It’s been almost a year since I was invited to enter and participate in this space called zuntier. I accepted the invitation because it promised to allow for “encounter”… indeed for that elusive reality of authentic exchange called “dialogue”. I also believed it was significant that the welcoming space was being created by a team of dedicated and talented University students. In a world where it is too easy to become disillusioned, youthfulness not only dares to hope, but actively pursues the dream that dialogue, encounter, the bridging of differences is truly possible in a world long accustomed to building thick walls of us vs. them.
Yet, to echo Winston Churchill, when it comes to dialogue: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
While we might think that dialogue is about speaking evocatively, daringly or just plain smart, it takes way more guts and stamina to truly listen and pay attention to what the other is saying—especially to those things we might not like, do not approve of, or, worse still, challenge our precious opinions. The dialogic encounter is not merely a question of expressing our view of things, but of making the effort to truly understand where everyone else is coming from as well.
In the particular case of zuntier, for instance, that emphasizes dialogue among so-called “believers and non-believers”, it is imperative that “believers” (which, unfortunately, is often reduced to “Catholic church goers”) understand why self-confessed “agnostics” or “atheists” believe that “religion” (or Catholicism in particular?) is fundamentally flawed and erroneous. What arguments are put forward? Or perhaps, more to the point, what assumptions and even disappointments about religion are assumed, if not always articulated? All of those arguments, assumptions and disappointments are precious lessons, and oftentimes, hard pills to swallow, for the “believer” who truly desires to dialogue.
On the other hand, so called “non-believers” are invited to understand why intelligent and reasonable people not only find skeptical arguments about the existence of God and the nature of things unpersuasive, but that, for the Catholic at least, they are so because they fundamentally miss the point of what characterizes their “faith” or horizon of meaning. As heirs to Greco-Roman culture, Christianity (and since the Enlightenment, Catholicism in particular) has always assumed that faith not only does not contradict reason, but “perfects” it. The issue, of course, is whether that assumption has been practiced consistently, in particular, in the pivotal task of forming and educating the faithful.
In other words, true dialogue requires nuanced understanding of the other’s position and how it has come to be. That is, dialogue is built on sharing narratives that, for their right interpretation, presuppose not mere thinking, but empathy: that quintessential human ability to not only wear another’s shoes, but ideally, to have the guts to walk for a mile or two in them as well. True dialogue is less about mental swording and more about intuitive attuning by truly feeling the discomfort, the dis-ease that all of us experience in our depths, and through which we can come to grasp that we are all alike even in our differences.
Lastly, as we start a new academic year I am reminded of what a privileged space for dialogue “university culture” is. For, in its essence, the university represents the embodiment of the truly human desire that is at the heart of our pursuit of dialogue: the search for truth. As Pope Francis recently put it, university is a “space of discernment, that nurtures a culture of proximity and that forms in solidarity.” All three—evaluating positions, being present to each other and being willing to truly understand each other—are deeply reasonable and responsible pre-conditions for dialogue in service to truth.
Truth itself, however, is less a destination and more a path. And like any path, it can be dark, it can be tortuous; it can be fun or elating, but it presupposes constant re-adjustment and re-evaluation as it is treaded not with certainty, but tentatively.
So it goes for our precious opinions. If we truly believe in the search for truth, in intelligent discourse, in the hope of a “culture of dialogue”, then certainties can be our greatest stumbling block, while with empathy, a bold but nonetheless tentative openness to one another is our greatest opportunity.