I wrote last week that for dialogue to work, we have to open our minds and hearts and keep them open, even when the discussion boils over. But how on earth can we do that?
I don’t think we can—not on our own.
Yes, there are things we can do. The longer we practice openness, for instance, the more it becomes woven into us. Eventually, we become open almost by habit.
But practice alone is rarely enough to effect lasting change. One reason is the typical failure of sheer willpower: think dieting and you know what I mean. A second reason is the position in which openness places us: by definition, we become extraordinarily vulnerable—especially to those who attack us and defend themselves. The willingness to be open is one thing; the emotional capacity to be open is quite another. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone.
This is where the Divine comes in.
As we seek to encounter God on an ongoing basis—in prayer, in meditation, in reflective reading of sacred texts, in communities of believers, in the world—the Divine Spirit fosters a connection with us at the core of our being. In the process, that same Spirit also molds us, gradually, into people more “in the image of God”: people of peace, of justice, of compassion. The Benedictines call this conversion of life: a slow, persistent turning of one’s life, from the inside out, to something better.
That has two profound effects on dialogue. First, through this conversion process, we find ourselves not so much practicing virtues like openness as watching them flourish within us. The connection with the Divine opens us automatically to the world beyond our own skin. We begin to see things from a larger perspective. We become acutely aware of our place in the universe: as one person among billions, with one perspective among billions. We almost can’t help but be more open.
Second, when we enter into this encounter, we no longer need to muster the inner strength alone—because we no longer are alone. In the Christian and Jewish scriptures, God continually reassures his people with the words “I am with you.”
This, I think, is why people of faith are uniquely positioned to lead the movement toward fruitful dialogue—because they are connected with a transformative Power than can orient them toward fruitful dialogue. How ironic, then, that many people of faith have developed reputations for the very shouting and contentiousness that plague us today.
It is time for us to act out the words of the magnificent Shaker hymn: “To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” If we turn toward God, we turn toward dialogue—and take up a critical role in transforming a world that so desperately needs it.