intercultural encounter “becomes a driving force toward social justice, fraternity, and peace.”
When I first read Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, I was tempted to think about the message of the encyclical primarily in intercultural terms. The notion of fraternity and of the culture of encounter is indeed an imperative in a divided world, I thought: a world where neighboring countries are at war with one another; a world where borders are opened to the rich and powerful, but violently enforced against the most vulnerable; a world in which so many societies are plagued by racism and discrimination.
But Fr. Sosa opens one’s eyes to the importance of thinking about the necessity of encountering and mastering the divides within our own cultures. And indeed, which message could be more pertinent in today’s times? If we once expected the divisions between geographical regions and religious communities to determine the global agenda, it has, by now, become clear that deep-seated divisions cut right through our own societies and communities. The “clash of civilizations” has taken the place of the “culture wars” as the main challenge of our times. Our societies are divided along many lines, including those of values and of culture. The culture wars that divide our societies are fought over a number of key themes that are divisive because they touch upon deeply felt and cherished moral values: the place of women in society; the role of sexuality in our lives; the value of non-human vs. human life; and many other topics that are at once ethical and political, religious and social, deeply personal and acutely public in nature. The key insight I take from Fr. Sosa’s lecture is this: we must not eschew dialogue on these topics. We must not make them taboo or remain within our bubble where everyone shares our own values. Rather, we must face the challenge of seeking the encounter with those that we disagree with.
But how can we open ourselves to the encounter with those who hold fundamentally opposite moral visions than ours in matters involving deeply entrenched values and principles?
Writing about the importance of the encounter within and between cultures, Fr. Sosa refers to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. After departing Jerusalem, Fr. Sosa recalls, the disciples had interpreted the arrest, passion, and death of Jesus as a complete failure of the mission to liberate Israel, and as a result turned themselves away from his teachings. What does the risen Jesus do to promote an encounter in such a situation? He listens to them. He “accompanies them and listens attentively to their story.” He seeks to understand the categories with which they interpret the world. He seeks to see the world through their eyes and with their categories. Only then, “using their own language and their cultural categories,” write Fr. Sosa, does Jesus “propose another way of understanding what happened.” And he does so, not as a teacher–not from the perspective of one who knows the truth, of one who holds the key to interpret the world and declare what is right and what is wrong, what is natural and what is unnatural – but as a fellow human being who holds a different point of view. Fr. Sosa writes that Jesus “shares his own experience of the events, using fresh cultural categories that throw new light on the experience of his disciples.”
Without understanding and dialogue, there can be no encounter, and true understanding is based upon the ability to listen and to activate a change in perspective–a change that happens first and foremost within ourselves before it can be triggered within the Other. In the words of Fr. Sosa, “The road to Emmaus is a round trip, back and forth across the bridge built on the foundations of the dimension of cultural encounter that enriches and transforms.”