Genuine, transformative conversation hinges upon the willingness to understand and value the experiences and perspectives of another. An effort is made to take on board another’s ideas and listen for all the places where they intersect, both comfortably and uncomfortably, with our own. Where they don’t fit very well we have an opportunity for exploration, and for new understanding perhaps, but to explore this territory together we must resist the temptation to be rigid in our perceptions. We all must soften our internal geometries, at least for a time, so that we can join in the shared space of dialogue.
If we do not do this, we end up trying to exert a particular view onto another. We harden in our positions and there is little choice but to chisel away on the other’s in order to alleviate our discomfort. We end up making speeches, or scoring points, instead of having conversation. Without setting aside preconceived notions of what we want a particular encounter to be, of who we think we are and who we think the other is and has been, the possibility of true exchange is stymied. Transformative conversation is a space of shared possibility. It requires a certain freedom to move in the unexpected ways that it will.
When I think in these terms it is clear to me that the video I cited two posts ago by Richard Dawkins was not an attempt at genuine, transformative conversation. I also see that my reply wasn’t either, which is why it troubled me. Both of these displays were speeches. They were selfish acts in a sense, not unifying ones. I think if we want to have the sorts of conversations that can lead to genuine transformation—not the “fixing” of one supposedly malfunctioning party or the other, but the renewal of the entire architecture of shared spaces where we meet—then we must suspend our need to be right, and focus instead on being caretakers of one another’s humanity. We must value one another’s dreams, acknowledge one another’s experiences, have compassion for one another’s suffering, and be honest about our own. We must, in essence, join with one another.
When conversation breaks down it is quite often, in my opinion, because of an unwillingness to appreciate one another’s positions. This stems from the profound difficulty we face in truly adopting, at least temporarily, one another’s perspectives. To actually achieve a place of mutual sharing requires a certain paradoxical accomplishment within us: we must decouple our sense of identity from particular ideas, histories and concepts so that we are free to change our inner shape without feeling provoked, while at the same time anchoring the reality of our existence to a stable position. An example of a stable position would be the profound, unconditional love and appreciation for another being. This state can be cultivated, if we so choose and desire, and it is invulnerable to any particular ideas or concepts that may present themselves.
When we fail to do this, we make unreasonable demands on one another, and we find ourselves unable to join in a meaningful way in the space of conversation. I think when good ideas are not considered, this is the reason why. When we’re polarized and think our only choices are to fight it out, or concede territory that leaves us wounded at some level, this is the reason why. It is because we’re unwilling to share in the sacrament, the ceremony, the mutual affirmation of one another that is unity, for all sorts of reasons. What I think is true, is that the reasons we offer for stepping away from unity are never good enough.
A cultural polarity on which I’d like to focus these considerations is the gap that exists between advocates of scientific materialism, and advocates of the existence of a loving God. In my mind, there are perfectly good ideas not being explored by either side of this divide. The positions to which I observe many people clinging, on both sides of this issue, are not entirely justified in my opinion, and were the matter to be considered in the light of mutual respect and admiration for the important aspects of human consciousness and well-being that each party safeguards, I think there is room for a much more fruitful exchange.
I’ll stop here for today in order to keep these posts at a reasonable length, and in my next article will begin to explore particular dimensions to this conversation that I think preclude productive exchange. They hinge upon the sort of unwillingness to deeply consider one another’s positions that I’ve tried to describe above, and for me the truth is that we all suffer when we draw these lines between ourselves. Nobody wins when some of us lose. If we truly wish to end the polarized divides that shackle us all to ineffectual conversations, I think we’ll need to place unity first. And I think we’ll find, if we explore these ideas as openly and honestly as possible, that nobody needs to lose…