Why Christians Say “Encounter”

Christians have adopted the term “encounter” to describe a standard run-in with God. We inchworm our way through Scripture in high hopes of “encountering Christ in the Gospels.” We give alms (sometimes) and “encounter Jesus in the poor.” We run retreats, bible-studies, and prayer groups out of an earnest desire to “encounter” God’s love.

I want to defend this verb so naturally pinned onto things Almighty. It has a firmness to it, not by some accidental linguistic trend, but because it contains a marvelous precision — a precision we are in danger of blurring through fad, overuse, and tumblr…

…which contains within itself the power to make everything annoying.

So let’s go back to our everyday use of the word. We “encounter” the obstacle and the unexpected difficulty — that which unforeseeable arises from the daily order of things. We “encounter the wonders of nature” — they overwhelm us. And of course, we have our “close encounters of the third kind.”

Within this diversity of usages runs a common thread — encounter is related to mystery. We use the term whenever we are lacking the empirical data necessary for really knowing the “what” of the object or the event we are faced with.

This can be shown by applying the word encounter to the unmysterious object, as in — “I encountered the red solo cup” or “I encountered an American high school.” The use of the term lends an air of mystery to its object, making of it a thing seen for the first time — strange and unexplored.

The relationship of encounter to mystery is not a figuring-out. It is not a solving. These modes relate to mystery by negation, as the detective negates the mystery in his dramatic solution — rendering certain the uncertain, explaining the inexplicable and tying all the loose-ends tight. My encounter comes to no solution.

But neither is encounter a sort of ignorance. It does not relate to the mystery by giving up on it. I do not “encounter” dark matter or the tenets of the Jedi religion by virtue of not having a clue about them. I ignore what I am ignorant of. The difference between ignorance and encounter is the difference between being unable to say anything about an upper-level quantum physics class you never should have taken and being unable to say anything about the day your mother died. Ignorance cannot articulate itself because it does not know. Encounter cannot articulate itself because it does.

Encounter is that type of knowledge which meets, but does not cognitively exhaust the thing known. This is a fancy way of saying that to have encountered something implies that there is more to know about it, more to see, and more to experience. Encounter is that type of knowledge which confronts and experiences a mystery as a mystery.

Insofar as any human mode of perception can be “proper” to God, encounter seems proper. God is the ultimate mystery. He reveals himself to us, but never in ways that annul the fact that he is utterly beyond comprehension and forever more than we can conceptualize. To say that we “know” God runs the risk of indicating that type of knowledge which is exhaustive, as to know the answer to a math problem is to be finished with the problem. To say that we have “seen” God runs the risk of indicating that type of seeing which sees in a complete, finished manner, as to have seen a movie is to have perceived it in a complete way, to be disposed of your unknowing in regards to its contents. But to know God, to see God — these terms cannot mark out a knowing that totally grasps what is known. Our knowledge of God cannot be a solution to His mystery — for then he would cease to be God, so wonderfully beyond the capacities of our senses and intellect.

And there is one more sense in which I believe the word is proper. It originally indicated a clash of armies on the field of battle, “to meet as an adversary” from the Old French encontrer.

A military encounter is neither a victory or a defeat. It is the moment of meeting. It is the tension before any decisive outcome. It is the raw fact of the other army being before you.  Insofar as the situation is still an encounter, the enemy army is still its own — it must be reckoned with. Encounter is a face-to-face relation to the adversary that retains the otherness, the autonomy of that same adversary.

To encounter God requires us to maintain the tension by which we do not assimilate him into any preconceived notions, nor reduce him to an idea. We admit that he is a person — utterly, unconquerably Him. We face him, not as something we have conquered through reason or prior experience, but as person to be reckoned with. That he will defeat us with his love and mercy is inevitable, and that this defeat is the greatest victory a man can win is the paradox of Christianity, but such salvific glories cannot happen until there is the encounter, a reckoning, a moment of meeting — a face-to-face with the mystery as mystery.

Damn, it’s hard to evangelize. You cannot “prove” and subsequently “explain” God to the unbeliever. The evangelist can only hope to help arrange the meeting.


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