Nurturing Relationship and Transforming Dialogue in Academia

Academia. It can feel like a world of competition, self-promotion, hierarchical rituals such as sitting in rows and hand-raising, racing to publish, and pervasive workaholism and point-proving.

Indeed, our work as theologians and ethicists is critical to stretching the church into a structure of love and justice. But I find myself longing for a paradigm shift.

I have been noticing that academic institutionalism tends to warp communication patterns. The spirit of debate always wins over dialogue. Conference culture emphasizes restricted versions of discourse while the classroom often revolves around hand-raising and point-giving, rather than the pursuit of understanding one another. We often compete for the last word to prove that we we have something to say.

It is ironic, really. We pour over content that hinges on questions of justice and peace. And yet, a disconnect separates the content of our work and the way in which we teach, discuss, and develop it.

Thankfully, I am not alone in noticing this discrepancy. Conflict Transformation and Religion, edited by Ellen Ott Marshall, pushes this same question. In her essay, Marcia Y. Riggs describes how time and again we fail to engage in dialogue even “when having a theological discussion” (113). Here, she names specific challenges of engaging in dialogue with her seminary students:

Over the 20 plus years that I have been teaching at a denominational seminary, I have experienced an enlarged capacity for talking about diversity and a diminished capacity for authentic engagement with that diversity. Our diminished capacity derives from our inability to communicate with one another in the midst of a plurality of interpretations of scripture and doctrines. Indeed we perceive these interpretations as competing interpretations that must be corrected or silenced in the name of orthodoxy. Debate, rather than dialogue, tends to be the way we communicate when we do engage one another about our diverse interpretations (113).

In the face of debate overriding dialogue, Riggs has set out to “transform the norms for teaching and learning in the seminary” (111). She emphasizes the idea that dialogue, rather than debate, is communication which nurtures relationship, and her pedagogy reflects this ideal.

Debbie Roberts, another contributor to Conflict Transformation and Religion, proposes pedagogical methodology which involves forming community in the classroom. She relies upon specific work done within the field of conflict transformation for both teaching method and content. This includes the work of Parker Palmer, who emphasizes soulful expression in teaching and learning. Roberts also depends upon the feminist epistemology of Beverly Wildung Harrison who promotes justice through practices of mutuality and vulnerability, as well as, Sallie McFague whose theological anthropology is propelled by interrelatedness. Lastly, Roberts leans on Desmond Tutu’s Ubuntu ethic of reconciliation as a formative resource. Roberts explains her use of these thinkers in her teaching:

Each of the above persons and their ideas…encourage human engagement in the spirit of openness, vulnerability, relationship, fluidity, confession, honesty, and spiritual discernment. Conflict transformation needs these qualities as it begins small, through personal interactions, and branches out to invite a new way of thinking and regarding social relationships and their possibility of fostering peace with justice on a larger scale (105).

Roberts is challenging her readers to practice these qualities while engaging in the context of academic work. In other words, our circles in the academy have the potential to allow our personal interactions to create a new epistemology.

I have been doing my own reading of Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer confronts those of us in academia with a similar critique and challenge. He imagines a paradigm akin to that of Riggs and Roberts…

Instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives. Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among intellectuals than in the most ‘primitive’ society of storytellers (123).

So where do we start? How do we begin to allow our interactions as teachers, learners, writers and colleagues reflect the peace and justice we promote? Rather than being driven by institutional hierarchy, competition, and self-promotion, which prevails in academic life, how are we to continue to become vulnerable, mutual, open, relationship-centered community? And how do we do this while maintaining the rigor and critical thinking that is crucial to challenging our church and society?

In my various  ministry experiences, I have come across valuable resources for transforming the way we communicate with one another, which then has the potential to transform conflict. Living in an intentional community forced me to become familiar with Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Serving Catholic Common Ground Initiative allowed me to become well versed in Cardinal Bernardin’s principles of dialogue . And, campus ministry experience led me to become a trained peace circle facilitator. I am finding that these tools for dialogue are unique gems that can be applied to academic work. For example, I have used peace circles as a pedagogical method in my Introduction to Feminist Theology class as a way to introduce the students to a form of communication that gives each person equal voice. This allowed the students not only to learn about feminist theology but actually engage in it.

Perhaps shifting the paradigm upon which academia operates is too lofty a dream. But maybe we who work in the fields of theology and ethics might challenge ourselves to become aware of how we continue the discourse. Let us realize that there are so many alternative methods of communication to discover. I would posit that our day and age begs this potential transformation…