Introduction by Jon Zens of Searching Together; http://www.searchingtogether.org/
Many of us do not have pleasant memories surrounding the church “business” meetings of our past. Just about all of us have gone through the pains of a church split. Some of us have agonized through a plurality of church divisions.
Has it ever occurred to us that most breakdowns in Christian relationships are rooted, not in the outward “problem” (doctrinal or policy differences, etc.), but in a lack of the spiritual qualities found in Eph.4:2—3? Gentleness and humility are necessary in times of difficulty.
We may know the answers to catechism questions, but we do not know how to listen to a person with a different viewpoint. We may claim the gift of tongues, but know little of how to keep our tongues from speaking evil. We may be able to ramble on about the doctrine of election, but we lack the grace of God’s elect in our speech (Eph.4 :29; Col.3:12).
Paul knew that Christians, by not acting in love, were capable of biting and devouring one another (Gal.5:13,15, 26). In our day, we know that church splits occur at an alarming rate. Why is it that Christians have such a struggle getting along with one another? Much of the problems lies in the fact that believers have not been equipped in how to work matters through with others. As Elliot Johnson observes:
“In order to reach unity we need some way to talk about our different interpretations and to evaluate these differences.” Author’s Intention & Biblical Interpretation, I.C.B.I., 1982, p.1).
“We need some way. . .“ Is it possible that we have been deceived by a vicious scheme of the evil one? The New Testament assumes that everything will not be smooth among Christians. It assumes that there will be complaints and differences of perspective among believers. But it is with reference to the means given in the N.T. to deal with such problems that Christians are the most ill-equipped. In so many cases we fail to practice the new covenant methods of conflict resolution.
I would like to offer a few points that will highlight the importance of believers knowing how to deal with the inevitable differences that will come up among brethren.
1. Communication in the family of God is a crucial means to certain ends, not an end in itself. Our overarching goal is to grow in Christ and the application of His truth to our lives. Interpersonal communication is necessary in the attainment of this goal. But the situation should never degenerate to the point where communication becomes a substitute for “speaking the truth in love.” Some emphasize “open dialogue” so much that ascertaining and applying truth become irrelevant. Others so “earnestly contend” for every theological jot and tittle that serious interchange is short-circuited. There is a balance here that must be prayerfully sought, a balance captured beautifully in words by Vernard Eller:
The preservation of fellowship is of supreme value; however, uniformity, or unanimity, in the truth is also of high value. The pressure toward unanimity dare not be allowed to destroy fellowship, but neither dare the joys of fellowship be allowed to stifle the search for the point of concord that marks the truth . . . . if this dialectical balance be patiently maintained, the Spirit can and will eventually bring about unanimity — while in the process enhancing rather than destroying fellowship (ST, 12:1, 13).
2. The N.T. puts a premium on the maintenance of Christian relationships (Matt.5:23; Col.3:13; Luke 17:3-4). The breakdown of “oneness” in Corinth was a central concern for Paul (1 Cor.1:10-13; 3:1-4; 11:18). Jesus taught that ruptured relationships among His people warranted the immediate interruption of devotional activities (Matt.5:23). Our love to the invisible God is measured primarily by our ability to love the tangible brethren who surround us (1 John 4:20).
We are just playing religious games if we think we can be devoted to God while not dealing with unreconciled relationships with other Christians. As much as lies within us, we are to seek and to labor for peace in Christ’s body.
3. As Paul contemplated the implications of the gospel for our daily living, he began with how we are to function with other believers (Eph. 4:1-3; Rom.12:1-8; CoI.3:12-15). This is in harmony with Christ’s new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you” The gospel brings us into a body where we must learn to grow with others (1 Cor.12:13).
The atmosphere of an assembly is crucial. The spiritual characteristics of Eph.4:2-3, 31-32, provide a context in which the truth can be spoken and obeyed. If “truth” is presented in a setting where such attributes are lacking, then the biting and devouring of one another is just around the corner. If “love” is emphasized in a context of indifference to truth, then empty sentimentalism results. As l have said before, “to fully accept people in the bonds of truth and to confront them in an atmosphere of acceptance is a tension we must face and work out” (ST. 12:1, 1). Lawrence Crabb has some good thoughts on this:
Change takes place when truth is presented in relationship. Perhaps a relationship of deep regard and empathetic concern is the context for change, creating an atmosphere in which the truth of God can be heard nondefensively and thus penetrate more deeply . . . . to be healthy, a church must present truth in the context of encouraging relationships (Encouragement: The Key to Caring)
Assemblies will never be perfect. However, I have no hesitation in asserting that to the degree the principles set forth in “Communication in Community” are practiced, the healthier assemblies will be. It is very likely, as Dubay suggests, “that discussing some of these items may itself provide a helpful breakthrough.” I pray that it will.
