A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to write a post for a friend’s blog. Since its birth earlier this year, the blog and associated Facebook page have occupied a good deal of my thought life, as I’ve read and responded to some of what’s been written and shared. I’m grateful for it, particularly as I seem to disagree much more often than I agree. Most of what I read online and in print are from people I largely agree with, and usually when I read something I disagree with, it’s from someone I don’t know or care personally about, or from someone I (arrogantly) don’t consider as well-read or educated as I am. I’ve found that this makes it easier to dismiss the argument and disengage. So, reading from a friend who I know thinks deeply and compassionately has forced me to pause, to think and evaluate not just from a gut reaction, but from a place of humility and generosity.
The letter that follows is my attempt at defining “dialogic,” originally posted on Dialogic Christianities.
Thanks for asking for me to elaborate on what it means to be dialogic. As I’ve said before, I’m grateful for your blog, particularly because of the way you have created a space on Facebook for people to talk with one another in a posture of embrace. There is so much hatred and violence in our world, not least in the way we speak to one another. Spaces like these are oases, and I’m thankful for your example as you seek to love others through hearing their stories and their pain, and seeking to show Christ’s love for each one.
In regards to defining “dialogic” – quite a few characteristics come to mind, but in the past week the one that I’ve been mulling over is a commitment to the truth. Of course, disagreements that happen in dialogue usually happen because there is a disagreement over what is true. I can think of many examples just in your Facebook threads where a statement has been made, but then someone has responded by saying, “No, that’s not true.” And that’s what continues the dialogue – challenging, clarifying, explaining, what has been said. Perhaps this is why you asked for elaboration; this definitely makes the requirement of truth-telling more complex.
At the heart of true dialogic conversation, I believe, is the affirmation of Truth, of “one monologue beyond the dialogue, the one Word of the one God who entices us into his future kingdom of freedom and beauty” (see Peter Leithart describing Dostoevsky’s conviction). Without this affirmation, we lack a motivation compelling enough to push us past the pain and risk of dialogue.
So, even as we dialogue about what is True, we seek to speak the truth. Telling the truth involves a commitment to representing an opposing view, and the people who hold that view, accurately and without distortion. We resist painting those we disagree with as all the same. We resist speaking before listening – really listening. We are so used to using deprecating language and sarcastic jibes — language that does not ask for serious reflection, but dismisses the other without consideration. If we are to tell the truth well, we have to give up our delight in snarky one-liners that do nothing more than gain applause from those who agree with us.
Truth-telling does not allow us to indulge in cynicism over others’ motives. Too often we assume that we know others’ hearts: arrogant, hateful, lacking compassion, callous, hardened. Given how blind we are to what is in our own hearts, most – all? – judgments we make about someone else’s heart are sure to miss the truth.
You asked me how much certainty we can have that we are speaking the truth, without self-service or arrogance. My first thought was of Pilate, who stands in front of Jesus and asks, “What is truth?” My sense is that his question of cynicism is becoming more and more the question of our culture. So we need to be warned to not stand in front of the Word, the Truth, and refuse to be implicated by him.
I also believe that in every way the Christian faith is a religion of self-giving and humility. So if at any point our affirming of the truth leads to our self-service or arrogance, we can be pretty sure we’ve missed the mark.
There are degrees of certainty that we can have, and that’s a function of us being finite and fallible. But I would say that affirming the truth means that we say, at the most basic level, that there is Someone who was and is and will be, that it’s his way of seeing the world that we are trying to understand as we read his word and discover his creation and love his people. This most basic affirmation grounds us and directs our dialogue.
As I think about the character of people who are truly dialogic, so many descriptions that are completely foreign to our culture come to mind: humility. meekness. peace-making. love that does not insist on its own way. a greater concern for what is right over being right. And I’m increasingly aware that these descriptions are far from what is in my own heart. It’s that reality that makes dialogue potentially so painful and risky. We must also be honest about ourselves, not just others, and this might prove even more difficult.
Thankfully we are not required to pursue this honesty alone: the same Spirit whose sword pierces our hearts is the one who is Comforter. Jesus did not wait for Peter to come to him, but instead he confronted Peter with the weakness of his heart and graciously restored him. And so he does for you and me.