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Self-Emptying and Identity in a Secular World

The Gregorian (my current university’s Jesuit rival just around the corner) has been hosting a lecture series this semester on Religion and Identity, featuring speakers from a number of countries speaking on a variety of related topics. While some of my housemates made it to most of the program (Eveline, Rezart, and Esra especially), I had conflicts most days and only made it to one.

Prof. Harvey Cox

As I was walking across the garden on my way out, I ran into Monsignor Dick Liddy, a priest from Seton Hall University who was staying at the Lay Centre this week along with the rest of the New Jersey school’s “core faculty”. Upon inquiry, I told him I was headed to a lecture entitled “Kenosis and Identity in a Secular World” with an American theologian Harvey Cox.

“Harvey Cox? He was big around here when I was a student!” …which was in the late 60’s.

Thus was my introduction to the man shortly thereafter presented at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome as the “most renowned contemporary American theologian”. I have to confess, though the name rang a bell because of my post-academic reading in Pentecostalism and postmodernism, I cannot honestly say I encountered his work in four years at Notre Dame, or in two at CUA. It is possible, there was a lot of reading and it is hard to remember every author I encountered. I certainly never read his 1965 landmark work, The Secular City, much to the shock of my north-European colleagues here: “It’s THE book of our age! How could you not have read it?” said one.

Seems I have more to read than thesis material this summer.

Still, it is impressive to meet someone whose work was already so influential 45 years ago, and is still not merely alive and well, but actively teaching and writing!

The key message of his presentation was this: is it ever truly dialogue if we are guaranteed to “emerge safely”? That is, if we know we will emerge unscathed, unchanged, untouched by dialogue, have we actually engaged in dialogue at all? We have to empty ourselves to engage the other, be open to being convinced by the other while being true to our own identity.

His frequently engaged image was that of an anchor. While most of us think of the anchor as the ultimate brake, the best way to stay stuck in one position to ride out the storm, there is another use. Lest we think we must drop anchor and wait til the “storm” (of modernity, postmodernity, society, whatever) passes, we are called to remember the other use for this ancient symbol of our faith – assistance staying upright and navigating the rough seas while on the move to a destination.

[Again, I have a disclaimer, I am writing these up a month behind, and I do much better reading a text than listening. And anyone who has ever seen my handwriting knows that even taking notes without my computer does not help much!]

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