Virtue and Dialogue: Ecumenism and the HeartJun 21st, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
A number of years ago, before I became Catholic, I received a phone call from a moderator of a private internet discussion group to which I had belonged for nine years, informing me that I was being removed from the group. The news was painful. Officially I was being removed because of my views, which had changed somewhat. But after some months and then years of reflection, it became clear to me that no small part of the reason was that I lacked certain virtues crucial for participating in the discussion in a way that facilitated its advance. Over time I came to realize more fully that fruitful dialogue depends on much more than good argumentation and sound reasoning; it depends even more so on the presence of particular virtues in the heart of each participant. And so I began a long-term and still on-going endeavor to acquire these virtues and weed out their opposing vices.
In this post I’d like to consider the following questions. What virtues, disciplines and attitudes of the heart are needed for participation in genuine ecumenical dialogue, and for the fruitfulness of such dialogue? What actions, habits and attitudes thwart such dialogue or make it sterile? Preliminary consideration of such questions is critical for preparing the table for ecumenical dialogue. Without reflecting in advance on the role of virtue in dialogue, attempts at such dialogue can descend into something ugly and even spiritually harmful to the participants, giving the mistaken impression to divided Christians that ecumenical dialogue is a waste of time, and giving to non-Christians one more unfortunate example of Christians futilely quarreling and bickering with one another. So below I offer some thoughts regarding the virtues, disciplines and attitudes essential for fruitful ecumenical dialogue.
What is Genuine Dialogue?
When approaching the ecumenical table we might easily presuppose that while we are dependent on the Holy Spirit for what He alone can do, what is needed on our part as humans seeking to resolve a disagreement is merely adherence to a set of neutral rules that we can mutually specify in advance. But in fact such rules are altogether inadequate, and not only because the operation of the Spirit is also necessary. Dialogue in the sense in which the term is used in the phrase “ecumenical dialogue,” is an activity requiring for its success certain skills, virtues, and attitudes. Without these there can be no successful dialogue, even if all the necessary rules are in place and followed. That is because dialogue is not fundamentally a meeting of ideas, but a meeting of persons, at the level of the heart and mind. And certain skills and virtues are necessary for the union and cooperation of hearts and minds. In a short blog post such as this I cannot lay out all the virtues and attitudes necessary for ecumenical dialogue, but my intention here is to examine only briefly some of the more important ones.
In order to consider what virtues are necessary for genuine ecumenical dialogue, we must apprehend clearly what dialogue is in essence, and distinguish it from other forms of communication, especially forms having the appearance of dialogue, but being sophistical. Recently Pope Francis said the following:
To dialogue means to be convinced that the other has something good to say, to make room for his point of view, for his opinion, for his proposals without falling, obviously, into relativism. And to dialogue it is necessary to lower one’s defenses and to open the doors.1
This description of dialogue is not uniquely Catholic or uniquely Protestant; rather it summarizes well the essence of dialogue. Genuine dialogue is an activity that cannot be reduced to the activities of those individual persons who enter into it. It is not a sum of individual acts, but rather an irreducibly social act. Much as second person knowledge cannot be reduced to third person knowledge, and the common good cannot be reduced to the sum of individual goods, and narratives cannot be reduced to logical sums of propositions, so genuine dialogue cannot be reduced to the sum of monologues. Dialogue is a different species of communicative act than is monologue.
Dialogue is not reducible to a plurality of monologues because it is inherently a communal activity in which the participants deliberately work together to achieve the following end: agreement concerning the truth of some matter under dispute between them. A plurality of monologues is not bound together in this way. Entering into a dialogue thus involves entering into an implicit agreement with the other participants to work together through the mutual exchange and evaluation of evidence and argumentation to come to agreement concerning the truth regarding a disputed question.
