Seeing through a Glass Darkly: A Culture of Encounter

By: Erin Cline

November 30, 2021

Creating a Culture of Encounter

In a recent editorial, Baylor University Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Robert M. Baird writes that as a college student, he began to appreciate being part of a tradition “going all the way back to Socrates who argued that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Socrates viewed himself as a gadfly with a God-given task of stimulating individuals to think, to evaluate critically the principles guiding their lives.” But in addition, as a student at a Christian university, he also learned to see the mind “as a gift of God and the disciplined development of the mind as a moral and religious obligation. Quite specifically, I was led to see that devotion to the critical life of the mind is one of the ways we acknowledge the religious insight that as limited creatures of God, we are not God. And since we are not, we, indeed, always see through a glass darkly.”

Perhaps this insight, more than any other, lies at the core of Fratelli Tutti. When Pope Francis describes “a culture of encounter” that is characterized by a stance of humility, generosity, and patience toward those who think and live differently, he draws on a conviction that all Christians share: that to acknowledge belief in God means to acknowledge our own finitude in the face of the infinite.

When Pope Francis describes ‘a culture of encounter’ that is characterized by a stance of humility, generosity, and patience toward those who think and live differently, he draws on a conviction that all Christians share.

Among other things, this means that we must recognize our own limitations, including the reality that we are probably not right about everything. We have good reasons, then, from a theological standpoint, to listen to those with whom we disagree, for what they have to say might have some truth to it. Indeed, as John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, we ought to be eager to engage in open dialogue with those who disagree with us, and not only because what they have to say might be true or partly true. Such dialogue, Mill argues, can help us to get clearer about what we believe and why, because the truth becomes clearer in contrast with error. It may also prevent our own beliefs from becoming “dead dogma”—beliefs that lie dormant, unquestioned, and therefore unlived and unrealized.

There is a clear and direct line of connection between the Church’s social teaching under Pope Francis and the Vatican II vision of the Catholic Church in dialogue with the modern world. This vision of human solidarity is grounded in the vision articulated at the Second Vatican Council:

One is the community of all people, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. God’s providence, manifestations of goodness, and saving design extend to all people, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in God’s light.

The council continues:

[T]he Church therefore exhorts her sons and daughters, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these people.

In an address entitled “Companions in Mission,” Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus from 2008 to 2016, described ecumenism as “a new and essential way to be Catholic today and that inter-religious dialogue—between Christians and those of non-Christian religions or those of secular faith—should be made a Jesuit apostolic priority.” I argue in my 2018 book, A World on Fire: Sharing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with Other Religions, that this work should include drawing upon and adapting the Spiritual Exercises in order to share them more widely, not only among Christians but with members of other faith traditions, as well. The current Jesuit superior general, Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., announced in 2019 that showing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises is to be the first of four Universal Apostolic Preferences for the Society of Jesus over the next decade.

We should expect that by sharing contemplative practices, or engaging in dialogue about the reasons why we hold our beliefs, we will, as Fr. Nicolás put it, be “enriched by members of our own faith, but also by people from other religious traditions, those men and women of good will…with whom we labor in seeking a more just world.” He adds, “It should not cause surprise that Jesuits, whose originating charism dictates that they attempt to discern and find God present and laboring in all things, might also try to find that same God working in and present to all persons, whatever their identities, traditions, cultures or religions.” He stresses that Jesuits are committed to engaging with Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and even agnostic coworkers in their own works, quoting the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus: “The Society desires strong relationships in mission with as many collaborators in the Lord’s vineyard as possible.”

We all see through a glass darkly, and we all ought to expect to learn something new—and even be open to amending our views—when we participate in a culture of encounter.

The allusion to Luke 10:2 is interesting to consider in light of a culture of encounter. Jesus sends the first 72 disciples out on mission, telling them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus instructs them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis draws upon this remarkable vision rooted in the Gospel and in the Society of Jesus when he invites us to engage in the “art of encounter,” and to be open to finding God in all people, cultures, and religions, as we become more aware of our own finitude. He envisions “a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable” (FT, 215). We all see through a glass darkly, and we all ought to expect to learn something new—and even be open to amending our views—when we participate in a culture of encounter.

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