Paper: Befriending Outsiders: Table Fellowship, Habits of Mind, and Delight Amidst Difference

Beginning paragraphs of a paper delivered by Lisa M. Hess, Ph.D. at a session of the Christian Spirituality Group during the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

This paper is available to SSCS members by sending a request to the CSStudies moderator.

“Friendship” has been a broad philosophical and political theme for decades and, sporadically, over the course of centuries, depending upon your focus. Current challenges of ecclesial change and religious pluralism bring this thematic to light with new resources across multiple disciplines and diverse religious/wisdom traditions. As a practical theologian who has found a disciplinary home in Christian spirituality, I am inviting you these next 20 minutes into a glimpse of some work that began over seven years ago but could be called befriending outsiders. For this [conference session]: What may we learn as ‘spiritual selves’ befriending outsiders?

The two-word phrase, befriending outsiders, is rooted in an interdisciplinary study of friendship, though the work is moving into companionship, with its literal etymology of ‘eating bread together.’ I have been drawn to the verb, to befriend, both because it has a classical metaphysics to it—being a friend—and a contemporary emphasis upon action, cognizant of the limitations in metaphysically-attuned, correlational habits of mind. Befriending rests instead in the performative mode—relationally shaped, explicitly embodied, multidimensional, and centered within intuition and insight. Befriending outsiders moves this linguistic phrase into the well-known “insider/outsider” problem in the academic study of religion. The problem originated from linguistic study (i.e. Pike et al, emic/etic), after all. I have little interest in the massive disciplinary history of that problem, but appreciate its overwhelming contribution to how scholars think of the problematics within their fields. Consider the construction of ‘otherness’ replete in philosophical phenomenology and poststructuralist thought (here I’m thinking Levinas) or the everpresent political and religious polarizations so widespread in critical and uncritical thought today—us/them, etc. However ‘outsider’ may be defined across disciplines, we can be assured that there will be at least one in most interactions and regularly, repeatedly, it will be us. Befriending outsiders therefore is a phrase to hold critical tensions while bridging into useful prose and curricular developments to come for educators in a fragmented and religiously plural world.

The focal point and fulcrum of this paper is the companionable act of gathering at table, a complex artifact and symbol with vastly different significations in multiple religious traditions. As a rather high-liturgical, Reformed-Presbyterian Christian, any public table in community brings explicitly liturgical, sacramental connotations for me. Any consideration of befriending outsiders here requires attention to how the space is configured, who is an insider within the tradition(s) of this public-communal space, and who is an outsider to such tradition(s). A private table at a restaurant or home, on the other hand, hones a different kind of intimate awareness of family, friends, even solitude. The insider/outsider line will configure itself differently, depending upon whether the gathering at table happens in civic space or that of a home. The work these last several years specifically with companions in Orthodox Judaism has demonstrated an unexpected reversal of this public/private signification in terms of the table’s centrality and significance. The public table in community there serves its various functions—holding the Torah scrolls, central point of rabbinic leadership within a synagogue or temple—but the table at home marks what I would call a more liturgical center, in Shabbat and holiday observance, the remembrance and sanctification of time and space as delineated by centuries of halakhah.

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