COMMUNICATION IN COMMUNITY by Thomas Dubay
Communication is the normal overflow of love. In the Trinitarian community the Father and the Son in their mutual love communicate their common nature to their Gift, the Spirit. Because you love God you communicate with him in prayer. Because you love your brother and sister, you share your inner being with them through conversation. Through speech we enrich one another with truth, beauty, love, joy. Most of all, we share God.
I am calling this section an appendix rather than a chapter and my purpose is to indicate that our concern here is quite different from what it has been. Thus far my approach has been biblical-theological; here it is practical, specific, a how-to approach. I wish to suggest here how a community may practically learn how to communicate about its problems, its exposed (or not exposed) nerve endings. My observations shall be sketchy, not exhaustive. The brief paragraphs may themselves serve as step-off points for discussion in community meetings.
The communication with which these thoughts deal may occur in the marriage community, the parish meeting, the neighborhood gathering, a local convent, a general chapter. My comments shall suppose all that would have to be said in an adequate discussion of the discernment of spirits.
A word of suggestion may be in order. A mere reading of these pages will probably aid one in growing in fruitful discussion with others. But a mere reading may produce feeble and short-lived effects. The many suggestions are so briefly put, that it may be well for a local community to discuss the sections one by one and apply them to their own situation. A local group that is having dialog problems may find that discussing some of these items may itself provide a helpful breakthrough.
Different communities could begin with different sections. One might like to commence with what dialog is, while a second may prefer first to talk about preparation for successful dialog. A third might start with signs of openness or learning to listen. In any event I would think that all communities should discuss the section on the case for dialog. We all just must see how successful communication is indispensable for gospel community.
WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT HERE
All of us have communication experiences that pose no problem whatever: chatting with a dear friend, teaching receptive students, discussing important issues with those of a like mind. Because these experiences pose no notable difficulty for most people, I am not discussing them in this appendix.
All of us have likewise had communication experiences that have in(Iced posed problems, sometimes serious and painful problems. These I am discussing. I envision here dialog sessions that are occasionally so difficult and unsatisfying that some of us have just given up on them. We find that painful communication situations have several traits in common.
1. Important Issue. Chatting about the weather or what we shall have for lunch or what we shall do during recreation or who shall discharge what task usually occasions no communication problem. Discussing the meaning of one’s vocation (marriage or religious life for example) or the signs of the times or the future thrust of the apostolate often do occasion serious communication problems. I am speaking here of communication regarding topics that have some considerable importance.
2. Problematic. However, not every discussion of important issues is difficult. If the participants in the discussion are basically all of one mind, the exchange proceeds easily and pleasantly. They mutually reinforce and comfort one another. But if they disagree about the important issue, sparks fly. The exchange can become tension-filled, fiery, unpleasant. These pages deal with discussions of this latter kind, that is, those which are concerned with problematic issues.
3. Action Aim. I envision here discussion that is aimed at action, at getting something decided, at changing attitudes at least, at getting something accomplished. Hence, I am not concerned with speculative debate, winning” arguments, or “letting off steam.” All these may have their purposes, but they are not the communication problem I have in mind.
4. Need For Pliability. In honest dialog we expect no one to surrender a soundly held principle. That would violate personal integrity. Yet when one holds firmly to his principle, he should be reasonably sure that it is indeed a principle. Most of the disagreements in a faithful community do not center on principles, but on practicalities and policies meant to implement principles. We have genuine dialog when the participants in it are willing to be changed in the discussion. It is not dialog when people in a more or less veiled way seek to impose their views and convert the others. Dialog is not the same thing as teaching. It implies the exploring of one another’s minds in order to learn, to grow, to achieve a fuller grasp of the truth, to attain a Hence, we may take as our working definition of dialog: the honest, exploratory exchange about something important and problematic with a mutual willingness to be changed.
THE CASE AGAINST DIALOG
Chatting is usually easy and often pleasant. We typically chat with people we like and those of like mind and so there is little difficulty.
Practicing what we have just described as dialog is quite another matter. The road to success here is strewn with pitfalls. It is so strewn that many who have in all sincerity tried this sort of communication have become so disillusioned with it that they want no more part of it. We must face facts: there is a case against dialog — and it is formidable. We may outline some of the main problems.
1. Daily Atmosphere Lacking. . . members of the community lacking in mutual caring and trusting . . . insufficient tolerance of differences among people . . . warm affection missing . . communal prayer not appreciated…unique person not valued sufficiently . . . intolerance of divergent views…unhealthy fear of authority figures.
