The word dialogue is very important to me, and my view of truth, at least in terms of the way Christians live with one another, and with non-Christians, in the modern age. What do I mean by dialogue? Could it be that the very idea behind this word is deeply flawed, as some cultural and religious conservatives maintain?
Back in 1971 I was in the candidate process for the assistant pastoral role in a church near Wheaton, where I had begun graduate theological studies in mission and theology. The senior pastor preached a sermon one Sunday that fatally finished my intent to work with him. The title of his sermon is one I shall never forget: “Dogma or Dialogue?” He made the case, rather poorly I thought, that dialogue was always the enemy of Christian dogma and true belief. I could not tell you why he was wrong, at that time, but I knew that he was. I began a journey to figure out why I thought that he was wrong. I was only a twenty-one year old aspiring minister.
The word dialogue (noun) refers to “a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.” It is a synonym, according to most English sources, for talk, discussion, interchange, discourse, heart-to-heart. From this background the word came to mean a discussion directed at a particular subject or the resolution of a problem.
As a verb the word dialogue refers to “taking part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem.” It comes from the Middle English, where it was taken from Latin through the Greek (dialogos) and means simply to converse with another/others through verbally speaking.
The Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber assigned a pivotal role to dialogue in his theology. In his best known, and most influential work, I and Thou, Buber promoted dialogue “not as some purposive attempt to reach conclusions or express mere points of view, but as the very prerequisite of authentic relationship between man and man, and between man and God.” I have come to agree with Buber.
Vatican Council II placed a major emphasis on dialogue, something that was profoundly new for most Catholics and for the Catholic way of dealing with “others.”. This explains, at least in part, the response of Pope Francis in several recent comments he made about other religions, even atheists. (His response grows out of a Vatican II decree called Nostra Aetate. In this matter the Council spoke about other faiths, even about people of no faith.) The Council also encouraged dialogue with other Christians in Unitatis Redintegratio. Gaudium et Spes specifically encourages the church to dialogue with non-Christians.
Today, dialogue is used in classrooms, community centers, corporations, federal agencies, and other settings to enable people, usually in small groups, to share their perspectives and experiences about difficult issues. It is used to help people resolve long-standing conflicts and to build deeper understanding of contentious issues. Dialogue is not about judging, weighing, or making decisions, but about understanding and learning. Dialogue dispels stereotypes, builds trust, and enables people to be open to perspectives that are very different from their own.
Dialogue is a delicate process (italics mine). Many obstacles inhibit dialogue and favor more confrontational communication forms such as discussion and debate. Common obstacles including fear, the display or exercise of power, mistrust, external influences, distractions, and poor communication conditions can all prevent dialogue from emerging.
I believe Vatican Council II urged Christians to engage in dialogue for several important reasons. One is the dignity of our fellow human beings. Another is the requirement for humility, both in our personal relational contexts as well as epistemically, in terms of what we claim to know and how we believe that we know it. Further, the Vatican Council deeply understood that truth could be found beyond the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has promoted Christian dialogue with great hope and joy. He has engaged in it with other Christians, including many leading evangelicals. Like his predecessors he has also engaged in dialogue with Jews and non-Christian religions and leaders. One would be correct to conclude that, based upon his first year as pope, he values dialogue as much as any pope since John XXIII.
Francis recently wrote about this subject:
We succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech (or emails!), preconceived judgments and so many others (silence, refusal to answer, ignore what we do not like, etc). Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home, and to offer warmth.” Jorge Mario Bergoglio, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, (Rabbi) Abraham Skorka.
Notice what he concludes about the value and importance of dialogue here:
1. Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person.
2. It comes out of the perception that the other person has something good to say.
3. It supposes we can make room in our hearts for “their point of view.” This is extremely hard for many evangelicals since they/we are prone to believe we have discovered the truth and to enter into dialogue is a form of compromise, not mission. This seems to be what the pastor was doing back in 1971 when I first thought about this whole subject.
4. Dialogue commits me to giving a “warm reception” to the other person(s) without a “preemptive condemnation.” This requires me to not “prejudge” the person or their view. This demands deep and growing love.
5. Finally, dialogue requires that we “lower the defenses . . . open the doors of one’s home . . . offer warmth.” This demands the kind of love specifically defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
Contrary to many popular and stereotypical ideas about proclamation I believe in proclaiming Christ’s Lordship and the good news of the kingdom of God but I also believe that we will do this best, in so many challenging modern contexts, by learning to engage in the dialogue that Pope Francis speaks about. “Dialogue vs. Dogma?” It is a false choice. I believe in Christian dogma. I confess the holy Christian faith with ancient church fathers and mothers found in the catholic creeds. I also engage in respective, warm non-condemning dialogue that seeks to know the truth more fully.