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Towards the Cultivation of Response-ability for a New Culture of Encounter

By: Barbara Schellhammer

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

Over and over again Pope Francis highlights the importance of proximity for the creation of new social ties and cultural bonds–particularly in light of interreligious and intercultural challenges. For me this call for proximity means above all that we need to experience each other–knowing about each other is not enough. Knowledge, the notion of understanding, even empathy, entails and transpires unequal power relationships. We long for and seek to handle the alienating otherness of the other instead of honestly becoming aware of our own discomfort and anxiety. Handling the other means that we don’t have to question ourselves; it means that we can stay where we are and who we are. We stay in our comfort zone by seizing and appropriating the other. Experiencing each other entails entering a dialogue in which I let go of my ego-logical stance, in which I let myself be transformed through the encounter. This does not, however, mean that I would have to give up myself–quite the contrary. I bring myself into the dialogue and shape my self in or through it. I come out of it being even more myself, although or rather because I am transformed.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguishes three kinds of dialogue: “technical dialogue,” which results out of the need for objective knowledge and its instrumentalization; “monologue disguised as dialogue,” which we often find in so-called participatory approaches that are still driven by one’s own thinking and knowing; and “genuine dialogue,” which can take place in spoken or silent form. The latter involves our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. It happens in a place where each of us really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation. This turning to the other occurs “in all truth,” Buber states. It is what he calls a “turning of the being.”

To “turn my being” or “being turned” in that way can be a daunting experience, as I have to reach out for you, leaving the stable ground of who I am and what I know. Thus, one cannot just demand such a “genuine dialogue,” such an existential encounter. Pope Francis is right–people have to be ready for it. But what does that mean? Encountering the other involves risk, it exposes and affects us–particularly if the other thinks or believes differently and challenges us in profound ways. It is difficult to respond when we are afraid and agitated. We tend to fall back into instinctual reactions: fight, flee, or freeze. “The problem is not that we have doubts and fears,” Francis states in his message at the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2019. “The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist. In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and ability to encounter the other.”

That is why I see a most important task in the process of creating a culture of encounter in the cultivation of “response-ability,” the ability to respond to otherness. It is precisely this practice which is the new culture of encounter that we (together with Pope Francis) aim at. It starts with what I describe with the German term umwendung, which means “turning around” to ourselves, to our fears, hopes, and beliefs, instead of opening to the otherness of the other. This involves the engagement with unknown parts in ourselves, with everything we dislike and oppress in ourselves. Here I also talk about the development of “alien-ability,” because this process of openly engaging with myself becomes most difficult when we are confronted with something that is alienating, that paradoxically shows itself by withdrawing itself from us, which is present in its absence (Edmund Husserl’s definition of the alien).

Culture is not only what we have in terms of cultural artefacts, norms, values, symbols; culture is a practice. It is a practice full of tension–or rather a practice which exercises, crafts, and cultivates that tension–a tension balancing between openness on the one hand and self-assurance on the other. One without the other risks falling into dangerous extremes: diffusion or essentialism (Francis talks about a “culture of walls”). Thus, culture is the process of jointly cultivating a fragile and dynamic “web of meaning” (Clifford Geertz). It has to be adaptable and resistant at the same time in order to be able to respond to the complex challenges of a globalizing world.

“All real living is meeting,” Buber writes in a well-known passage of I and Thou. Through our meeting we create actuality–a reality that belongs neither to me, nor to you, because it happens between us. Buber says it happens “through grace”; it is a spiritual experience that cannot be manufactured, and yet we have to be open for it to happen. Francis talks about a “generous encounter.” I think we have to make sure that we are ready for such encounters; we have to exercise our ability to respond, particularly to what alienates us. The culture of encounter, the creation of new social ties and meaningful bonds that we seek, will only grow out of lived experience.