Religious Encounters, Communities of Conversation

By Mitchem, Stephanie Y. | Cross Currents, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Religious Encounters, Communities of Conversation


Mitchem, Stephanie Y., Cross Currents


Intimacy is a necessary, wonderful, and frightening aspect of human existence. We can think about intimacy in conjunction with religion, for we can have no experiences of spiritual and religious growth without intimate exchanges--that is, our encounters of each other. Older philosophers reminded us: no one is an island. Trying to live like self contained islands results in a loss of aspects of our humanity and we become unsure how to respond to any loving touch, even that of the Divine. I have begun to wonder if it is possible to be "religious" if one cannot be in relationship with a Divinity. More to the point, is it possible to be intimate if we never have encounters with other humans?

I began thinking about intimacy when I moved from the city of Detroit, Michigan--an urban, hip kind of setting--to the city of Columbia, South Carolina--dubbed a "city of neighborhoods" that runs at a much slow pace. I've had been introduced to family in the area and my family history in the state. I've met new neighbors in my new neighborhood. And I've begun to work with new colleagues in a new position. Beyond physical environment, I am learning that encounter is not simple. Encounters become defining moments as we enter into conversations with each other.

In conversations, we become more fully ourselves, more fully aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. Our encounters are opportunities that open doors to new aspects of our selves and of our abilities to understand and participate in community. In doing so, we live more fully human lives. We are beings with capacities for wisdom, acceptance, creativity, rejection. And even when we reject another, that becomes part of the process of defining our selves a bit more. We could choose to live at a level of permanent banality, and modern life in the United States offers many opportunities to plunge into the shallow end of life. But we may choose to develop relationship, and thus intimacy, and conversation become conduits to empathy, approbation, laughter, pity, love--the whole range of emotion fills in our blank spaces thereby increasing our humanity. This is part of our human spiritual well, the personal depth that shapes or challenges our informal communal and formal religious lives.

It is moments of encounter on which this issue of CrossCurrents is focused. The authors in this volume bring richly textured ideas into conversation. Each author contributes different views to reconfigured concepts.

Carl Evans's essay serves as a fine introduction to this issue as he writes of the profound results from the encounters of a young Elie Wiesel with a teacher who influenced his life. Wiesel's life was impacted by a madness of the past. Julia Kasdorf brings forward madness from a contemporary encounter for reflection. She details seemingly random acts of violence against girls in one religious community. In the process, Kasdorf raises questions about forgiveness and the meaning of justice. Presenting another view of encounter, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan focuses on language and the Christian Eucharist and points to the importance of justice as constitutive of intimacy.

Clifford Hospital presents a challenge by asking what has or might happen when we encounter others' religions.

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