I’ve been looking back over the summer and thinking of two conversations that took place on a large scale. One was the Catholic Conversation Project, a gathering of (mostly) pre-tenure theologians to discuss our sense of theological purpose and method, and how that might influence our scholarly and personal contributions to the academy, church, and world. One often repeated idea during our conversation was change that dialogue brings, and also the need for changes in order to engage in dialogue personally and communally.
The second conversation took place at Loras College during our first Summer Leadership Institute for those involved with parish leadership. Our goal was to explore both theoretical insights and practical advice on various changes facing parish life, from demographic to financial to liturgical. In one session it was pointed out that dialogue is encountered as presaging or requiring change, and so is often perceived—to varying degrees—as threatening to our selves, our communities, our beliefs and practices.
Both these conversations have me thinking quite a lot about what dialogue means, what the processes for dialogue are, and what structures promote and provide space for dialogue. As much as we might like to think that we’re “just talking,” if we’re truly communicating—literally entering into communion—with others, then change is inevitable.
Theologically, we can rightly describe such change in terms of conversion, and I think revelation is at the heart of conversion through dialogue. The Word that becomes known to us in the person of Jesus Christ reveals both the divine and human; to receive and respond to the Word is to be changed. Similarly, human dialogue that promotes our conversion to God and each other stems from revelation as well, a graced communication to each other of the mystery of our selves and our contexts that invokes change for all those involved in the encounter.
Communication, reception, and response, all rooted in the context of gift and self-gift, is an invitation to conversion. That conversion is not only a change in ideas (though that alone is quite powerful) but is more fundamentally a change in who we are that results from a change in how we are: a conversion from the illusion of skepticism and solipsism to the vocation of mission and communion.
This summer’s conversations also remind me of the challenge of dialogue. For all the spontaneous agreements and “ah ha” moments there are also times of tedium and the need for patience and humility. Dialogue that gets to the root of who we are, like the process of conversion itself, is often halting and difficult. The more we talk the more we may discover not only our commonalities but also our real differences, which can at times be painful and confusing to uncover—perhaps especially in people we thought we already knew.
Here it’s helpful for me to turn to another scriptural image. After the disciples have been in conversation with Jesus for quite a while, he asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter famously comes up with the winning answer: “You are the messiah.” For a moment it appears the conversation is continuing beautifully. Yet as Jesus begins to teach about the suffering and death of the Son of Man, Peter objects—and Jesus rebukes. What Peter thinks it means to be the messiah is not what Jesus is describing, and until after the resurrection this deeper revelation of who Jesus is as the Son of Man seems to be a breach in the conversation, a word Peter cannot receive.
Despite this, Jesus does not walk away from the dialogue. He continues the encounter even when betrayed by those with whom he talked most closely. Jesus’ example shows me that despite real obstacles the great hope of dialogue, of conversion, and of revelation is an empty tomb and a new and abundant life for all.
I believe we’re called to continue the conversation.