Entering into Genuine Dialogue
Each person entering into genuine dialogue must therefore intend to enter into this shared activity with its singular telos, together with those who disagree with him or her, not merely attempt to defend or oppose a position or argument. If a person merely intends to advance, defend or oppose a position or argument, he or she is engaged in his or her own activity, not yet having entered into the dialogue. In order to enter into the dialogue, he or she must take up as his or her own not only the goal of the dialogue, but also enter into the particular social activity by which this goal is pursued in dialogue, namely, the mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth through a cooperative process of evaluating the evidence and argumentation. So entering into dialogue requires not merely embracing the goal of “agreement in the truth,” which any lecturer or apologist could make his own goal, but also entering into a shared singular activity in which agreement in the truth is pursued together with other persons with whom one disagrees. Being an apologist is insufficient for entering into dialogue, because the activity of dialogue requires virtues and skills in addition to the ability to defend one’s own tradition. Apologetics can be done in the mode of debate, but dialogue cannot, for reasons I will explain in the next section below. Similarly, being a journalist is insufficient for entering into dialogue because the journalist can offer criticism or praise from a disengaged third-person distance, while dialogue requires the transition to self-invested and self-disclosing second-person engagement.
Entering into the mutual pursuit of a singular goal within a singular activity requires not only a choice but a disposition of sociability and a stance of willingness to collaborate to achieve that goal. The person with this virtue reveals himself as person, and thereby connects with others as persons, transcending thereby the ‘us vs. them’ divide at the level of ideas and positions. Maintaining anonymity, for example, hinders the development and expression of this virtue. So long as a person remains anonymous or hides his or her identity, he or she remains incapable of entering into authentic dialogue, because authentic dialogue requires the personal authenticity by which we reveal who we are, where we stand, and take responsibility for our words, by allowing them to be connected with our personal identity by those with whom we enter into dialogue.
Here too the vice of pride, for example, disposes a person to be unwilling to enter into a shared activity aimed at the mutual pursuit of truth, because collaborative inquiry requires a certain humility. Such a person will at best resort to teaching, attempting to transform the dialogue table into a classroom. Of course in the classroom there is typically a kind of dialogue between the teacher and the students, but there is also there a preceding mutual agreement to accept the respective roles of teacher and student. But the presumption of the teaching role in the presence of others placed into the student role by this act of presumption, without any preceding mutual agreement to accept a teacher-student relationship, indicates that the one so presuming has not entered into the mutual activity of dialogue, but is engaged in his own activity.
In addition to the virtue of sociability, in order to enter into genuine dialogue one must also believe that the other persons entering into the dialogue are capable of engaging in the activity of mutually exchanging and evaluating evidence and argumentation for the purpose of reaching agreement concerning the truth of the matter under dispute. And one must believe that the other persons sincerely intend to enter into this very same activity. In this way a good faith belief about the capacities and intentions of the other persons is necessary, and this belief itself requires the stance of charity toward those who would participate.
By contrast, a stance of suspicion and distrust concerning the motives of the other persons, or an assumption that the other persons are incapable of pursuing the truth in dialogue or rightly evaluating evidence and argumentation prevents the one having this stance from entering into dialogue with those he or she distrusts or assumes to be so incapacitated. If, for example, I believe that the other persons are only out to convert me, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I do not believe that they are engaged in dialogue. Similarly, if I believe that the other persons are blinded by sin or the devil, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I believe them in their present condition to be incapable of doing that which is essential to dialogue, namely, sincerely examining the evidence and argumentation with an aim to discovering and embracing what is true. To be sure, if in the course of attempted dialogue the other persons show themselves to be intending only to advance their own position, or to be incapable of evaluating evidence and argumentation, they show themselves to be incapable of entering into dialogue. If, however, one begins with this assumption about others, one cannot enter into dialogue with them.
The shared goal of the participants in a dialogue is agreement concerning the truth, not agreement with oneself. This does not require that any persons must suspend or deny their own present beliefs in order to enter into this activity, as explained in “Two Ecumenicisms.” Nor does the intention of entering into mutual dialogue require abandoning one’s intention to support and defend what one believes to be true. Neither does it require believing that one’s own standpoint is false. The intention to hold on to what is true and the intention to reach agreement in the truth through the mutual exchange and evaluation of evidence can both be maintained simultaneously without contradiction. Dialogue does, however, require that each participant’s love for the truth be greater than his or her love for his or her present position as such, even if this present position happens to be true. His or her love for the truth must be such that he or she is willing to reject beliefs shown to be false through this mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth. If we love our ideology more than we love the truth, our presence at the dialogue table is disingenuous.