2. Inadequate Preparation . . . discussion not preceded by study…citing opinions without offering evidence for them . . . insufficient knowledge of group dynamics and how to discuss problems . . . informing oneself by reading popular essays rather than scholarly, well done studies . . . rejecting the Church’s teaching authority . . . idleness of religious dialog not rooted in a deep prayer life.
3. Misunderstandings . . . interpretation of disagreement as disloyalty or disobedience . . jumping to premature conclusions . . . rejection of opinions taken as rejection of persons.
4. Group Domination . . . over aggression and the wish to overpower opposition. . . some seeming to enjoy speaking on and on . . . a leader who feels he must correct the thinking of others . . . much talking, little listening.
5. Generation Of Heat But Not Light . . . argumentation . . . sharp retorts . . . hurt feelings . . . defensiveness . . . formation of factions failure to disagree graciously . . . angry reactions to divergent positions and statements.
6. Experience of “Speaking Silences” . . . resisting dialog by going to the session but refusing to speak up . . . simple contentment with no consequent contribution . . . reacting to a hurt by pouting . . . apathy or cynical ‘there’s no use talking any more: nothing ever happens.”
7. Judgmentalism . . . judging others insincere when they propose an ideal they seem not to live (perfectly?) . . . later criticism of participants in the discussion . . . pervading atmosphere that precludes dissent . . . attributing unworthy motives to opposite view. . . putting people into categories…dialogs becoming “gripe sessions.”
8. Close-mindedness . . . seeming uninterestedness in learning from others . . . being apodictic about clearly debatable matters …lack of interest in what others think . . . little awareness that “I may be wrong about this” . . . disposing of others’ views by simply labeling them: radical, conservative, old, young, inexperienced, wild . . . not using available channels . . . considering “the others” hopeless.
9. Words But Not Action. . . individuals and groups who talk much but do little . . aimless discussions that lead to no definite conclusion months (and years) of apparently fruitless discussions . . . talking about love but not living it, not even being around the house . . lack of follow-up plans.
We need not attempt here to determine when these complaints are justified and when they are not, nor need we suppose that problem situations are always black and white. What we do need to note is that many of these allegations are only too often well founded. There is indeed a case against dialog.
THE CASE FOR DIALOG
I have called the case against dialog formidable. It is. And yet it is inadequate, terribly inadequate. This I now say not because the difficulties are unreal. Sadly enough, they are only too real. Since the fall of man human communication centering on problematic issues has typically been beset with numerous obstacles.
Yes, the problems are real. But they form an insufficient case against dialog precisely because the case for it is so strong. For men and women who accept the gospel, who wish to live their lives on the pattern of Christ Jesus himself, dialog (as we have defined it) is mandatory, absolutely necessary.
I ask no one to accept this position on my word, and I recognize that its truth is probably not obvious at first glance. All I do ask is that together we examine the evidence, the gospel evidence. We shall not consider all the helpful information and suggestions that psychology and group dynamics offer in the promotion of human communication. These are supposed here. We shall consider New Testament reasons why sisters and brothers in ecclesial community have no other choice but to dialog together about their mutual, important and problematic concerns.
Why, then, do members of Christian community face communication problems so bravely and resolutely, with love and caring? Why do they take up their serious differences, problems, disagreements in sessions of open, honest discussion? Why is dialog among us a dire necessity, not an optional luxury? In offering reasons I shall be brief and to the point, hoping that perhaps individual communities will discuss and amplify these thoughts, especially by exploring further their biblical roots.
1. Attainment of Shared Vision. Community without shared vision is impossible. Men and women can live in a hotel, dine together amiably, share greetings and chatter, and yet by no means have a community. People can relate deeply only on condition that they see something (better: someone) important together. Because knowledge puts us in contact with reality, two human persons are bound together when they know and love in a shared vision. Saying that we can have community without a common vision is like saying that we can have a triangle with two sides — I would like to see it happen.
It is for this reason among others that the New Testament is adamant about the necessity of the faithful attaining one heart and one mind. People may differ in a healthy manner about peripheral things provided they agree about essential ones. Paul insists as first item of business that the Corinthians give up their factions and dissensions and instead attain a union in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Cor.1:lOf). The Philippians likewise are to be united in one love and one mind (2:2). Luke reports that the early followers of the Way actually did possess one heart and one mind (Acts 4:32). The Master himself had prayed for a miraculous unity among his faithful, a unity so astonishing (and humanly impossible) that the world would conclude from it that the incarnation had taken place (John 17:21,23).
It is also a simple fact of life that those who love deeply want to share their vision about important matters. It hurts them to disagree. If it does not matter to me what my sisters or brothers think about significant issues, I can be sure I do not love them as I ought. I am not a member of a thoroughly gospel community.
