Dialogue on zuntier: beyond “beliefs”

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.

8 thoughts on “Dialogue on zuntier: beyond “beliefs”

  • Reply CJohn Zammit 6th October 2013 at 10:15 pm

    This article misses the wood for the trees. Dialogue is between equals.

    In the believers vs non-believers scene, the “thick wall” is not so much the (eternal) debate about God’s existence, as it is about the religionists imposing, through legislation, their beliefs on the unwilling.

    When the believers, and in the case of Malta (and Ireland, and the Philippines, and, and, and … ), stop meddling in personal lives, then there will be room for dialogue. Until that happens, the big question from us — non-believers — is: from where the do you get your authority to impose your will on us? (The women in my life have no qualms about adding a dash of gutter-language to that question.)

    As Churchill would say, dictating my life, in the name of an entity which I do not recognize, is the kind of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 7th October 2013 at 12:41 pm

      The world you are envisaging seems to be one where religions or believers are deprived of putting forward what they believe to be a good way of living. Long have been the days when religion or the Church imposed anything on anyone. Expressing your opinions is not equal to imposing them. I think your argumentation is a bit exaggerated.

      The article specifically says that believers and non-believers are to listen attentively to different and opposing views, without brushing them off on the pretext of “please don’t meddle in my life”. If one is to enter into a fruitful dialogue one must first and foremost be open to challenge his own ideas.

      Any what do you mean by “Dialogue is between equals?” It seems to me to be more of a cliché, (sorry for being frank)

  • Reply CJohn Zammit 7th October 2013 at 5:41 pm

    My turn to be “frank”:
    Asking for the meaning of a term and in the next breath, labeling it a cliché, is an oxymoron ☺;
    demanding that we “listen attentively” and then ignoring what is written, isn’t exactly conducive to honest dialogue; thus …
    The key term, in my post, is: “imposing, through legislation”.
    In no way have I implied that believers should not be allowed to state their beliefs. It’s the legislating thereof that I find offensive.
    In Malta, a woman has no control on her reproductive choice. Whether seeking a pregnancy through IVF, or termination of an unwanted one through Abortion, the Law — based on Catholic dogma — prevents her from attaining her wish … and her medical professionals cannot practice according to her needs.
    Men and women who are not heterosexuals cannot legally consummate their relationships.
    And I won’t mention the recent Divorce debacle.

    If those infringements on fundamental human rights are, in your opinion, not “imposing”, then, I wish that I were not a Humanist so that I could say, with a straight face, “This must be Hell”.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 7th October 2013 at 6:43 pm

      As far as I am aware, the Church is not in parliament and it is not the Bishop who promulgates legislation in Malta, so I cannot understand this imposition. It seems to me that you are portraying Malta as a theocratic state where the religious authority dictates what is legal and what is illegal. Such is not the case in Malta as obviously the Divorce legislation (which you didn’t want to mention but which you in fact did) proves.

      My final question was not at all a contradiction in terms. It seemed to me (and still does) to be a cliché and asked you whether you would be kind enough to clarify it.

      • Reply CJohn Zammit 7th October 2013 at 7:30 pm

        When we enter into “dialogue” as stipulated by Dr. Delicata, it implies that the participating parties are after the same end and how best to achieve the stated goal. Each side is equally capable of influencing the other to change positions; thus, they are equal. This is not the case in the belief vs non-belief discussions … there is no way that believers are going to change our (non-believers) stance on discarding any argument based on the concept of an almighty God. That said, it does not mean that we have anything against you believing in whatever you want to believe; far from it, we want you have the full freedom of choosing how to live your life — just don’t impose it on us …

        Which brings us back to the matter of legislation:
        It is irrelevant who is writing the Law. The important point is the basis of the Law.
        I have highlighted that aspect by stating, unequivocally, that the Maltese Law is based on Catholic dogma. (Once again, you have not been attentive to what I wrote.)
        If you care to show me how it is otherwise, I’ll listen.

        • Reply Anton D'Amato 7th October 2013 at 11:28 pm

          I think that the scope of dialogue is not that of convincing the other to change position or beliefs; it is more a walking together up the same road towards the Truth which as Dr Delicata wrote “is less a destination and more a path”.

          As she holds in the conclusion of her blog “certainties can be our greatest stumbling block, while with empathy, a bold but nonetheless tentative openness to one another is our greatest opportunity”

        • Reply Nadia Delicata 8th October 2013 at 8:26 am

          Dear Mr Zammit, thanks for your comments. Kindly allow me to clarify that the aim of “dialogue” as I tried to present it is not to “influence the other to change positions.” Rather, it is to actively participate and share in one common goal: seeking the truth. Individual viewpoints could contradict each other, and still each one could be capturing something important, something true—in particular about the pivotal matter that presumably interests us all: human flourishing.
          I am assuming it is for this reason that you brought up the matter of legislation. Yet if legislation is to be changed—as it should, considering that societies change—dialogue, and an openness to consider the truth in each other’s viewpoints, is even more critical.
          So—to quote zuntier blogger Christian Colombo—can we start with what we have in common, rather than what (might seem) to divide us? Can we at least agree in principle that a just society that protects and encourages the wellbeing (not just minimum rights) of all, especially of the vulnerable, is a reasonable and desirable goal?
          And if we manage to find a level of agreement on that foundational level, can we then proceed to deliberate civilly and responsibly, knowing full well that we have a long way ahead of us to reach a compromise that we can all live with?
          Personally, I believe it is doable—hence, the point of the post—but only if all parties involved (and that means, all citizens) can implicitly trust in each others’ good intentions.

  • Reply CJohn Zammit 9th October 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Dear Dr. Delicata, I need not remind you that, “good intentions” often lead to Hell (according to the adage). Nowhere is this more clear than in the Maltese laws dealing with women’s reproductive rights.

    To make sense, both terms, “Intentions” and “truth” must have a target without which, both are meaningless.

    I haven’t read Colombo’s blog, so I will just comment on the question referenced above: There is never an argument about “what we have in common”. The root of all debate lies in difference.

    My own view is that I need not discuss my non-belief because it’s a one-line stance: I do not believe in the supernatural, no matter how it’s labeled (and by whom); and I have no quarrel with what others choose to have faith in.

    That said, I do take strong exception to believers imposing their will on the unwilling, through legislation — nowhere is this more prevalent than in Malta.

    If one cares to focus on that particular point, or on any other similar issue which affects a citizen’s fundamental human rights, then I am all ears and will gladly participate.

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