What Does Dialogue Take?

(from a friend of the blog who wishes to remain anonymous)

When I was in college, I took a class with a scholar who was—and remains—very influential in inter-religious dialogue circles. He had chaired several of his polity’s national committees on inter-religious relations, and his own scholarship often led him into discussions of particularly vicious periods of historical religious oppression. As a result, I was rather surprised when he called on me one day and asked, “When should we choose disputation instead of dialogue?” 

Like many college students who are not expecting to be called on by their professor, I sat in silence for a few long moments, but I think I eventually said something along the lines of, “We never should. But we do when we’re not educated enough to want to understand different kinds of people.” You know—when we haven’t yet reached that enlightened state of existence reserved for sophomores at expensive colleges who take courses like “Interfaith Peace-Building” as electives.

My professor gave me one of those compassionate looks that the wise are capable of giving the young and arrogant—a look that lets us know that we’ve said something foolish, but communicates that we still have valuable contributions to make (side note: I’m hoping that particular form of wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit that descends upon tenure?). When it was clear no one else in the class was going to say anything, he said: “I disagree. There will always be times we need disputation. There are things I believe that I want to convince others of. I can respect a debate partner as a human being without there being a possibility of my adopting her position or ceasing to desire for her to adopt mine.”

That wasn’t the entirety of the conversation, but it’s that moment—the shock of learning that such a deeply charitable, deeply studied, deeply respected person could still endorse disputation in certain contexts—that’s stayed with me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past month or so in particular.

I work in an environment that often frustrates me deeply. I’m a theologian, and I’m a lesbian, and my department is not somewhere it’s assumed that those two can coexist. I’ve been told that I need to be more attentive to what others will assume about “someone like [me];” I’ve had a colleague tell me he didn’t understand why I prayed, since I clearly don’t care about God’s will for me and God therefore does not hear my prayers. I’ve been told there’s nothing I can do to make my department a less hostile place, because I’m on the wrong side of the Catholic Church, and I should be grateful that I’m permitted here at all. All of that takes a toll on a person.

Part of the toll that has been taken from me is that I’ve become a less dialogical person than I want to be. Over the course of years, my capacity to see the best in others’ positions has been diminished. Often, the most charitable thing I’m capable of is disengaging.

I’m not interested in dialogue with those who affirm Magisterial teachings on sexuality. I’m not interested in finding common ground. I don’t want to pretend that it’s OK for the Church to say that acts of violence against people like me are unsurprising responses to “the claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered” just because one line in the Catechism mentions dignity and respect.

When I see articles that offer guidelines for overcoming divisions within the Church, they sometimes seem to me to say: “Ignore all of those who are hurt when bishops call their families demonic. Ignore all of those who struggle to find succor in a eucharistic celebration from which many bishops wish to exclude them. Their joys and their hopes, their griefs and anxieties? They are not the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. So let’s set all of those out of our minds in the interests of irenicism, and focus on things that bishops and theologians can agree on.”

I don’t like any of this. I don’t like that I’m less able to hear those with whom I disagree; I don’t like that my would-be allies are told that they don’t need to hear me. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how this could change: if my current context is not conducive to dialogue, what does dialogue take?

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. It takes a safe base. When I have a stable environment that is influenced by a group of people who share my joys and hopes and griefs and anxieties, their support gives me the sustaining energy to be patient and open to those for whom my joys and hopes contribute to the world’s griefs and anxieties. When my allies’ first reaction is to tamp down my grief and dismiss my anxieties, I won’t have energy or patience.
  2. It takes the realistic acknowledgment of enemies. This is one I’ve struggled with. “Enemies” sounds violent. It seems to give in to sinful division. But more and more I wonder if the acknowledgment that some people are my enemies in circumscribed areas might not help us all. Jesus doesn’t say that we won’t have enemies; he tells us to love them, pray for them, and imitate God who provides good things for all, enemies included. When someone supports civil laws that take legal protections away from me or my family, I can’t pretend that he hasn’t chosen to be my enemy. When I’m told that I should see his actions as fair, or even loving, because they stem from religious commitment, a piece of me dies. But if I allow myself to acknowledge that in this specific arena, he is my enemy—if I allow myself the dignity of acknowledging that I and my family are being treated unjustly and experiencing the justified anger that inspires—I can still choose to pray for him. When I am being verbally attacked, the irenic smiles I’m asked to put on for the sake of Church unity negatively affect my well being. But maybe love and anger can coexist, if I’m able to acknowledge that it’s love of enemies, and not love of friends.
  3. Sometimes it takes too much. When basic needs for emotional and spiritual safety aren’t being met, asking for dialogue might be unjust. Maybe civil disputation can still happen in these circumstances—but it needs to be acknowledged as disputation, and not prettied up into false dialogue. And maybe civil disputation can’t happen in these circumstances, and some people will need to withdraw from the conversation. If that does happen, I would ask something of those who are able to remain involved in the conversation: keep checking in to make sure that my griefs and anxieties aren’t becoming foreign to you. If some of us are too bone-tired filled with lament to participate in the conversation, the rest of us need to work to change the conditions that make that so—not breathe a sigh of relief that things go much more smoothly now that they’ve gone home.