Dialogue and Debate
The dialogue table is not a debate forum, because dialogue is not debate. In debate, as I am using the term, each participant’s aim is persuading onlookers of the superiority of his own position, in part by making his “opponent’s” position look inferior. The words and arguments are typically and ultimately aimed at observers. Usually the debaters are not facing each other, but facing the audience. And often there is a moderator, for very much the same reason that boxing matches require a referee in the ring. The ‘opposing parties’ are generally referred to in the third person, and typically in adversarial terms (e.g. “my opponent”). Usually there are some subtle or not so subtle criticisms of the other person himself, his intelligence, education, character, etc., again directed to the observers with the purpose of ‘scoring points with the crowd’ by denigrating the credibility of one’s “opponent,” and thus indirectly his position as well. Debaters attempt to dodge difficult questions rather than face them, and often attempt to score points by way of generalities and hand-waving, because in debate it does not matter if one’s position is true and one’s argumentation is sound; it only matters that one’s position seems to be true and that one’s case seems to be adequate. To the crowd uneducated in logic, hand-waving generalities and point-scoring sound bites will typically do for that purpose. Finally, at the end of the debate the question is “Which side won?”
In genuine dialogue, by contrast, the participants are talking to each other as collaborators in a mutual endeavor to come to agreement with each other concerning the truth regarding the matter about which they presently disagree. They are ‘facing each other,’ working toward a common goal. (Notice the bodily orientation and posture of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in the photo above.) There is no moderator, because there is no need for one. The participants are not exchanging cheap shots or personal criticisms, because there is no intention of scoring points with observers, and because engaging in such behavior would be contrary to the singular activity in which by conscious intention they are mutually participating, namely, working together to achieve agreement in the truth. They are not ultimately speaking to or trying to persuade observers. Their shared goal is not winning a contest between one another, but is rather coming to agreement with each other concerning the truth. Anything short of attaining agreement with each other regarding the truth is considered by each participant to be a failure to reach the goal of their dialogue. In debate, by contrast, the activity is considered a success if one side ‘wins’ in the eyes of the crowd, even if the persons debating do not come to any agreement over the course of the debate.
For this reason debate is an entirely different type of activity from dialogue, and one clear sign that a person has not entered into dialogue is his engaging in the grandstanding that characterizes debate, that is, talking to the observers about the other person or his position rather than talking directly to the other participant. Sophistry, as Plato uses the term, mimics rhetoric by attempting to persuade apart from absolute devotion to the truth, and not on the basis of truth or reasoning ordered to truth. Likewise, the sophistical imitation of dialogue can superficially appear to be dialogue, but is entirely different in kind because it is not one mutual activity having one end, but an aggregate of activities each having the persuasion of others as its goal.
Debate is a sophistical contest of power, because it requires only the power to persuade, while dialogue is necessarily a shared collaboration of love, because dialogue’s goal of mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth requires love not only for the truth, but for the one with whom one pursues agreement in the truth. Debate is in this respect easier than dialogue because in debate one can remain disengaged from one’s “opponent,” and do battle in an arena without any second-person union. In dialogue, by contrast, one must enter into a shared activity with one’s fellow participants working together in an I-Thou relation to achieve agreement regarding the truth. Debate, like boxing, requires no friendship between the competitors; it requires only following the rules. Dialogue, on the other hand, requires a certain kind of civic friendship by which persons relating in the second-person work together in a singular activity to achieve a shared end.
Virtues and Skills Necessary for Participating in Genuine Dialogue
I have already mentioned several virtues essential for genuine dialogue: sociability, willingness to collaborate, and the humility these virtues embody. I also explained two ways in which the virtue of charity is essential to entering into dialogue: in the good-faith disposition one must extend to the others’ intentions and capacities, and in one’s love for the truth over whatever one happens to believe at present, and thus in a tractability in relation to the truth. For fruitful dialogue the necessity of certain virtues such as patience, prudence, good humor, self-control, truthfulness, and courage is quite evident. But the necessity of other virtues may be less obvious.
Participation in genuine dialogue requires in addition the disposition to listen so as to understand accurately the positions and perspectives of the others participating in the dialogue. In speaking of the disposition to listen, I am referring not to the unqualified disposition to listen, and not to the disposition to understand-so-as-to-criticize, but rather to the disposition to understand-so-as-to-come-to-agreement-in-the-truth. This disposition is an intellectual virtue that corresponds to empathy. By it at the proper time one silences not only one’s tongue, but also one’s mental movements directed toward any activity other than receiving the communication of one’s interlocutor, so that one can represent more accurately and thereby more perfectly achieve the view from within his paradigm, ordering each newly discovered detail in its place in that paradigm. Through this virtue one restrains even the internal movement to critical evaluation until the other paradigm has been fully comprehended and perceived from within. Rooted bitterness or deep animosity toward the other position or person does not allow the development or exercise of this virtue. Similarly, the vice of a “short attention span” prevents its possessor from developing and exercising the disposition to listen deeply.
