Talking With the Adversary

Note: Skylight Paths published my book Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart in 2012. What follows here is the book’s introduction. You can also read an overview if you prefer. 

“I think George W. Bush is a very good president.”

It was the summer of 2004. Jane and I were lounging on the screened-in porch at our father-in-law’s house, and she was (thoughtfully as usual) discussing her views of the presidential race. I do not recall my immediate reaction to her opinion of the president, but I’m sure it was some mixture of nausea, horror, and righteous indignation.

Then, in a moment of what must have been God’s grace, I saw Jane’s statement as something else entirely: an opportunity for dialogue.

This sort of thought does not come naturally, to me or to many others. More often than not, we shy away from those who disagree with us—or we angrily state our opinion and brook no dissent. When discussions actually take place, we spend more time marshaling counterarguments than openly listening. Our vested interests overwhelm what we say and hear.

In all of this, we reflect the world around us. Our culture has precious few Platos to model authentic dialogue. Instead, elected officials are frequently adversarial, seeking to win votes as much as to explore issues. Too many pundits and radio hosts would rather shout than talk. We hear sound-bite policy ideas repeated until they become conventional wisdom. We hear conventional wisdom repeated until we can’t imagine questioning it.

Then, without warning, we run across someone of gentle spirit and a genuinely open heart. It feels as though someone has opened a window and let the spring air in. And we wonder why things can’t always be like this.

I believe they can. The power to make it happen rests in our hands—when we live out our lives in God’s hands.

*     *     *

It was not the most comfortable context for dialogue. My wife’s family enjoys debating politics and religion. Several of them are conservative Christians, Republicans, or both; I am neither. We had endured our share of contentious conversations. On the other hand, Jane consistently communicated her perspectives with gentleness, depth of thought, and love. She knew the power of words; as she often tells her husband, “Words mean things.” If anyone could pull this off, she could.

To ensure that we didn’t devolve into mindless vitriol, we set some ground rules. She would lay out her thoughts about the president’s virtues in an unbroken monologue. Then I would describe his vices in the same way. Neither of us could interrupt the other—at all—not even for questions. Neither of us would attempt to formulate rebuttals while the other was speaking (to the extent we could help it). We would simply listen. In the process, we hoped, we would learn something: if not about The Truth, then certainly about each other.

*     *     *

Quite a few authors have written books on conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue, and similar topics. Many of these books are excellent and deserve attention. Almost without exception, however, they focus on the process, whether they describe the tricks of the trade (“I statements,” listening skills, nonverbal cues, and similar tips) or present case studies of successful dialogues. Either way, it’s all about the interpersonal.

But is the interpersonal all there is to dialogue? Does the entire process consist of what we say and do at the table? No, there is much we can do to prepare our selves before the dialogue ever begins. People of faith, Christians included, have a unique contribution to make here, because the giants of their traditions have pointed to a way of life—the “work of the soul”—that, as it turns out, prepares us for authentic dialogue.

The details of this work vary, depending on the specific approach, but the essential ingredients are much the same. By drawing close to God, acting in concert with God’s desires, and practicing the virtues of our faith, we undergo an inner transformation. Our vested interests tend to fall away as we focus our attention and our selves on God. Moreover, this work of the soul opens us to others. We start to see beyond the things that separate us to the essential humanity we share. With this perspective, we are more inclined to love.

And to dialogue. Having engaged in this work of the soul, we come to the table with a clear mind and an open heart, better equipped to set aside our preconceptions at least for the duration of the dialogue. This gives us the perspective to engage the other person more deeply than we could have otherwise. If both people enter the dialogue in this way, they can work together more productively to grow their relationship, explore the truth of the matter—and, maybe, reach consensus on a way forward.

With the challenges we face as human beings, this pursuit of dialogue is important. The future of our relationships, of our churches, even of the planet may depend on it. If we cannot talk openly and civilly about family conflict or matters of faith, let alone climate change or nuclear armament, how can we ever overcome the problems that threaten us all?

*     *     *

Jane and I kept up the dialogue over parts of two days. Neither of us changed the other’s mind, but that was beside the point. I gained insight into “the opposition” that I could not have gained any other way. I sensed the attractiveness of what many conservatives perceived as the president’s solid principles and decisiveness. Just as important, the conversation set the tone for further discussions. And it drew us closer.

Was it a coincidence that Jane and I had tended our relationships with God for a long time? I doubt it. All those years of inner transformation surely played a role in our openness to each other. St. Paul lists patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control as “the fruit of the Spirit”;[1] aren’t these precisely the types of traits that equip us for authentic dialogue?

None of this made the dialogue easy. I vividly remember how difficult it was to sit and simply listen to an opposing viewpoint for an extended period. It took a great deal of time and energy to make the dialogue work, especially to keep from interrupting with “But what about…?”

Time and energy, of course, are in short supply these days. And to be sure, not every dialogue takes two days. If we prepare our souls beforehand, however, we will find ourselves readier and more open to embracing dialogue whenever the opportunity appears.

The results, from my experience, are more than worth the effort. I believe that when we approach people in this way, we form and deepen relationships more easily. We live more in harmony with others. We tend less toward anger and more toward compassion and peacemaking, which fosters peace within ourselves. As we practice the virtues of our faith, our character grows more robust, better able to withstand temptation and life’s ups and downs. Do these benefits sound familiar? They represent the attitudes of heart to which God calls us. Pursuing dialogue as a habit of the heart, then, helps us to live out our calling as Christians: to live, that is, in love with God and one another.

So there is great value in pursuing the work of the soul, the “way of dialogue” as a habit of the heart. That, in short, is the reason for this book: to describe this way so you may use it to live more faithfully—and contribute more powerfully to the conversations that shape our lives together.

This book comes largely from my own experience. I do not claim reams of evidence from formal research to substantiate the claims therein. I simply offer you the impact that the practices described here have made in my life—and in the lives of people who have earnestly sought God over the past millennia. The stories of saints like Augustine and Francis of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux, not to mention thousands of others, speak volumes about the power of God to transform us from the inside out. That transformation goes on today in the lives of many. Believe me when I say it is worth exploring.

Before we start that exploration, however, we have to take issue with an old, old story.

[1] Galatians 5:22-23.