How can a group of persons possibly attain a shared vision unless they are willing to speak openly and with love about their problems, differences, possibly even, their polarizations?
2. Closely Knit Community Communicates. Individualism is related to isolation as community is related to communication. Just as a rugged individualist is content to remain more or less remote from other men and women, so conversely a socially oriented person thrives on reasonable exchanges with others. One of the surest signs that an apparent community is not a community is the presence of a continual tension. A group of people who are not mutually comfortable may have all the appearances of “getting on” and yet terribly lack gospel love. At the same time a closely knit community will admit that it has problems, perhaps serious, touchy problems. And it is willing to face them. “The more truly unavoidable a problem is,” remarks a contemporary educator, “the more important it is to acknowledge it. Frank exposure, comment and public discussion are more reassuring than the pretense of false gladness which in fact saps credibility.”
The members of a gospel community are remarkably close to one another. They love sincerely and from the heart (1 Pet.1:22); they greet one another with a kiss of love (Rom.16:16; 1 Cor.16:20; 2 Cor.13:12; 1 ThessS:26; 1 Pet.5:14); they keep their associates in their heart (Phil. 1:7); they miss one another and long to visit (1 Thess.3:5-7; Phil.1:8); they find it a joy to be in one another’s presence (2 John 12); they openly profess their mutual love (2 Cor.2:4); they belong to and love one another as blood brothers and sisters (Rom.12:5,10). People who live this closely share their vision, their problems, their insights, their questing. If they do not wish to do these things, they may have civility, but they do not have community as the gospel envisions it. A group of people who cannot communicate about their mutual problems is not a community.
3. Gospel Authority Requires A Two-way Encounter. A secular model dictatorship can function smoothly with one-way communication, but Christian authority is no dictatorship. This is explicitly ruled out in 1 Pet.5:3 —“Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge,” says Peter to the elders. And the Master said the same. Among the disciples no one is to lord it over the others, but rather the first behaves as the youngest and serves them (Luke 22:24-27). If the Christian leader is one who serves others (which does not, of course, do away with the obligation of those others to obey: cf, 1 Pet.5:5; Heb.13:17), he must listen to them. How else could he know their desires and needs? The very nature of Christian authority demands dialog for it to function as a service,
4. Correction Of A Brother. When a brother of a group errs, most people complain about him behind his back, which is exactly the opposite of what the gospel says should be done. If the brother’s fault is trivial, we say nothing to anyone about it; we mind our own affairs (1 Thess.4:11). If his fault is important, we go and talk to him about it alone (Matt.18:15). We bring others into the matter only to the extent that such becomes necessary (Matt.18:16-17). Community and groups in community make mistakes. According to the New Testament, therefore, we handle these mistakes and problems by facing them, not by refusing to talk them over in a cordial, understanding manner. People who refuse to discuss important and problematic matters prove either that they do not have community or that they are unwilling to live what they have.
5. Supplementing A Brother. Karl Rahner remarks somewhere that no one adequately represents the Lord. Despite my grandest aspirations and my best efforts, I am perilously close to zero; without the Lord I am zero. He is infinite; I am finite to the tip of my toes. And so is every one of my sisters and brothers. Try as he may, no one of us can represent our God to the world in an adequate manner. No one of us has a corner on light or goodness. So also in community no one may assume that he alone can speak for God. The leader has authority that must be respected and obeyed. Yes, of course. Anyone who accepts the gospel, accepts this. But neither the leader nor the led can claim a wholeness of insight into the community’s problems. This is why all must contribute their gifts, their charisms, their experience in shared dialog. The community as a community must try to find God’s will. Because the Spirit gives differing gifts and insights to different members, he expects us as a social group to share these gifts as the normal way of finding his truth. We may not, therefore, in important matters say, “let the leader decide for himself,” or “you people may talk, but leave me alone — I’m satisfied with things as they are.”
For these reasons dialog is no luxury. It is not optional, “for those who like to talk.” It is for everyone who claims Christ Jesus as Lord. Problems with it there are, of course. But problems are challenges for those who are willing to carry a cross . . . daily.
PREPARATION FOR SUCCESSFUL DIALOGING
When a human enterprise is both indispensable and difficult it ordinarily requires preliminaries, conditions, readiness. It is more than remotely possible that we fail in communication because we pre-fail in readiness. If Christian community absolutely must share its aspirations and its problem solving and yet finds that this sharing results in all sorts of problems, then the members of that community have no choice but to take adequate means to prepare themselves, individually and communally. How may this be done?