This disposition to listen is essential for achieving the mutual understanding that is the first stage of dialogue. Accompanying and preceding this virtue is the deep desire to understand and represent the other participants’ positions accurately, and a genuine sorrow when one either fails to understand the others’ positions or misrepresents them as something other than, and especially something less than, they actually are. Repeatedly constructing or knocking down straw men, for example, is an indication that these two virtues are lacking. The person who finds himself repeatedly knocking down straw men has failed to develop within himself the virtue to listen, by which one refrains from criticizing a position until one has confirmed that one is understanding it accurately and representing it truthfully and fairly. If he lacks any sorrow regarding his condition, then he has in addition failed to develop the corresponding appetitive virtue by which one loves the truthfulness of truthful presentations of positions other than one’s own, and detests misrepresentations of positions other than one’s own. These virtues underlie the basic ground rule in ecumenical dialogue according to which, out of respect and charity, each person gets to define, articulate and specify what is his own position, such that no one ought knowingly to attribute to or impose upon another, a position his interlocutor denies is his own. The one holding a position has the say in determining what is his position. And this therefore requires on the part of each interlocutor a disposition and willingness to listen so as to allow his own conception of the other interlocutor’s position to be informed and shaped by the other interlocutor.
Related to the virtue by which one listens with an aim to entering conceptually the other’s paradigm so as to achieve agreement in the truth is the disposition to remain on-topic. When I first started graduate school, I would often have lunch with a fellow philosophy graduate student with whom I became good friends. Over time I noticed a pattern about the course of our lunch conversations. I noticed that during each conversation, he was repeatedly returning to the subject with which we had begun the conversation, typically a philosophical or theological subject. He would say, “Bryan, if I may return to the question we were considering earlier,” or some other such gentle comment that would get us back to the initial topic. I realized three things. First, he wished to stay on the topic initially raised until that question was resolved or by mutual agreement we agreed to set it aside and move to another topic. Second, by the lack of intellectual discipline I was repeatedly but unintentionally steering our conversations away from the initial subject of each conversation. Third, he had an intellectual virtue that I did not, namely, the virtue of remaining on-topic. And he was trying to help me develop that virtue, so that I could participate with him in a disciplined sort of conversation by which questions or problems could be worked through and resolved.
When I became aware of this, I become much more attuned to the importance of staying on-topic, and our conversations became much more fruitful. Prior to that, I had viewed our conversations as simply an opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company, and had given no attention to staying on-topic. Of course that is a good kind of discourse as well, and has its proper time. But when I noticed this repeating pattern in our conversations, I came to realize that if my friend raised some kind of question or problem, he intended to continue discussing it either until we resolved the question or we agreed to set it aside and move to some other topic. To participate in this sort of conversation, I had to develop the discipline of staying on-topic, and not changing the subject at whim to whatever topic I wanted to discuss at the moment. Conversation of this sort was not for me (or for my friend); this mode of conversation was for the purpose of attaining the goal of a particular inquiry. Ecumenical dialogue is conversation of this latter sort, and for the same reason requires within those who participate in it the virtue by which one stays focused on the topic in question until the question is resolved or the participants by mutual agreement decide to set that question aside.
Because dialogue is an activity ordered to the goal of reaching mutual agreement regarding the truth, participating in it requires the virtue by which one perseveres through the task to its completion. The person who can only ‘pop’ in and out from the ecumenical table cannot enter the activity. Entering into this sort of conversation requires not only making a sort of personal and mutual agreement to stick to it to its end, but the virtue by which one endures through difficulties, setbacks, and even seemingly intractable obstacles in the task of attaining the goal of dialogue. Commitment of this sort requires the kind of love that sees marriages through their most rocky times, not the merely sentimental sort that comes and goes with time and contingencies. The internet can exacerbate this problem, by providing ready access to online discussions while abstracting from the personal, face-to-face aspect of human communication, and thus from the implicit commitment we make to each other when we sit down around a physical table with the explicit purpose of resolving some matter about which we are divided.
