New York Encounter 2024: Tearing Open the Sleeping Soul

“The theme of the Encounter has never been more hopeful than it is this year.”
Emily Lehman

“What is happening to our humanity?” The New York Encounter’s annual cultural festival opens with this question, and its program promises to offer fascinating answers – and more questions.

The Encounter’s 2024 program is an immersion into some of the most compelling and troubling issues of our time, yet pushes further than naming the issues, offering reasons for hope. As shared by the seven organizers:

The theme of the Encounter has never been more hopeful than it is this year. It highlights an apparent paradox. It acknowledges some obvious, very troubling signs in our society but it also points to the fact that, if we pay attention to our human experience – "looking at ourselves in action" – these very same signs reveal that our humanity is irreducible. In fact, all can recognize these signs as troubling because they go against a more original human structure. Therefore, if our humanity is irreducible, it can always be rekindled by some unexpected event (we always hope that our life can be rekindled!). This is why, in human terms, it is reasonable to hope.

In touching on many current issues — the war between Israel and Hamas, the future of the Supreme Court, artificial intelligence, the difficulty of education, the impact of ideology on language, and many more — the Encounter’s program will explore how our humanity, even when it is asleep, can always be reawakened by an expected event.

In the slog of daily life, our hearts run the risk of beginning to fall asleep — we have perhaps lost the vivid idealism of youth, or are bogged down by many cares in work, school, and family life, or perhaps have just become lazy. The New York Encounter’s theme, “Tearing Open the Sleeping Soul,” addresses precisely this: the problem of our souls being lulled into an apathy that neglects our deepest questions and desires.

Each exhibit, presentation, and performance that will fill the days of February 16-18 desires to help reawaken the soul in a variety of ways. An exhibit on the work of Leonard Cohen, entitled “Who Shall I Say is Calling?” and curated by Sean Wood, a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, emphasizes Cohen’s work as a continual dialogue with a mysterious Other. Another exhibit, “AI and I,” curated by Davide Bolchini, Professor of Human-Centered Computing, will explore the human implications of the great strides AI is making in our own times — both observing the capacities of AI and considering what makes human work truly human. Further exhibits will include explorations of the “ancient culture, enduring faith” of the country of Armenia, the human and intellectual journey of Simone Weil, and the pedagogy of Fr. Luigi Giussani.

Artistic highlights of the weekend will include an opening performance of music and poetry with Lio Kuok-Wai, pianist and graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, and Christian Wiman, poet and faculty member at Yale University. This musical opening will be followed by an evening of the music of Arvo Pärt, with vocals from Ekmeles, a group which specializes in the performance of avant-garde music both new and old. Both musical events of Friday evening will be available to stream online.

Visitors both in-person and online can attend panels of the New York Encounter, including Saturday morning’s presentation on the power of language and how it affects ideologies; a conversation later in the morning on the powers and dangers of generative AI; and, on Saturday afternoon, a discussion on the Israel-Hamas conflict highlighting the perspectives of Shadi Hamid, an editorial board member and columnist at The Washington Post, and Jacob Siegel, senior editor of The Tablet.

Those who attend in-person will have the chance to attend the “Awakening the Soul Series”: five conversations throughout the three days of the Encounter intended to reawaken the soul through personal witnesses. Exploring questions like "Can the Soul Remain Open When Life Settles In?”, this series includes a conversation about death, suffering, and euthanasia; a discussion of Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; and an exploration of the particular needs and difficulties of disillusioned young people in the modern world.

Sunday’s program includes a conversation about education in light of Fr. Giussani’s pedagogy; eyewitness accounts from Christians living in the Holy Land; and a panel discussion of the nature, role, and future of the United States Supreme Court, all available both online and in-person. In-person attendees can attend Sunday morning’s Mass for the 19th anniversary of Fr. Giussani’s death and a final evening of celebration and songs with the Encounter’s volunteers.

By delving deeply into the questions of our times, the approach of the Encounter is an act of trust that in an honest pursuit of our questions, truly human answers can be brought to light.