1. Optimistic Outlook. If there is truth in the statement that nothing succeeds like success, there may be some validity in saying that nothing fails like failure. Despite the many stumbling blocks that lie in the path of successful dialoging, the person who accepts the gospel can be nothing but optimistic in his outlook. The best reason for this optimism is not what we can do but what God can do. Where two or three are gathered in his name he is in their midst. If he is not in the midst of our communication sessions, they are not Christian. Even on the merely human level there is room for optimism, for (as Karl Rahner points out ) every dialog begins with a common acceptance of some truth, at least an agreement as to what common words mean. Hence, we may not suppose that the other person is simply and totally in error, We do have something in common.
2. Day By Day Atmosphere Of Caring, Trusting, Warm Love. People live in an indifferent, tense, unloving milieu can hardly be expected to succeed when they gather to discuss important and problematic questions. f, however, they are of one heart and soul (Acts 4:32), if they love one another sincerely and from the heart as genuine sisters and brothers (1 Pet. 1:22), if they are gentle, forgiving and affectionate in all their dealings (Eph.4:31-32; Phil.1:3-4, 7-8), dialog is not only possible; it is easy. If two people or ten cannot discuss their problems amiably, they had better examine a more basic question: do they love one another?
3. Study. Communication supposes something to communicate, It is not a sharing of ignorance. While each participant in a discussion cannot be an expert, each can do all he can to be as well informed as is possible. When he is not well informed, he is careful to be tentative and modest in his affirmations and denials. Successful discussion for the Christian requires an awareness of the signs of the times, a realistic acquaintance with the traits, movements, needs, aspirations of his age. He should especially be immersed in the biblical word, so that he really thinks the thoughts of God and not the mere pragmatism of human prudence. He should be aware and acceptive of the Church’s official teaching. There would be far less disagreement among us if we had adequate and full information.
4. Presumption Of Goodness And Intelligence. If dialog is an exploration of minds rather than a hostile argumentation, it is reasonable to expect that participants would suppose good intentions and suitable intelligence in their associates. Failure here is not usually open and blatant but rather hidden and subtle. Presumptions do fall to fact, yes. But it should be easy for a person committed to Christ to begin by thinking others good, for he is supposed to consider these others as better than himself (Phil.2 :3).
5. Detachment. If one should think that the preparatory stipulations thus far given are exacting, this present one is still more so. If, as I have already said, the particular kind of discussion at issue here implies pliability, it also implies detachment, detachment from “my way, my opinion, my preference.” If in a problematic matter we are seeking God’s will, not our own, we are not ready to begin until we are ready to accept another decision as soon as adequate evidence is presented. If dialog is neither teaching nor debating nor overcoming another, but rather an effort to explore one another’s minds to attain a solution, then we come to it prepared to alter our position. People who come to discussion with their minds closed to other decisions are not coming to dialog. Perhaps this is part of what Paul had in mind when in a context dealing with attaining unity of mind he said that we are to look after the interests of other people, not our own (Phil.2:4). Perhaps this is also part of Jesus’ demand that a man must give up all his possessions in order to be a disciple (Luke 14:33).
6. Prayer. The conditions I have so far suggested are so exacting that we may admit readily that they are not humanly attainable. To see rapidly that this is so, one need only examine his own heart honestly as regards each of them. And he can find confirmation simply by looking at human life generally. Who, for example, really lives Phil.2:4 except the saint? Christian communication absolutely demands prayer as a precondition: prayer for openness to the Spirit and to one another, prayer for humility, trusting, caring, detachment, optimism. It demands prayer for single-minded devotion to God’s will, not our own: whether we eat or drink or do anything else, we are to do it for him (1 Cor.1O:31). Many of our failures to achieve consensus are due to our petty vanities and self-seeking, our insecurity with even solid changes, or our devotion to ephemeral novelty. It demands personal private prayer, going into our room, closing the door and praying to the Father in secret (Matt.6:6). It demands communal prayer, gathering together in the name of Jesus so that he will be in our midst giving us whatever we ask (Matt.18:19-20). The many obstacles that lie before successful dialog can be considerably diminished by shared prayer. A group of people who can spontaneously open their hearts to the Lord in one another’s presence are not far from opening their hearts to one another in communal discussion.
HINTS FOR SUCCESSFUL DISCUSSIONS
A difficult human enterprise ordinarily requires dispositions and preparations if it is to come off successfully. Yes, but it also requires that the participants in that enterprise take the ordinary means to succeed in the very midst of their activity. Group dynamics has taught us no little about human interaction and what we do to one another in the course of our exchanges. The gospel tells us still more, much more. I wish to reflect here on a number of techniques, approaches, outlooks that we who follow Christ Jesus in ecclesial community should bring to our dialog sessions
1. Pre-information. Participants should be informed of the topic well in advance of the meeting so that they may read and/or think about it beforehand. Pre-information is requisite for doing one’s homework adequately.