In addition to the dispositions to stay on-topic and the commitment to see the task through to its end, dialogue requires abiding by the principle of charity. When we speak of following the principle of charity in dialogue, what we are referring to is not merely a rule, but a virtue, i.e. a rule that has become connatural within the soul and character. Charity “believes all things,” and by the principle of charity we believe the best about others, given the available evidence. By this virtue we choose the better of two or more possible interpretations when we are faced with ambiguous statements by others. By this virtue we assume the better of two or more possible motives underlying our interlocutor’s comments or actions. Charity is not blind, yet it does not presume the worst, but thinks the best when such explanations are available. This virtue ‘oils the gears’ of dialogue, because by its perceived presence in one’s fellow participants in dialogue it removes the threat of personal offense or insult, and frees the participants from the worry of being misunderstood or misjudged in a way that is harmful to themselves or to their fellow participants.
Of course the activity by which participants in a dialogue come to agreement most certainly requires critical evaluation of the various positions under consideration. But there is a crucial difference between mutual engagement in critical evaluation of the various available positions, and the vice of being captious, deprecatory, or disparaging. The ability to find actual errors in positions or arguments is a useful and necessary skill when evaluating positions and arguments. But the vice of captiousness disposes its holder to minimize or even fail to see and accept what is actually true and good, or to magnify errors disproportionately. In this way it prevents or hinders the attaining of the goal of dialogue, by preventing or hindering its possessor from seeing and embracing the positive truth present, and not seeing only the negative truths. In order to enter into dialogue the participants must have the virtues by which they see fault and error in their proper proportion, and act in a way that corresponds to this.
A certain qualification is necessary here. What counts as a fault or error, and the magnitude accorded to that alleged fault or error, can differ according to the position under evaluation and the position of the one evaluating. That difference has to be taken into consideration by the participants in the dialogue. But that difference is not the same as the vice of captiousness, which is not merely the intellectual disposition to see as false what is false according to one’s position or paradigm, but is rather simply the disposition to see only the false or to see generally as false what is not false, or to see falsehood as disproportionately magnified.
Likewise, the person with the vice of disputatiousness or quarrelsomeness is incapable of entering into dialogue because he is incapable of reasoning together with others, and is inclined instead to reason only in opposition to others. He opposes every position advanced by the others, and affirms or in some way praises every position rejected by the others. He never acknowledges when his claim is shown to be false, and subsequently never seems to remember that it has already been shown to be false. He seems to disagree just to disagree. He does this perhaps to affirm his individuality and intellectual independence, but this vice makes him incapable of affirming a position together with the other participants or collaborating together with the others, and thus disqualifies him from even entering into dialogue from the outset. If he comes upon the table of dialogue, he does so already in debate mode, not comprehending that he is at the wrong table. The corresponding virtue required for dialogue is cooperativeness, agreeableness, civility, amenability, affability. By way of this virtue we behave in a becoming and agreeable manner toward others, disposed to work together with them toward a good, and especially toward our common good, including the common good of agreement in the truth.
In addition, participants in dialogue must possess a certain kind of hope, particularly the hope that the goal of the activity can be achieved. This is not a pollyannishness, but a vision in the present of the goal as accomplished in the future, and of the real possibility connecting that future achievement with the present condition of disagreement. In ecumenical dialogue such hope rests firmly upon the will of Christ that His disciples be united (cf. John 17), and on the power of God by which what seems impossible to men in the present day can be actualized tomorrow (cf. 2 Kings 7). This hope is the energy of dialogue, driving it by anticipation toward the accomplishment of the end-as-envisioned. For this reason those who come to the table predicting that unity and agreement between Christians will not occur prior to Christ’s return, or who claim that the pursuit of such unity is the disillusioned expectation of heaven-on-earth, disqualify themselves from participating in genuine ecumenical dialogue. Without the hope that the goal of dialogue can be attained, they can only be cynical observers of the ecumenical dialogue table.
I have focused so far on interpersonal virtues necessary for dialogue. But certain skills are also essential for dialogue, among which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric, traditionally known as the trivium, the first three liberal arts. As most of us know, grammar is the skill by which we put words together into intelligible coherent sentences. Logic is the skill by which we put concepts into judgments, and judgments into arguments so as to arrive at true judgments by reasoning rightly from true judgments. And rhetoric is the skill by which we arrange sentences and paragraphs in accord with logic, and by way of beauty and unity, in order to achieve effectiveness in persuading others to the truth.2 These three skills, but especially the first two, are essential for participating in dialogue. Those who have not learned how to put words into sentences cannot communicate their judgments, and so cannot participate in the communicative activity essential to dialogue, namely mutually evaluating evidence, positions and arguments.
