Q: Archbishop J, is dialogue really a way to inner transformation?
I believe our contemporary culture too often underestimates and misunderstands dialogue. By taking a secular view, we see dialogue in one dimension only—the human. We do not see the many ways it opens us to the Divine, the poor, the other and, ultimately, to a deeper knowledge of ourselves.
Dialogue is not just speaking; it is a giving of oneself in love to the other. In the end, it is the giving of the self in love to God.
Dialogue requires self-awareness. Have we turned up to listen to the other? Or have we hastened to justify our position and to argue with the other to prove we are right. That is not dialogue; it is debate.
Dialogue requires deeper ways of being open to the other. Debate requires an adversarial style, where we prove superiority over our opponent.
The Caribbean Experience
In the Caribbean, we are great at debate. Someone puts forward a position and we seek to find flaws and then exaggerate the errors to illustrate the silliness of the argument.
Debate engages us in a defence of our views, in opposition to the viewpoint of the other. It is adversarial and seeks, ultimately, to win by destroying our opponents’ position.
True debate sharpens the speakers as it forces them to view their position through contending views. But by focusing on the rebuttal of the contending views, there is no true human-to-human engagement. It is a sharpening of the mind, not an openness to conversion of heart.
In the Caribbean, often when we speak of having a discussion, we have in mind a debate. This is an ego problem; we want to shine by making others look small. We are not really interested in their ideas. We want to win and look good. This is turning up with the ego to the fore.
So, someone presents an idea and we do not begin with the common ground, or the merits of the idea. We search for the one point that has a flaw and we exaggerate that point to demolish the whole argument. This is intellectual laziness. This does not take much intellectual power. Every argument has some flaw, minor or major. Real creativity, intellectual capacity, and emotional intelligence turns up when we are ready to learn and be moved in the heart.
The object of dialogue is to be open and receptive, to be able to listen. Many times, we need to suspend judgement to be able to hear all sides of the issue. This requires that we remain open and curious through the whole process.
By listening to the position of others we learn our assumptions and blind spots. If we enter deeply and with focus, we learn about ourselves and others. We also learn about the hidden forces that prevent agreement and a common approach that we do not easily see and hear.
Dialogue requires that we turn up with a profound respect for each person at the table. It necessitates a spirit of openness and a desire to learn. Dialogue begins with a re-examination of all the positions and the assumptions that underly them.
In our listening, we are exploring the common ground that we share. We are listening to understand and find agreement, seeking to understand the assumptions. In this way, we are listening to what is said, what is not said, and the body language of all involved. This is a process of full engagement.
Communion, the Fruit of Dialogue
The ultimate fruit of good dialogue is communion. Thus, Pope Paul VI believed that dialogue is the new way of being Church in our era. In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Pope Saint John Paul II said: “A Spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us” (43).
Through dialogue, we are invited to contemplate the true dignity of each person and the gift they are to us and each other. As we contemplate the indwelling Trinity (Jn 14:23), we are invited to contemplate the other as the home of the Trinity. In this way, the other becomes a portal for the encounter with the divine. This, for me, is the real grace of authentic dialogue, as we are thrust into the consciousness of God who is present in the dialogue.
It is always an amazing experience if we have the eyes to see, and the heart to experience the truth of the encounter.
In an address to leaders of non-Christian religions in Madras, February 1986, Pope Saint John Paul II said: “By dialogue we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.” With these words, the saintly pope raised the bar of dialogue.
It is not transactional, an attempt to achieve something. Rather, dialogue is theological; it is a portal to the divine. By opening our hearts to the other in dialogue, we open ourselves to the ultimate other: God.
This is the deepest truth about dialogue that we must understand. It is a deeply spiritual activity, that if done well, brings deep inner transformation and ultimately conversion of heart.
Through dialogue we are invited to open to the other and to encounter the Divine.
Become conscious of your conversations. In each one, try to focus on the person or persons involved. Listen deeply to what they are saying, ask questions for clarification if you need, and seek to learn new things from the conversation, about you and the other. Above all seek to encounter Christ.