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Cultures of Encounter

By: Katherine Marshall

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

Two starting points frame and color discussions about “cultures of encounter.” The first is anxiety about deep and often bitter polarization and tensions that divide communities within and across nations. At their worst, tensions fuel communal conflicts and violent acts and encrust identities in ways that highlight differences. They can fuel scapegoating of specific groups up to and including genocide. But even in far better, less fraught circumstances polarization can stymie social harmony and impede peaceful and creative governance and life. It can shut down the opportunities that are part of diversity. The second starting point, drawing on, inter alia, wide global experience with interfaith and other “civilizational” dialogue, focuses more specifically on differences and divides that have religious identities and values at their core. They hark back to Hans Kung’s famous saying that there can be no peace in the world without peace among religions.

Where polarization (political, economic, social) is the starting point, a primary effort is often simply to understand the underlying causes of divisions as the first step towards bridging divides. These causes often have deep roots, in history, memories of past harm and grievances, inequalities, especially when they are seen as profoundly unfair, and perceptions of fundamental gulfs in values that thwart aspirations and even the basics of life (diet, dress, education) of some groups. Untangling the causes of divisions, the rancor around them, and especially the narratives that drive them, is a first step. Thus curiosity, listening, and understanding are vital action measures of encounter. Another approach, perhaps a sequel, focuses on finding and articulating common ground and establishing it as a foundation for working together towards worthwhile ends. This can be an abstract ideal but often more usefully has tangible and actionable features, centered in the first instance on a common project like protecting sacred sites, a better school, or building a community that is secure and hospitable.

The challenges when differences or divisions among religions is central have obvious similarities to broader social and political gulfs but also differences. Religious divides (between or within religious communities) can center on differences in beliefs and practices that some view as intrinsically unbridgeable, for example where the depth of truth claims curtails discussion. Deep lurking suspicions often surround what are termed proselytizing objectives (perceptions that the goal is to win converts). The question arises as to whether indeed there a distinctive fervor in these religious passions and divides. The fuzzy borders and understandings of extremism might suggest such features, though there are ideologies that fuel passions without foundations that most would term religious. Perhaps the deepest challenges for a culture of encounter are to address these fears and hesitations that divide on religious grounds. However, experience suggests that even where divides are cast in religious terms (or when religious beliefs are seen as deeply rooted in tensions), the anatomy of tensions and divides almost always has multiple roots that can be deeply intertwined. Again, understanding and untangling is a first task.

A common anxiety in deliberate encounters among religious communities surrounds fears of possible syncretism or blunting of core beliefs when interreligious cooperation and even dialogue are at issue. Some groups prefer to abstain from deliberate common efforts. But, many testimonies suggest, people learn from encounters with others and a common assertion is that knowing more about others can deepen one’s own faith. Among assets often ascribed to religious communities are relatively high levels of trust in a time of deep trust deficits that hamper efforts at every level. Probing the significance of trust including its erosion is a priority task for encounter.

The nature of pluralism is a central challenge for building the desired culture that supports, values, and encourages encounter. How are pluralism and diversity understood and approached? A central feature of modern societies is their diversity, with different communities living alongside each other, often in dynamic, constantly shifting patterns. Projections to the future suggest that these patterns will increase. For some this diversity is seen as threatening and discussions of pluralism and its impact on social cohesion can be fractious. A rather hackneyed set of metaphors is suggestive of how challenges of social, cultural, and religious diversity can be seen. Is the essential idea that communities with different histories, traditions and ethos will tend to blend and merge, as in a soup, or is the ideal closer to a salad, where the ingredients complement one another but maintain a near total character and integrity? Norms of different societies differ as to common expectations of citizens and, more specifically, how religious differences fit within these common norms. There is an abundance of positive examples to draw on as well as ones that are less inspiring. Establishing social norms about diverse interests is thus a fundamental task for encounter.

Interreligious dialogue and action in its many forms offers instruments and experience that can well serve a culture of encounter. What some term an interreligious movement takes innumerable forms, situated at the most global levels (Religions for Peace, for example) but also national and within local communities, even families. Ventures span a wide range from theological and intellectual to specific efforts that may respond to incidents or specific problems. Some extend over decades while others have a more immediate focus. At their best, interreligious approaches share ideals that emphasize respect, the critical importance of listening and still more hearing the other, a combination of rigorous analysis and storytelling, curiosity and interest in difference as well as a constant focus on common, shared values and objectives. Peacebuilding is a central part of the self-understanding of many interreligious efforts, both to address tensions among religious groups but also to bring the theology and practice of peacebuilding, seen as a central mission and gift of religious traditions, to the task of “healing the world.”