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Colloquium Asks: How to Respond to “the Stranger?”

Drew University Hosts Re-Imagining the Human: Images, Humans, Worlds

June 2023 – Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies Medical & Health Humanities program hosted Re-Imagining the Human: Images, Human, Worlds. 

The colloquium was led by Associate Professor and Director of the Medical and Health Humanities program Merel Visse with guest professor Laurens ten Kate, endowed professor of liberal religion and humanism and associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands. 

The event was featured as part of the Re-Imagining the Human summer course, taught by ten Kate, who is also the director of the international research consortium Simagine: Social Imaginaries between Secularity and Religion in a Globalizing World.

Included in the long-term collaboration with ten Kate and Visse on Re-Imagining the Human is philosopher, author, and professor Richard Kearney, who joined the conversation as a guest speaker. Kearney is the Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy at Boston College and has taught at University College Dublin, the Sorbonne, the University of Nice, and the Australian Catholic University. 

Two of Kearney’s books, Re-imagining the Sacred, and Anatheism, Returning to God After God, were included in the course curriculum and discussed during the event.

The attendees, a hybrid group of students and faculty from Caspersen and Drew Theological School, discussed and analyzed the importance of images and the imaginary in how we respond to “the stranger.” Ten Kate introduced cutting-edge theories of imagination related to religion in the secular age and its impact for well-being. 

“We need a theory of imagination to grasp secular religious relations in our complex times,” he said, referring to Charles Taylor’s work. “Imagination has to be put on our scientific, philosophical, and intellectual agendas.”

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Sandro Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation

“Certain words work like images—freedom, growth, progress, prospect—along with metaphors like enlightenment,” continued ten Kate. “Images are neither objects nor ideas, but spaces that we create.”

“Images are not innocent: they offer us a virtual home, but we can also be swept away by them,” said Visse.

Kearney illustrated and expanded on this with intricate and eloquent stories about well-known images, including Sandro Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation, which depicts Mary startled by angel Gabriel, a stranger. Attendees discussed the fact that this would be a common response to the presence of a stranger.

“We all know the stranger is not always recognized as host or guest,” said Visse. “Lines can be blurred.”

Kearney continued with other images and discussed how these individual examples also construct a social imagery, specifically the perception and experience of a stranger, and connects it with viewpoints of philosophers Charles Taylor and Paul Ricoeur, both his former professors and mentors.

“The insights discussed are highly relevant to the Medical and Health Humanities program, as illness and disease can also be unwelcome and unfamiliar strangers,” said Visse. “How to respond to that ‘unhomelike’ feeling in the world, as illness is often described. When our bodies refuse or are overtaken by strange sensations or symptoms? How can we perceive ourselves as a friendly, hospitable host when we meet misfortune? How to respond to that otherness?”

The colloquium was an entryway to reflect on these and other philosophical questions, but meaningful to everyday situations in care and life in general.

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