A friend from Gordon College (a Christian liberal arts school near Boston) said you could always tell a freshman from a senior by asking a deep theological question. The freshman would say, “Well, that’s clearly expounded in the Second Book of Hezekiah, which, when compared with Barth’s commentary on the Gospel of John….” The senior would say, “Well…I’m not sure.”
I suggest that this phenomenon is not only true, but divinely inspired—and supremely relevant for dialogue.
Several major faith traditions speak of the movement from knowing to unknowing as the path to the Divine. To quote one version of the Tao te Ching (48), “The follower of knowledge learns as much as he can every day; the follower of the Way forgets as much as he can every day.” Personally, I’ve always had the distinct sense that the farther I go, the less I know.
How could this be the path to God? For one thing, it aligns our thinking more closely with the divinely inspired reality of it all: that life is far beyond one person’s grasp. That simple truth drives us into dialogue with others. When you know that you don’t know, it’s a short step to realizing that others might know what you don’t. So if you’re going to grow beyond your own perspective, you must hear them out. And that means dialogue.
Contrast this with the spirit of certainty. If I’m absolutely sure of my doctrine or perspective, I may have far less interest in dialoguing with those who do not share it. Perhaps I would listen to their views in hope of understanding them better—or I could use the opportunity to press the case for my belief. But with certainty, it is more tempting to simply ignore those who disagree with me.
That is dangerous. When we ignore our “opponents,” we too easily build stereotypes of them. It becomes easier to denigrate, even demonize, their cherished beliefs. Dialogue can dispel many myths and allow us to glimpse the person behind the dogma. Do you ever wonder if the field soldiers of al-Qaeda have ever met Americans? If they did—and honestly talked with them—how many barriers might fall?
We cannot master “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” on our own. By designing the universe in this way, the Divine has driven us toward each other. So we listen to others and their wisdom. It is the way toward peace, toward community, and ultimately toward God.