Likewise those who have not acquired the skill of logic can neither evaluate arguments nor engage in argumentation. They frequently fall into formal and informal fallacies such as the non sequitur, begging the question, and knocking down straw men. They do not amend or retract their line of reasoning when its fallacious nature is pointed out to them because without the skill of logic they do not see fallacies as fallacies, nor for the same reason do they recognize sound reasoning as such. Sound reasoning supporting a position contrary to their own tends to appear to them as merely a conglomeration of assertions one of which, at least, is contrary to their position. Such persons are limited to asserting judgments, whether their own or that of others, and supporting them with faulty reasoning. But the mere exchange of assertions is futile, because it can neither confirm nor disconfirm any position. And when faulty reasoning cannot be grasped as such, such reasoning cannot be discarded from the dialogue, and the dialogue cannot advance. For this reason, without logic there can be no advance toward the telos of dialogue, and thus without having the skill of logic there can be no entering into the activity which is dialogue. Logic is a necessary but insufficient condition for entering into the activity of ecumenical dialogue. Without the virtues, logic is cold, dead, and off-putting. But without logic, even the most virtuous intentions are reduced to superficial sentimentality and the vain exchange of aphorisms in a frustrated attempt to reason together while lacking the tools needed to do so.
The form of all the virtues necessary for dialogue is love, not just love for the truth, but also love for the other participants in the dialogue, and for union in the truth with them.3 Love for agreement in the truth is essential to dialogue because this agreement is the telos of the activity of dialogue. Without the choice to pursue together agreement in the truth, and without the disposition of love by which dialogue as defined here becomes second nature, a person cannot enter truly and fully into the activity of dialogue, but only into some part or simulacrum that differs in end and thus in species from dialogue. Those who are content with the divided condition of Christians cannot enter meaningfully into ecumenical dialogue, because they do not desire the telos of ecumenical dialogue.
Acquiring the Skills and Virtues Necessary for Genuine Dialogue
How do we acquire the skills and virtues necessary for dialogue? First, one important requisite is understanding clearly the genre difference I have explained above between dialogue and debate. The more we understand what dialogue is, the better we can understand what is needed to enter into it. Secondly, there is no shortcut to acquiring the skills of grammar and logic. When I was much younger, logic was a standard high school course. Now, in part because of a failure in our education system, persons commonly go throughout their entire education, even acquire a PhD in just about any area of discipline, and never take a logic course. As a result, because of their high level of education such persons assume (quite understandably) that they have been adequately equipped for dialogue, and do not realize that they have not acquired a skill necessary for dialogue. A person who discovers that he lacks the skill of logic would be right to refrain from attempting dialogue until he has acquired the skill. Here I am not speaking of formal logic, but simply basic logic. Two good introductory logic books I recommend are Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic (Second Edition), and John Oesterle’s Logic: The Art of Defining and Reasoning (Second Edition).
How do we acquire the virtues necessary for dialogue? We begin with a regular examination of our heart and actions to discover and root out the vices that hinder dialogue. We have to take a step back and examine our comments to others. Are they kind? Are they rude or mocking or angry or derogatory or cynical or continually sarcastic? Do they constructively advance the discussion toward reaching agreement in the truth? Do they show an appreciation for what is true and good in the opinions of others? By their tone do they invite a cooperative response from others, or do they drive others away? Do they attack the other participating persons? Do they misrepresent the positions of others? Do they stay on-topic or do we use any forum to advance our own agenda? Are we truly trying to achieve agreement in the truth with the persons with whom we are speaking, or are we merely trying to make their position look bad to others who may be observing, or have our questions answered, or get our opinions out there? These are the sort of questions a person wanting to grow in the virtues essential for dialogue must ask himself sincerely, with an aim to discovering the truth about himself. One way to do this is to ask these questions to others who know and read our writing, who perhaps can see us better than we see ourselves, and are willing to tell us unpleasant truths about ourselves.
