This past Wednesday, our interim priest said his last Mass before retiring to Maine. In honor of the occasion, allow me to tell our dialogue story.
He would have been at home in the Middle Ages; I fall into a fuzzy moderate-to-liberal spot on the spectrum. He lamented the decline of proper authority in the Church. He summarily dismissed many perspectives I found worthy of exploration. Some of his comments were withering. Yet when I objected to a point in his sermon one Sunday, I could not manage to keep my mouth shut.
That led to nearly a year’s worth of email discussion on all manner of things spiritual. We exchanged views on evangelism. We wrestled over the Jesus Seminar and the literal truth (or lack thereof) of the Bible. We discussed the state of our own local congregation.
An academic exercise? Not even close. This priest came to our church when I was in a pivotal but delicate phase of reevaluating my beliefs. My inner wrestling kindled a desire to talk with clergy, because we think about the same things and they’re more educated than I am. Into this situation walks a conservative, combative old priest.
And the dialogue changed my thinking in some unexpected ways.
For one thing, it gave me a place to articulate the vague theological cross-currents in my head. I realized, for instance, that it was possible to hold the Bible as divinely inspired and still accept it as what Marcus Borg calls it: a book written by humans about God. I decided that my progressive friends were right in their embrace of gays and lesbians but maybe not in their denial of the Resurrection. The dialogue allowed me not so much to adopt the priest’s ideas but to test my own.
In short, I learned more about myself, more about what I could believe, and perhaps even a tiny bit more about the Divine.
Not that the discussion was not all peaches and cream. His emails could be strident; I got exhausted at times. Moreover, I couldn’t see that the dialogue was giving the priest anything new to think about. Is dialogue even worth the effort when one party gets nothing out of it?
Every time I worried about this, I came back to one email.
Early on, I expressed a desire not to let our discussions get in the way of his church work, and his response stunned me: “If only you knew how deeply many clergy, myself included, long for discussions of this kind.”
We’ve talked here about dialogue’s role in resolving issues and promoting mutual understanding. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe dialogue can be a tonic for the gnawing loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition. Even if we solve nothing, even if we learn nothing, we have talked. We have listened to others share the things that matter to them. Sometimes that simple connection is all we can ask—and more than we could ever hope.