“But Barnabas took him (Paul), and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists, but they were seeking to kill him.” — Acts 9:27-29.
“People generally quarrel because they cannot argue. And it is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. This is why there are so many quarrels, breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end. People do not seem to understand even the first principle of all argument: that people must agree in order to disagree. Still less do their imaginations stretch to anything so remote as the end or object of all argument: that they should disagree in order to agree.” — G. K. Chesterton, “The New Generation and Morality,” The Illustrated London News, March 9, 1929 [Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), Vol.. XXXV, 53.]
The term “dialogue” is, of course, of classical origin. Literally, it means a conversation, particularly an organized written conversation between two or more people. The dialogue is about a given subject usually of some gravity or consequence, though playful dialogues are certainly part of the literature. The word comes from Greek and means “to gather,” “to speak,” “to reason.” Logos, of course, is the philosophic word that refers to Christ in the Prologue of the Gospel of John. It signifies that a meaning is to be found in things. Each being has its measure or rule according to what it is, by which we know it to be this thing and not that thing. Logos always refers to intellect or reason, not to will. Dialogue will be the disciplined, engaged exchange of ideas. Its purpose is to become more articulately reasonable. The end of dialogue is truth now spelled out in the light of all feasible objections to it, themselves manifested in the exchange. The knowledge of what is true includes the knowledge of what is not true.
Dialogue, moreover–though it can, and perhaps should, be delightful and charming–is not a mere device by which we hear ourselves talk. It is not simply a babbling on. Its eloquence and style serve dialectic and syllogism. The phrase “locked in conversation” is closer to its meaning. Dialogue is for the purpose of arriving at a conclusion, a truth through honorable conversation or exchange of ideas. Dialogue should take place in an atmosphere beyond the threat or coercion, as Plato’s Gorgias reminds us. The rules of logic are themselves guidelines to arriving at the truth that is the purpose of conversation and controversy. But moral virtue, the honesty and courage to seek the truth, must be an intrinsic part of dialogue if it is to achieve its end.
Aquinas’ amusing remark in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics makes this point clear: “Those who love to listen to and tell stories, and who waste the whole day talking about all kinds of contingent remarks and deeds (unnecessary and useless affairs) are said to be garrulous” (#602). None of us wants to be accused of being “garrulous,” a word that means “chatter” or pointlessly talkative. Though it does not deny a place for lightsome and casual humor in everyday life, dialogue is not a mere telling of passing yarns or tales as if they had nothing to teach us. It is not, to repeat, “garrulous.” At its best, it is concerned with ultimate things, though this concern is by no means dull but close to the most exciting enterprise we can ever know.
The “Dialogues” of Plato, no doubt, are the most famous examples of this literary form, one imitated by innumerable writers, including Cicero and Augustine, who were also masters of this mode of discourse. The “monologue” or “soliloquy” means an inner “dialogue” of oneself with oneself, an effort to make things clearer by spelling out to oneself what the issues involved in the subject really are. The “dia-logue” always implies another, a listener, who responds to a speaker. The first speaker in turn himself becomes a hearer who responds back on the basis of the response to his initial position. We are both listeners and speakers.
In this sense, philosophy exists in conversation or dialogue where its terms and arguments become alive. The same issues, both ultimate ones and those of less import, keep coming up again and again among our kind. This recurrence is one of the reasons why we continue to read Plato and participate in his conversational dialogues, which, in their totality, cover much of what is at stake at the heart of mankind. Plato is the first and most delightful of intellectual adventures. But he is relentless in his pursuit of truth, even when Socrates tells us that the highest wisdom is to “know nothing.” To know Plato’s “nothing” is, in fact, to know many things. It is not a skepticism about knowing anything but a realization of the inexhaustible nature of everything that is.
