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Institute of Advanced Study

Strangers, Trust and Religion: On the Vulnerability of Being Alive

Abstract

Strangers, trust, and religion are critical dimensions within the sphere of human vulnerability. How are they experientially related? This paper articulates commonly unexplored lines that connect commonly recognized dots.1 It begins with an epistemological account of the stranger as an Other in the Sartrean sense of otherness: someone who is the embodiment of possible harm, a threat to both our existence and the very meanings and values our life embodies, hence an existential source of fear. The paper then sets forth an account of trust as a palliative to fear, trust being a socioaffective ‘compensation' for all its risks. On the basis of observations by both Thomas Merton and Huston Smith concerning the stranger, the paper in turn investigates the relationship of strangers, trust, and religion in the terms of life and death. In doing so, it draws on and extends citations from the writings of Michel Foucault and Elaine Scarry who, in different ways, highlight provocative conceptions of the Other. The paper ends with reflections upon what Rudolph Otto termed the ‘mysterium tremendum' - the experienced mystery of life itself - upon the fact that we are vulnerable in the mere fact of being alive, and upon the fact that we have ways of transcending our vulnerability through a recognition and even celebration of our common humanity.

Insights Paper