2. Promptness. The discussion should open promptly and close at the agreed upon time. Some people will avoid sessions that go on and on endlessly . . . they do have other things to do.
3. Welcoming Atmosphere. One of the strongest stimulants to discussion is the expression of appreciation for contributions made to it. Participants do well to indicate their appreciation for these contributions by nod, smile or comment. . . even when they cannot share the position the speaker has taken.
4. Keeping The Topic In Focus. The leader (probably best to rotate this person) should in a gentle manner keep the discussion on the point at issue.
5. Exploration, Not Evaluation, First Item Of Business. The initial task the members of the group should face is the exploration of one another’s minds. Our first reaction to what another person is saying in a dialog situation is to judge mentally or verbally the value of what he is saying: “that is true . . . that is false . I agree . . or disagree.” Evaluation is a later step not the first one. Initially we should concentrate on understanding why the speaker is saying this, on exploring his mind, on taking advantage of his knowledge and experience. Since we are not debating, not trying to overcome, we should appreciate other insights and not immediately take a position about them.
6. Explicit Acknowledgment Of Worth In “Opponent’s” Statement. It is both rare and refreshing in the discussion of controversial issues that the participants acknowledge openly that the other side has made a valid point, even that “we” may not have a good answer to it. This practice shows honesty and good will in the listener, and psychologically it contributes no little toward consensus. Perhaps this is one reason the early ekklesia was of one heart and one mind.
7. Acceptance Of Emotion. We are men, not angels. Emotion is going to be part of our communication about problematic issues as long as we remain human. And this is not all bad. Yet even when emotions are unduly strong (anger, resentment, sharp retorts, indignant silences, hurt moodiness), we ought not to allow them to torpedo the session or cause discouragement. Faults should be forgiven and forgotten readily and calmly because we must preserve the unity of the Spirit (Eph.4:1-6, 31-32).
8. Gentleness In Response. Acceptance of emotion, even strong emotion, is incarnated in the gentle reaction. As Scripture points out, the gentle answer breaks wrath. Calmness tends to spread, just as anger does.
9. Welcoming Dissent. Since we are not concerned here with questioning divine revelation or the official teaching of the Church but with matters quite open to debate, we must insist that our dialog sessions offer no place to the squelching of dissent by word, body sign (frown, sigh), labeling or caricature. This putting down of dissent should occur neither during the discussion itself nor in later comment. Rather we are pleased that our brothers and sisters feel free enough to run counter to the general opinion.
10. Supporting The Unpopular View. Those who agree with an unpopular opinion should openly support the person who risks speaking in its favor. Too often people will register agreement during an informal coffee break but will not speak up in a formal meeting. This may be a cowardly timidity. Rather they should speak up and let the group know that they, too, share this thought, even if their comment is only an “I agree.”
11. Avoidance Of Caricature. When a person refers to a position he does not share, he should make a conscious effort to represent that opinion fairly. This should be the case even when our next suggestion is not practiced.
12. Required Expression Of The “Opposition’s” Mind. In controversial matters it is often helpful for the leader to ask each speaker to formulate or summarize in his own words the opposition’s position (to their own satisfaction) before beginning to disagree with it. Much of our disagreeing is due to an unconscious caricaturing of the other view. Regarding this technique one psychologist remarks: “sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it, you will discover that it is one of the most difficult things to do. However, once you have been able to see the other’s point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised. You will also find the emotions going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced, and those differences which remain will be rational and understandable.’
13. Discussion Of Underlying Values. Practical disagreements are often due to differing emphases on values all accept. For example, a group differs on how to build community because they differ greatly on how they weigh the underlying values they all accept; presence in the house, trusting and caring, presence at liturgical prayer, participating in shared prayer, devotion to assigned tasks. This group should discuss the relative importances of these values before they get to specific community issues. Their differences are deeper than particular regulations or expectations.
14. Dealing With General Problems. Since communal dialog is aimed at problems that concern the many, it should not be allowed to degenerate into an attack on an individual person, veiled or otherwise. This may easily hurt another without any profit to the communal effort; it may trigger defensiveness and cripple future exchanges. Possibly the most thorny obstacle to successful dialoging is the ‘problem person.” The individual we have in mind is hyper-critical of almost everything except what he/she favors and does. He has a domineering manner that tends to crush “the opposition.” He is absolutely sure he is right about almost every issue that is discussed; his tongue is sharp and he often hurts others with it. What can a community do? This person usually has a personal psychological problem, though he indignantly denies the mere suggestion. He most likely needs professional help. In any event the person in charge should see to it that this person does not destroy the community’s efforts at communication. If kindly admonitions bear no fruit, he should be excluded from dialog sessions.