The contemporary Church has, in many ways, committed itself to “dialogue,” almost as if to imply that this format is its preferred way of proceeding rather than by the statement and teaching of doctrinal truths. Though not naively denying the existence of individuals and polities that will use civil and military force to prevent truth to be known, the Church is also mindful of the religious wars of early modernity and even of today. A better way to protect the truth was sought than either the dogmatic denial that it existed or its demotion to the merely private realm with no public presence.
“We men and women, to whom creation is as it were entrusted for its management, have usurped it. We ourselves want to dominate it in the first person and by ourselves. We want unlimited possession of the world and of our own lives. God is in our way,” Benedict XVI told the recent Synod. “Either he (God) is reduced merely to a few devout words, or he is denied in everything and banned from public life so as to lose all meaning. The tolerance that admits God as it were as a private opinion but refuses him in the public domain, the reality of the world and of our lives, is not tolerance but hypocrisy” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, October 5). These are blunt and sobering words that make us aware of what we are up against.
But the word dialogue is everywhere. Next perhaps to “rights”–itself a rather unfortunate word in modern context–”dialogue” is probably the most used word in public ecclesiastical discourse. We “dialogue,” (to use the word as a verb), with Protestants of all varieties, with the Orthodox, with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, scientists, philosophers, anyone who will agree to serious conversation about basic issues that divide us. We are dying to “dialogue” with the Chinese and the Muslims if we can find someone to dialogue with us. We even seek to “dialogue” with the dissenters of various hues among us. The forms of reconciliation or penance even seem to have evolved into something like a dialogue. Frequently, though they have happily died down, there used even to be “dialogue homilies,” a particularly cruel and unusual form of punishment (from my experience of them). A dialogue is not exactly a “debate,” though there are elements of debate in it. Dialogue is more relaxed and it need not arrive immediately at a conclusion. Sometimes it is enough that exchange was even tried among groups or individuals with a long history of hostility to one another.
Ever since the pontificate of Paul VI in particular, continuing through that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church has set up commission after commission, meeting after meeting, colloquium after colloquium. These seek first to “understand” accurately any points of agreement or disagreement among those engaged in dialogue. Next they seek to resolve such difficulties, if possible, in a way agreeable to both parties, but still faithful to the truth involved. In this sense, “dialogue” is contrasted with “polemic” or even controversy. Behind its placid facade is the assumption that human beings want to have their differences if not resolved, at least clarified. John Paul II was particularly insistent on making every effort to confront differences and ancient hostilities head on, but in a friendly fashion that had nothing else as its goal but the honest truth of an issue.
Looking back over this record, it seems worthy of note that most of the instigation to such “dialogue” has come from Catholics who have done the inviting and often hosted the sessions. Partly, no doubt, this initiative is more possible for Catholics because of the unity of the papacy. It also reflects Catholicism’s claims both in reason and revelation so that it is interested in the agnostic as well as the Anglican, the Hindu as well as the liberal. The Church, for good or ill, does conceive itself as an organization of more than human founding that was consigned a particular mission directed “to all nations.”
Moreover, the Church has at many levels decided to pursue the issues at controversy. It has been acutely aware of the scandal of the divisions within Christendom, first with the Orthodox and then with the Protestants, and finally with the “modern world” itself and what it really is at its cultural depths. These differences may or may not be resolvable, but the Church has certainly acted as if it holds that something substantial can be accomplished in such dialogues. This effort has not been proposed in a spirit of arrogance or hostility, but of genuine belief that 1) it was wrong not to attempt the effort and 2) that even minimal or initial steps were better than nothing. Not everyone, to be sure, wants his position so examined and discussed in its origins and depths.
The background assumption was that truth was one, so that no matter how unlikely it seemed, honest dialogue could take steps–often small ones–toward realizing it. At times, almost, the Church seemed to hold the Socratic principle that all sin was based in ignorance, not will. There is a definite “Thomist” streak in these efforts. Aquinas long ago set a brilliant model of how to deal with the Muslims–say in his Contra Gentiles–wherein taking the arguments of the other side, every effort was made to state them clearly, often more clearly than those holding the opinion could themselves formulate them.