We’re all in a delicate time (though I suspect that all times are delicate). We all have to find ways of working with those who don’t share our ways of thinking about the world. But the front line of “today’s divisive issues” is sometimes my body, and sometimes my spirit, and sometimes my family. That means that I can’t just “live and let live.” And I think it means that I must at least ask that you not do so either.

9 thoughts on “What Does Dialogue Take?

  1. Powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing your voice. A wise friend once shared with me that anger is a signal that “things are not as they should be” – and while I don’t read anger per se in this post, I would also say that this kind of bone-tired grief is a signal that things are not as they should be in the catholic community(ies). Thanks.

  2. Seriously great post. We talk about civility or openness as prerequisites for conversation, but civility and openness have prerequisites, too.

    Takeaway: “When basic needs for emotional and spiritual safety aren’t being met, asking for dialogue might be unjust.”

  3. Thank you so much for posting your powerful words here. I read this last night and did not want to comment right away, so I have returned and re-read, finding what you say even more compelling.

    As someone who is white, middle-aged, heterosexual and also a”serial dialoguer,” your point of view is a call to action for me. Your words plant me, in a very incarnational way, in the midst of why dialogue is *not* always the answer. As commenter Brian points out, there are prerequisites for civility and openness.

    For a “both/and” person like myself, dialogue can be a narcotic of sorts. And like many narcotics, they might have their limited use now and then, but that should not be the only way.

    Thank you for the reminder that naming enemies clearly and trying to find ways to pray for them, and using disputation, are essential elements of justice. What might be easy for me to try to dialogue about, is in fact a potential danger and injustice for others. I often use the over-used phrase, “talk is cheap.” It certainly is.

  4. I agree that disputation has to have a place in discussions about religion and theology. I’ve said this about ecumenism for a long time: what good is talking to people of other denominations if we’re only talking about things we agree on? Shouldn’t there be a serious conversation about things that divide us as well? Your post clearly shows one of the areas in which this needs to happen internally in the Catholic Church as well.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I think we are very blessed to have theologians who are lesbians; the Church needs to hear your voices.

    I agree that sometimes one just has to recognize enemies and sometimes one needs to make a tactical retreat into a safe space and perhaps do something else when obstacles are more then one can cope with. It seems to me that Jesus did these things in his own ministry.

    Thank you for reminding to us to create safe spaces for those who differ, those on the margins, the oppressed and excluded.

    I remember in the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour of New Zealand, which was opposed by very large street demonstrations which were confronted by police violence, I was assigned as a Marshall in the anti-apartheid movement’s Patu squad with, amongst others, a group of lesbian feminist sisters. I am very grateful for their courage and friendship in standing firm for justice when that involved literally putting our bodies on the line.

    FWIW, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops, while opposing same sex marriage, have long supported legal recognition of same sex unions.

    God Bless

  6. I particularly appreciate your discussion of what it means to be an enemy. The Industrial Areas Foundation defines an “enemy” as someone who opposes one’s interests, but does not seek to undermine the other’s dignity by this designation. It is a designation that indicates the reality of conflict. I think this idea is worth continuing to work out, especially in light of the attribution of this terminology to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.

    Prayerfully,

    Nichole

  7. Pingback: Loneliness (and the Academic Life), Part 2: On Belonging (and Against Unity) | WIT

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