15. Promoting Each Position Separately. It is sometimes useful in important matters for the group to spend one session or part of a session solely in advancing and exploring reasons in favor of a proposition (no criticism allowed) and then another session or part of a session in advancing and exploring reasons against that proposition (again no criticism allowed).The group then goes off to pray over the matter and ask the light of the Holy Spirit that each may judge the issue in his light. Later they return to criticize each set of reasons and come to their decision. This procedure has the advantage of forcing people of good will (others will not change in any event) to think outside the framework of their own preferences and persuasions.
16. Evaluation Of The Discussion. Success in communication is a growth development and we should improve as we go on. To further this growth each participant could, at the conclusion of the discussion, be given a duplicated check list with which to evaluate the session. The list might be as simple as the following: our atmosphere was receptive of each person; we explored one another’s mind before we agreed or disagreed; we remained on the point; we avoided labeling ideas or persons; if faults occurred during the discussion, we managed to rise above them and continue. Other items could, of course, be added. The next session would then commence with a summary of this evaluation given by an appointed secretary. This report would be a helpful stimulus to further improvement.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
Hearing is not heeding. Receiving sound waves from another human person requires only a normal hearing apparatus and a sufficiently wakeful attention. Listening to that person is incomparably more complex, conditioned as it is by early home life, natural endowments, talents, traits, past experiences, preferences, choices. But most of all, listening happens only in the context of all the inscrutabilities of the hearer’s freedom.
Most of us easily assume that we listen to others. Perhaps. But perhaps not. We hear all the words and sentences, but whether we heed is another matter. One listens only when he listens sympathetically, that is, honestly wanting to find whatever truth there is in what is being said. Since no one of us mortals, affected as we are with original sin, is perfectly pure in his desire for truth, no one of us is exempt from some degree of close-mindedness. It is only our God who is truth that can cure our reluctance to embrace all of his truth, however he speaks it.
All of us, therefore, need to learn to listen. We need to learn to love the truth, even the painful truth, the truth that runs counter to our emotional preferences and our vanity. While it is true that only God can give the complete desire for truth, we need to cooperate with him. I may, consequently, offer here a number of hints on how to listen.
1. First of all, we need to be humble, small in our own estimation. Finding the solution to a mathematical problem is possible without humility, but finding God’s will is impossible without this virtue. James tells us that God resists the proud but gives his grace (and light) to the humble (4:6).
2. We bring to the dialog session a conscious awareness of our willingness to be changed by what is going to be said (without, of course, sacrificing genuine principles). One listens wholly only if he is willing to modify his present position if the evidence warrants it. People who are set in their thoughts and determined not to change their behavior do not listen to contrary evidences.
3. We do not assume that while others may be closed, we are open, either to God or to others. Only he can unlatch the heart. Paul was one day proclaiming the word to a group of women at Philippi. In the crowd was a certain Lydia hearing all that he had to say. Of her reaction Luke observed: “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The Lord, not Paul, opened her heart. Hearing is not heeding. And the Lord alone gives the heeding. We need prayer to learn how to heed one another.
4. We try to grow in awareness that the person speaking is important, even precious, “God’s beloved” (Rom.1 :7). We pay attention to important people. To the proud person others are not important and so he is not inclined to take them that seriously. Even more, we value the opinions of those we love. If I do not really care what my brother thinks, I had better doubt that I love my brother.
5. I am helped in attaining objectivity in listening by imagining that I am an outsider, one not really affected by the ultimate decision. How would I think and react if I were advising another person? This placing of myself outside the situation enables me more easily to listen with my whole being, with my emotions and will as well as with my ears and intellect.
6. We look for (that is, make a positive effort to find) truth in the speaker’s remarks, especially those remarks we do not like. We ought not to react to every apparent disagreement as though it were in opposition to our view; it may be complementary to what we hold, an enrichment of our thought.
7. Those in discussion should be sensitive to “body speech” as well as to verbal speech; that is, they should notice the many signs a person gives of how he feels by countenance, hand emotions, bodily positions.
8. As the other person speaks one ought to be more intent on being enlightened by him than on preparing to refute him. Otherwise the hearing is not listening.
9. Most of all we need to be purified into the very holiness of Christ. The more a person is good, the more he is attuned to the truth and a love for it. Sanctity bestows a deep sort of perception. Paul tells us that the only way to know what is the good and perfect thing to do is to shed worldliness and take on the behavior of Christ (Rom.12:2). Jesus affirms that they who are of God hear the word of God (John 8:47); others do not. In dialog we are trying to hear the divine word spoken by our brother and sis
SIGNS OF OPENNESS
Our discussion so far deals mostly with concrete suggestions: preparing for dialog, engaging in it successfully, learning to listen. At this point I wish to take up an inner, intangible condition for communication. It is a supposition of what we have been talking about. This condition or the lack of it is hidden deeply in the core of the person and is more a matter of “how do I be?” than “how do I do?”