The danger in the “dialogue” format as it has developed in recent times is, no doubt, the relativist temptation. The conversation is merely for the sake of conversation. Nothing will ever really be resolved. No conclusions will ever be arrived at as that would stop the dialogue. It is a kind of public relations show to demonstrate good will or perhaps public etiquette. But to hope for anything more is really naive. There is also the “world parliament of religion” school of thought that wants to incorporate all religions, including particularly Catholicism, into a kind of political super-church. This world organization, under the protection of the UN, will harness or pacify the disruptive forces said to be found in religion of any species. Religion, as the ancient Epicureans taught, is useful to keep the masses busy, but it is at best a myth.
The Catholic position, for its part, has generally been that it is open to any truth wherever and however formulated, provided that it can be put in proper context. No doubt this approach will seem “condescending” to many but the very nature of the Church is itself a claim to truth. Any mitigation of its essence would, no doubt, be an admission that it did not believe in itself. In this sense, Catholicism is not a “religion,” but a revelation. Religion is what men seek to offer to the gods, while revelation is bound by what is handed down. Its essence is loyalty to what is revealed. Its impact is to explain itself to mankind in terms both of itself and what man has understood by itself. Catholicism does not stand for what man holds about God but about what God holds about man.
But something more is at stake here. Any reader of Tolkien, for instance, will suspect that something ominous can be found in the way that dialogue, by itself, does not produce intended results by articulated agreement. Both Aristotle and Scripture in various ways suggest to us that truth itself is not simply a calm acceptance of rationally supported argument. It is that, indeed, but there seems to be a curious, long-term rejection of the light. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. At more than one point in the study of modern philosophy and politics it seems that we run up against not so much difficulties of understanding but of a determined “non serviam,” of a deliberate rejection of truth even when it is known, perhaps because it is known.
Christ said that He would send His disciples among men as “sheep among wolves.” This suggests that they would not find their activities only in debating forums, academic chairs, or gentle dialogues. Indeed, they were told that they would be persecuted. They would be told how to answer magistrates, almost as if it was not their words that were being rejected. This realization brings up the limits of dialogue. Argument can be rejected not merely because it is illogical or inconsistent, but also because it is true. Of course, it will be rejected in the name of some other truth, or apparent truth. But the fact is that much modern thought, in its intellectual inconsistencies, is ultimately not rooted in reason but in will.
In the end, it is not surprising that truth is rejected because it is illogical but because it is a truth that does not allow what we want to be true. Modern philosophy is often a system to prevent us from knowing the truth. It systematically defends itself and its first principles not because it rejects the arguments of truth or revelation, but because it sees that philosophy in fact does lead in the direction of revelation. In many ways, philosophy is an enormous system designed to protect us from facing the truth, if that truth itself leads to the coherence and consistence of revelation and its relation to philosophy as such.
In the beginning, I cited a passage from Acts and another from Chesterton. In Acts, Paul is threatened with death precisely because he presents arguments for the truth of his position. And Chesterton remarks that the purpose of argument or dialogue is not ultimately to disagree but to agree. The purpose of disagreement is in the end to agree. That is to say, dialogue is intended to achieve something beyond itself. It is well that we do not agree before we understand why we should agree. On the other hand, it is also true that we refuse to argue or agree to philosophic positions because we are afraid of where the argument leads, if it leads to a coherence in the universe between reason and revelation.
The world is not divided merely by intellect and its understandings of things. It is more fundamentally divided by will, by the thesis that, as Benedict XVI said, “we want unlimited possession of the world and of ourselves.” To accomplish this latter ambition, we have to lie to ourselves about ourselves and about the coherence of the world. To protect our self-generated view of ourselves, we have to develop a theory that justifies what we do according to our own wills. This is why, however useful, dialogue runs up against our wills that enable us to choose another view of the world but the one that is.
Dialogue, however useful, is never enough. It always brings us face to face with that will that chooses not to serve, no matter what the evidence.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first published on October 25, 2005, at Ignatius Insight.)
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