Two Features of a Good Conversation

Ross Douthat and James Martin, SJ (photo courtesy of America Magazine)
Ross Douthat and James Martin, SJ (photo courtesy of America Magazine)
Since we started Daily Theology a couple years ago, we’ve taken as our purpose promotion of and participation in good conversation about theology and spirituality in daily life. In that time, I myself have put a lot of thought into what I think makes for a good conversation.

This struck my particularly yesterday, as I read the email exchange between Fr. James Martin, SJ (of America Magazine) and Ross Douthat (of the New York Times). The conversation between them was engendered by Douthat’s op-ed column, “The Pope and the Precipice,” from late October (which itself engendered a variety of worthwhile responses). The exchange, which runs nearly 7000 words, is hefty, but worth the time. As I read through it, two things struck me that are important to note about good conversation.

(1) Conversation benefits when everyone offers a “good faith” approach
My own guide in thinking about conversation has long been theologian David Tracy. Tracy claims that the best conversations and arguments include “respect for the sincerity of the other” and “saying what one means and meaning what one says” (Plurality and Ambiguity 26). If all the participants in a conversation enter into that back-and-forth with a willingness both to honestly represent themselves and to honestly represent the views of the other, this goes a long way towards generating a constructive and respectful dialogue. This does not require agreement within the discussion itself or even on the premises of the argument. It does, however, require an agreement to treat the other respectfully, to give a reasonable hearing to the other’s claims, and to responding to those claims for what they are. Here, I would also note that by “claim,” we must consider the text, context, and subtext of what is said: potential assumptions, implications, and distortions are fair game for discussion as well.

In the Martin-Douthat exchange, it seems clear that they both regard one another with respect and accept the other as participating in good faith. They express clear disagreements and challenge the other to clarify their claims. This disagreement helps to propel their dialogue forward, and is not used to attack the intentions or moral quality of the other.

(2) All conversations have power dynamics, and not all those dynamics achieve parity
Martin and Douthat are both reasonably influential, well-educated, white, and male. They both have access to major media outlets (Martin: America, CNN, The Colbert Report; Douthat, the New York Times). They both have over 40k followers on Twitter. I say all this not only to note that they are both highly privileged figures, but also to note that there is a certain degree of parity in their privilege. In the same passage I mentioned above, Tracy notes that conversation is aided when “that all conversation partners are, in principle, equals.” Of course, as Tracy notes later on in the same text, not all conversation partners are equal, and this “ideal speech situation” rarely ever happens.

David Tracy
David Tracy
The power dynamics that affect conversation are diverse: race, gender, socio-economic status, access to spheres of power and influence, ability/disability, religious convictions, and geographic location are among the many types. In my own career as a professor, there is always a power imbalance in the classroom: while I seek to encourage honest conversation about theological topics, the fact is that at the end of the day I still have the power of the gradebook and my students still know this. Even in the best classroom, this power imbalance between professor and student has the potential to undermine or hinder construction conversation.

This lack of parity actually challenges point (1) above. If all the parties to a conversation assume good faith, it can work really well. But if Participant X doesn’t enter with good faith and seeks primarily to win, to belittle, or to silence his/her interlocutor, then Participant Y maybe ought not to assume the good faith of the other. The best conversations seem to benefit from calm, reflective discussion among parties. Yet sometimes, a marginalized or rejected Participant Y might need to shout, to protest, or to disrupt the ongoing conversation. This is often received as antithetical to a good conversation, but the truth is the obstacle to good conversation began with Participant X’s assumption of and exploitation of privilege.

A final comment
This leads me to what was the biggest takeaway from the Martin-Douthat exchange. In their differing stances on the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, they recognize that one of the underlying differences comes from the discernment of spirits. As Douthat nicely puts it, there is a need to “distinguish the Spirit from the spirit of the age.” Sometimes reading the signs of the times leads us to follow where the Holy Spirit leads us, even when that challenges what we believe or assume to be the case; sometimes reading the signs of the times might lead us to accommodate ourselves to the world too uncritically.

I don’t have a hard and fast answer for how to discern the Spirit or spirit in this question, and I think this is one of the great questions in theology. I will say that, insofar as I think I understand the Church’s claim regarding the preferential option for the poor, central to our discernment of spirits should be listening to those who are marginalized or disenfranchised or rejected. These seem to be the ones Jesus spends most of his time with, and these seem to be the ones Jesus wants us to be with. And in most cases, the marginalized are not the ones with privileged positions in conversation. This is not to idealize the marginalized or to assume that those with less privilege than us are always right and should be listened to uncritically. Rather, it is that there is something profoundly Christ-like about beginning from the margins and listening to those who are not mighty in their thrones.

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