In light of what we discover upon reflecting carefully on our present habits and attitudes, we can then take small steps or adopt disciplines that develop the necessary virtues in us over time. For example, when entering a dialogue, it is a good idea first to take some time to learn the positions and arguments of the other participating persons. Always try to learn the history of a discussion. When commenting within a dialogue, we should be able to specify to ourselves how our comment will help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth. We should not speak unless we have something worth saying or worth asking; in this information age especially, we have a responsibility not to add to the deluge of unnecessary information or distract from the dialogue. Before publishing a comment or article, we might have someone of good character, distance, and objectivity read it and point out to us any places where our content or tone is not gracious, kind, or edifying. When I began writing at Principium Unitatis, I made it a habit never to post anything without having my wife read through it to look for any unkind words. That habit helped me acquire the habit of examining all my drafts carefully for any unkind or uncharitable comments, even though sometimes uncharitable comments unfortunately still slip through, both in writing and in speaking. But by developing the discipline of prescreening all our writing for any words or statements that are either uncharitable or do not help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth, we can develop the habit of writing and speaking in dialogue with more charity, focus, and substantive content that is helpful for advancing the dialogue toward its goal of agreement in the truth.
One way we can develop the virtue of listening is by disciplining ourselves to confirm if necessary that we have understood correctly the position we are criticizing, by writing or calling in advance the person whose position we are criticizing, before publicly responding critically to his writing. We can also develop this virtue by sending a private draft of our criticism to the person whose position we intend to criticize, and letting his response reform our criticism prior to publishing it. In general we should always take some time to think carefully before responding to anyone, and never say anything when angry, or say anything critical of our interlocutor’s person, especially not any unnecessary critical comment. In ecumenical dialogue I recommend praying for the other person before and after writing any draft reply; then re-reading your draft to make sure that there is agreement (not contradiction) between how you write to the person, and how you pray for the person. When I first began writing for Called To Communion, I adopted the discipline which I keep to this day of saying a prayer not only before publishing any post or article, but also praying for each person to whom I reply, before I reply to that person. This sort of discipline can help us develop the virtues necessary for entering into fruitful dialogue with persons with whom we disagree.
Dialogue and Called To Communion
When we began Called To Communion on Ash Wednesday of 2009, we intended to create a forum for dialogue, not debate. As I have watched and participated in the various ecumenical conversations both here and elsewhere, I have come to see not only the importance of distinguishing at the outset the difference between debate and dialogue, but also the necessity of certain skills and virtues for entering into the activity that is dialogue and for advancing that activity toward its fruitful end. Entering into dialogue requires serious and personal preparation. On the internet especially it is easy to see an ecumenical conversation and attempt to jump right into it without realizing either that it is a forum for dialogue (not debate) or what skills and virtues are required to participate in dialogue. In my experience, a significant percentage of cases in which attempts at dialogue fail are due either to a failure to recognize the difference between dialogue and debate, thus leading to a situation in which some persons are attempting to dialogue and the others present are attempting to debate them, or to a deficiency in one or more of the skills and virtues necessary for dialogue.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes “grey town” as a place that is constantly expanding at its outskirts as people perpetually try to move further away from each other, unable to get along with each other, and each wanting to be lord of his own domain. The internet too, even while establishing technological means by which we are informationally connected to everyone, allows us to ‘move away’ from one another in something like the way C.S. Lewis describes. When dialogue becomes too difficult, one can simply “start one’s own blog,” and each man becomes a radio station broadcasting from his bunker what seems right in his own eyes. But being called to communion in Christ requires precisely the opposite movement, and thus requires those virtues that draw us into dialogue and allow us to advance to the attaining of the unity that is the telos of dialogue. Rather than retreat each to our own broadcast portals, we must acquire the virtues by which we can enter into that dialogue, and actualize its goal.
Of course we all, even the most virtuous among us, sometimes fall short of virtuous action. And the thoughts I’m sharing here are reflections by one who is still at the beginning stage of the pursuit of virtues found to be lacking within himself some years ago, and is deficient still in many ways, as regular CTC readers know well. What I have laid out here is only an overview of some thoughts that sketch out what I’ve learned about this subject since receiving that painful phone call years ago. But my hope for this post is that by specifying the difference between debate and dialogue, and highlighting some of the virtues and skills necessary for entering into dialogue, I might with God’s help raise our awareness both of what we are doing when we enter into dialogue, and what we need to bring within ourselves when we do so.
Laudetur Iesus Christus, nunc et in aeternam.