An evangelical’s (un)apologetic for the church
Dialogue to what end?
Mutual respect is not enough. Truth matters.
by Brandon Gaide
Even as I write this article, I’m conflicted. I value dialogue, deeply. I’ve experienced firsthand the ways that dialogue can shape and influence my own attitudes and opinions. I don’t want to denigrate the good things that can come from dialogue.
But I have another conviction too. While I value dialogue and recognize the benefits that can come from it, I wonder if we value it too highly. And maybe it’s because I so often hear about the value of dialogue but so rarely hear of its possible pitfalls that I feel a need to raise some concerns.
By “dialogue” I mean a conversation with people who are different than us, a conversation in which we seek to express ourselves and listen to the other with love, compassion, and respect. Nothing about that sentence strikes me as unhealthy or immoral or dangerous. On the contrary, I wish more people would pursue this manner of dialogue. We need to hear a diversity of perspectives. We need more practice at conversing in a loving manner.
But to what end are we engaging in dialogue? Yes, we seek to influence and be influenced; to shape and be shaped. But again, to what end?
I’m a novice woodworker, which means I make lots of objects that aren’t quite right. I’ve made several cabinet doors that end up wonky by the time I’m finished. But when I go to remake them, I don’t start from the same place. I’ve been given more experience. Next time I won’t clamp them as tightly. Next time I’ll cut the wood more precisely. Next time I’ll double check the trueness of the lumber. This knowledge is invaluable to becoming a better woodworker. But the goal of woodworking is not to become a better woodworker. It’s to build a door.
I want to suggest we have mistaken dialogue as the end rather than a means. We so value the process that we’ve forgotten the product. As helpful as it is to influence and be influenced by others, these byproducts are just that: byproducts. What about the things that are actually being communicated in these dialogues? To give it a name, what about truth?
Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of legitimacy puts this in perspective. Legitimacy, he says, requires that “how you carry out your ideas is as important as the ideas themselves.” As a culture, we’ve pressed this idea much too far. We’ve gotten so focused on how we carry out our ideas (how we dialogue) that our ethics have eclipsed our convictions (the actual substance of our dialogue). Dialoguing respectfully with bad ideas has become, for many of us, much more important than dialoguing without respect but with truth.
‘My impression . . . is that we care far more about how we’re communicating than what is being communicated.’
I’m not making a case that the pendulum should swing back to the opposite extreme. I’m simply suggesting that both are important. My impression, from places as diverse as the church, news outlets, and celebrity gossip, is that we care far more about how we’re communicating than what is being communicated. We are far more concerned with the process than the product.
This fixation on the process is understandable. We don’t live in a culture where everyone agrees upon the same truth. The common ground we share is not a specific story (e.g., the story of the Bible, the story of Marxism, the story of Islam) but a more generic set of ethics that include mutual respect and tolerance for other perspectives. Questions of “the truth” are often, by nature, contrary to these ethics because they only show tolerance to a point.
It’s safer to focus on the process of dialogue rather than the product of dialogue. It doesn’t always require much conviction to say, “I respect your perspective as valid and legitimate.” To speak of truth is to introduce the possibility of judgment, to weigh one another’s perspectives against an objective truth. This feels imposing and imperialistic. “Who are you to tell me what the truth is?”
In Acts 17, as Paul is headed to the Areopagus, the author tells us that, “All the Athenians . . . would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21 ESV). They’re on a merry-go-round of ideas, whiling away their time in dialogue that never lands them anywhere. They’re perpetual seekers but they never seem to find. They’re abuzz with the promise of new ideas, but nothing seems to satisfy their search, so much so that they maintain an altar “to the unknown god” (17:23), out of concern that perhaps they’ve missed something.
Their humility toward the truth is admirable. We all need to marry our convictions to a willingness to be wrong. But must we suspend our judgment indefinitely? If our only goal is to remain perpetually open to new ideas, how will we know how to live? How can we teach our children what’s right and wrong? With what authority can we make decisions about justice?
G.K. Chesterton, reflecting on science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, says this: “He thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” If dialogue is only about dialogue, and not about truth, we have no real moral footing, no real authority to which we can appeal, apart from a generic ethic to love and respect one another.
As important as dialogue is, we can’t hide behind it forever. Once the whole world has validated and legitimized each other’s perspectives, will we be in a better position? I think, yes. However, we still have to make decisions about justice, and government, and church, and God, and the like. These aren’t questions only of tolerance or respect, but of truth.
I recognize that, if truth, and not just mutual forbearance, is the goal of dialogue, life will be messier. People will be offended or feel like their perspective hasn’t been validated. But isn’t there a point at which a perspective is invalid? If someone’s religion calls him or her to sacrifice puppies every day, would we still validate that religion? We all enter into judgment of other perspectives at least on certain points.
Paul, in speaking at the Areopagus, is not content to contribute one more “new idea” to the panoply of gods in Athens. He speaks with conviction that may cause us to bristle today: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 ESV). Paul’s not looking for people simply to respect his perspective. He has an agenda. He’s making a judgment on the culture and is calling people to a God who is greater.
Can we, as followers of Christ, speak with this degree of conviction about our God?
Brandon Gaide serves as associate pastor of Next Generation Ministries at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. He loves the church, wit, coffee, metaphors, and his wife and two baby girls.