Openness is receptivity. Openness is one of those human realities that most of us feel we have and (often enough) others do not have. It is a subject so often mentioned in our day that we are weary of hearing about it. Hence, I shall not attempt here to describe what openness is or why it is so desirable. I shall merely suggest some signs by which each of us may examine his heart to see if he is as a matter of fact receptive to his sister, his brother, his God.
One receptive of reality is willing to discuss issues (reasonably, though not endlessly). He does not block off or evade discussion. The person who will not discuss is probably either insecure and/or closed to what the possible result may be.
Openness requires love. People who dislike each other are predisposed to disagree, for the disagreement can be used as a subtle means of rejection and retaliation. People who love, see. If one does not love, he does not see the other as he really is.
The open person is large-minded. He can get excited about the splendors of all reality, not just some aspect of it. He is the type of person who can thrill in physics or philosophy, in music or engineering, in a grain of sand or a tulip in the garden. He sees all of reality, not merely a portion of it. He is a both-and person, not an either-or type. He is the person who is devoted both to contemplation and to action, not just to one or the other. He finds God in his neighbor and in a flower. You can sell him on other things than what he has thought of because his mind is large. It is receptive of all of reality. The exclusive “one-only” individual is literally narrow-minded. He is sold only on his own idea and you can convince him of no other.
The open person reads and cites all of the evidences. He is non-selective, honest, If a discussion bears on joy and sacrifice in human life, he will refer to biblical texts that speak of rejoicing in the Lord always, but he will also cite those that speak of the narrow way and the hard road and renunciation of all things. He is honest. When structure is the subject, he will happily refer to texts that speak of our freedom and those that speak of obedience to human superiors. Though they may not be aware of it, people who fail to bring forward all the evidence are close-minded. In some cases they may even be dishonest.
People easily disagree with the person of receptive mind. If in class my students rarely question or oppose what I say, I ought not to conclude that they are thereby profoundly persuaded of the brilliance of my lecture. Rather, I should ponder whether my manner, if not my words, has said to them, “You will have a hard time of it, if you disagree with me.” If there are untouchable topics in a community, or a family, we may strongly suspect that emotions are blocking reason.
The man/woman of open mind admits mistakes. This trait is so obvious (though by no means overly common) that I shall not dwell on it.
Closely allied to admitting mistakes is the de facto changing of one’s position. While a person who has solidly come to some conclusion should not change it unless there is good reason, yet even he will on occasion find that he has been wrong. If I rarely modify my position on debatable points, I have ample reason to fear close-mindedness.
The open person tries (the word should be doubly italicized) to find truth in positions he does not like. Chesterton once spoke of a “hospitality of the heart for strange things and strange people.” Though we need not always conclude that the strange thing or strange individual is the best possible, we ought to seek goodness and value in it (him).
One receptive to reality can respond to a criticism calmly. Reasonable anger does not prove close-mindedness, but unreasonable anger does strongly suggest it. Likely enough is it that one who can listen to opposition with a tranquil mind is doing more than receiving sound waves.
The person of open mind tends to speak his disagreement when the “opponent” is present, not later and privately. He is willing to submit his thought to the mind of the other and have it criticized, It is, of course, much safer to register opposition after the dialog session within one’s own reinforcing circle. But this procedure is not a pronounced sign of either bravery or forthrightness.
The acid test of openness is the seeking of evidence and the bowing to it. Though this test seems obvious and easy enough, experience indicates that it is not at all as common as one might think. How often do we find people imperceptibly changing the subject when they cannot respond to what has been said? How often do we offer some cliché instead of a real response? How often do we simply remain silent. . . and yet not change our views at all? How often do people who have publicly embraced a position publicly change that position when later on accumulated evidence amply justifies a change? Bowing to evidence is clearly mandatory. But it is not easy.
CARING IMPLIES COMMUNICATION
Because communication is an overflow of love, and because love is another name for caring, we conclude that a caring community is one in which the members share something of their inner lives. Together they approach their common problems in an effort to promote their bond of unity in the one Spirit. In their more formal dialog sessions as well as in their informal conversations, they enrich one another with the unique truth, beauty, love and joy each possesses. As Scripture has it, they live together a life of truth and love.
This is the ‘Appendix” to Caring: A Biblical Theology of Community by Thomas Dubay. It is published by Dimension Books, @1973, and is used by permission.
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