Lesson 8: Conversation and Dialogue

ecumenical unityWe have come to the last of the five reoccurring themes that I found when hastily rereading the documents of Vatican II. Although my intention was simply to refresh my memory, I was pleasantly surprised to find the five could serve as the framework for a modern Christian narrative. Each addresses our present societal problems from a solid biblical base.

The bishops described this new age in which we live as a socialization that they defined as an evolution toward unity. From their perspective our society’s present descent into tribalism is a denial of reality. They saw our situation requiring a respect for the dignity of every human being and an appreciation for diversity at a time when our society is split into isolated groups that each insist on having its own way and denigrate anyone who does not comply. A servant model emerged that pictured the church in conversation with all segments of society. The council chose this fifth theme, dialogue within the church, with other Christian communities, and with the world, as its hallmark.

A somewhat cynical response might be that the church was forced to take this position, because she had lost the power to have her own way. That surely played a part in this new humility as was evident when those championing the old narrative insisted the church still should impose her authority on a society whenever she could. However, many of us think the servant church speaking God’s Word is exactly the kind of ministry to which Jesus has always called us.

A message that counsels love rather than power in the pursuit of the common good certainly involves using words rather than weapons. Indeed, the overall biblical narrative describes God’s participation in his creation primarily in terms of speaking words. Language joins the divine and human to one another.

The question then is how we engage in this conversation with God. Every Christian community agrees that one way is responding to the scriptural record of past conversations. And the Bible is in many ways a repository of conversations. The canon does not preserve one approved narrative. Even though I spoke of an overall biblical narrative in the preceding paragraph, it is far more accurate to recognize the scriptures remember a variety of positions. Although our forefathers might have tried to refine out the best of the past, they did not reduce their effort to only one take. For instance, the four gospels clearly interpret the Gospel from four different perspectives. Biblical study is always participation in ongoing conversation. So too the study of church history for that matter.

The implication is that the conversation with the divine continues in our day. God certainly can still speak in the single voice if a modern day prophet but now as in the past the Word of God is primarily spoken in the community’s conversation.
If the Church is the Body of Christ, then God speaks when even two or three are gathered together.

Vatican II went beyond that when it acknowledged the conversation with God is not confined to the members of my denomination. It advocated speaking with all Christian communities. And, as we know, the Council went even further when it recognized God also speaks conversation that takes place in the larger community. Christians, as Karl Barth maintained, should engage in the present conversation with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other as we engage face to face with other people who might never step inside a church door.

Just how badly we need this guideline is evident when our government has been consciously tearing down the state department and building up the military. Abandoning diplomacy and relying solely on weapons in a nuclear world is sheer idiocy, a danger Martin Luther King captured when he wrote

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. …When Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies-or else? The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

In the modern setting the destruction of our enemies entails the destruction of our world and us with it. Salvation lies in conversation even with our enemies.

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