The word “dialogue” gets thrown around, usually as a positive activity.
But perhaps we treat it too glibly. It means more than just talking to someone.
It also involves listening and the willingness to be changed. Given that, we have to ask ourselves, Are we really committed to dialogue?
In his wise, incisive book Presence and Encounter (reviewed on page 53), David G. Benner says dialogue is “exploration and discovery through conversational engagement.”
Exploration and discovery sound exciting when you’re talking about traveling to a new place or learning a new subject. But when it involves our beliefs about the Bible and one another, it may sound less exciting and more like a temptation to compromise those beliefs.
Mennonite Church USA is engaged in a long conversation about how to treat LGBT members of the church.
This magazine, whose tagline is, “A Forum for the Voices of Mennonite Church USA,” encourages such conversation. And you can read some of that in our pages, especially in Letters, and on our website.
But if we are committed to dialogue, as the Saskatoon and Purdue resolutions on sexuality encourage us to be, we’ll need to go beyond just conversation, even polite conversation.
As Benner writes: “Curiosity and respectful listening are not enough for dialogue. Dialogue demands a deep enough meeting that we actually become participants in the life of the other.”
This kind of dialogue has a price, he says.
“That price is the willingness to be changed by the experience. Authentic dialogue demands consent to the possibility of being changed by the encounter,” Benner writes.
I witnessed some of this at the March 26-28 meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council.
There the CLC members met around tables of six to eight people to discuss various issues. Each table included an intentional mixture of people from different conferences or agencies or constituency groups.
I heard people say how encouraging it was to learn to know people they may disagree with and to talk about these issues.
Karen Sensenig said she was eager to go back to Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference and tell others how people can come together, even with different perspectives.
Gary Wolfer of South Central Conference said our culture tells us our own opinions are correct and others’ are dumb, but he was blessed to hear different perspectives and to be heard.
This doesn’t mean people necessarily changed their minds about the issues. But they seemed to come away with more respect and understanding of those who had a different perspective.
The delegate assembly also uses table groups to discuss issues.
There, too, the tables are intentionally diverse. In order to practice discernment there and follow the Spirit’s leading, we will need to enter a more intimate and courageous dialogue.
In his column on page 55, Ervin Stutzman offers helpful advice for such dialogue, including admitting our need for God’s mercy and grace, especially in areas we cannot see, submitting to the gracious insights of others who know some parts of us better than we know ourselves and confessing our faults to one another, seeking forgiveness and assistance to help us change.
Dialogue is crucial, important work, but it is not easy.
As Benner says: “Genuine dialogue is an intimate encounter. It is not for those who lack courage to honestly engage with another.”
And while providing a good structure for dialogue, such as table groups, is important, Benner says, “we don’t actually create dialogue, nor can we ever control it.”
Instead, we submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit and pray for God to lead us.
Gordon Houser is editor of The Mennonite. This ran as an editorial in the May issue.