Might the Churches Also Enable Dialogue? “Let’s Dare to Dream.”

One of the constant and challenging words in the writings and speeches of Pope  Francis is “dialogue.”

He means real and challenging dialogue – face to face with those whose views we oppose.  Not only some official group of leaders, though I was for several years involved in a quasi-official Jewish-Christian dialogue in Denver. (It was a wonderful experience even as our differences regularly led to polarization about Palestine/Israel.)  Such official groups are good forms of dialogue, but far more needed these days are dialogue among the folks, those in the pews who are, as the recent election showed, deeply polarized between “red” and “blue” or Trump supporters and Biden supporters.

I hasten to add that by “the Churches” I also mean Synagogues and Mosques, Buddhist Sanghas, Hindu Temples, and other institutionalized forms of religion or spirituality.  My call and hope in this writing is that such religious groups might increasingly become places locally for dialogue across our not very peaceful polarizations.  For while there are other institutional settings where dialogue must continue to happen (in schools and universities, in some business and civic groups) I believe that “the churches” can be places where real dialogue is possible and might be especially fruitful.

I am sad to say that I am unable to add our media (print and screen) to that list of important places for dialogue.  There are occasional noble efforts to enable dialogue through the media, but by and large the more general (and more profitable) media focus has been on highlighting violent polarizations, often thereby exacerbating them.

Back to “the churches.”

I note that real dialogue can perhaps best begin by a focus on deep divisions within “the churches” – between, for instance, conservative and more liberal members of a congregation or between congregations within the same denomination which tilt more conservative and those tilting more liberal. Between, for instance, so-called called orthodox Catholics and so-called progressive Catholics.  Or between orthodox and other Jewish groups, and with the many secular Jews in this country.

An initial focus on such inner-church polarizations would not at all mean losing focus on the larger social need for Red/Blue dialogue since church polarizations largely embody those larger social polarizations.

I know of one Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio, which has begun such a dialogue process by first inviting (on Zoom, I believe) a group of Trump supporters to talk together about their ideas and passions; then inviting a similar group of Dems to meet; and finally on a third week to invite both groups to meet “face-to-face”.  The hope is that the process will grow if such initial groups continue to meet, and if other groups beginning a similar process.

Back to Francis. 

As I said the call to challenging dialogue pervades his papacy.  It’s fundamental both to his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, available online and in booklet form, and to his latest book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (at present only in hardback). In the encyclical, Francis uses dialogue between Christians and Muslims as the primary example of his broader call.  Such dialogue is much needed throughout the Middle East — between Muslims and Jews and Christians in Palestine/Israel, for instance, or between Muslim and Coptic Christians in Egypt.  But the Pope’s focus seems especially on Europe with its refugee/immigrant crisis and too often violent polarizations.  This too is something that’s been building for decades as white Europeans have found the slow but large influx of African and Middle Eastern Muslims a formidable and polarizing presence.  In the book, I’m told by the reviews (I’ve not yet read it), that one clear but unnamed target of his call for dialogue is the US with its roiling political, cultural, and religious polarizations.

At the end of Fratelli Tutti’s short introductory section Francis says: “How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”  The book’s title obviously reiterates that call.  And later in the encyclical he warns that unless we really believe that such a transformation from polarization to “Fraternity and Social Friendship” (the letter’s subtitle) is a realizable dream, then everything he’s saying about dialogue and social trust will be no more than an escapist fantasy in our “real world.”

In my previous posting on this site I argued that “it would be a real step towards social friendship if, after the election mess settles back into ‘ordinary’ cultural warfare, the major church leaders here – senior pastors and bishops, senior rabbis and imams, along with representatives from other faiths, might kneel or stand together outside Union station in Lower Downtown Denver to beg our people to open their hearts to migrants as well as to refugees.”  For polarized passions about immigration run deep in Colorado and throughout the country, and will not ease soon.  And I repeat that such leadership collaboration will only be effective if it extends to “the folks in the pews”. 

Toward the end of that same posting I added: “I again mount my rhetorical pulpit and ask Denver church/religious folk to find ways to work for post-election peace. To take up the long road ahead to enable the divided sides of our people to listen more and excommunicate less.”

Real dialogue does not mean pretending to give up on our most fundamental convictions, but listening to the passions and convictions of the other – in an effort to find some common ground or at very least in order to put a real human face on such views and thereby move beyond the stereotypes of “them and us” which seem to dominate both our own imaginations and the rhetoric of so much of our media.

In an earlier posting this year on “Polarization and Our Better Angels” I reported on a face-to-face meeting (just before the pandemic ended them) sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. The meeting brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing about how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we really are all “together in this” and that we can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

The afternoon break-out at that meeting, which I luckily, chose was led by a local volunteer for “Better Angels”, a national movement started after the 2016 election to bring together Trump and Clinton supporters. I urge you to explore their great website. For they have developed a variety of meeting formats which carefully bring together an equal number of “red” and “blue” participants (in churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations) to meet as human beings and fellow citizens in response to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”  That group’s efforts, which continue today, are another very good examples of the kind of dialogue Francis urges upon us.

And Better Angels provides models of formats with which our churches might begin their dialogues.

Let me conclude – lest the whole idea of dialogue and my particular hope for the churches to take a lead in dialogue seem just idle fantasy – by noting some important groups encouraging dialogue in Denver.  I’ve already mentioned “The Interfaith Alliance.”  Now I add “The Institute For the Common Good” at my beloved Regis University, which for years hosted private dialogues between leadership opponents on issues about education and health care, race and gun control.  And “The Conflict Center” which also for years has worked with schools to educate teachers and students in the arts for peaceful settling of conflicts.  And then there’s “The Flobots,” a local group of hip-hop musicians who also work with students and other groups to overcome enmity.  Their most recent album and educational effort is called “No Enemies.” 

I’m sure that there are many other local dialogue-promoting groups that I’ve failed to mention and don’t know about.   

Many such groups have significant church and religious support and work on occasion in church settings.  That connection might also encourage the larger role of “the churches” in promoting dialogue which I’ve been dreaming about in this writing.

AS ALWAYS, I ASK READERS TO RESPOND BELOW ON THIS SITE – TO SHARE FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT THE NEED FOR DIALOGUE AND ABOUT FORUMS WHERE SUCH DIALOGUE IS HAPPENING.   

[An additional note on 1/27/21: Because of continuing divisions with Trump’s down to the wire protests that he was elected by a landslide, and then the storming of the Capitol, and finally Biden’s inauguration — because of such continuing and polarizing events, I keep finding other calls for dialog and examples of such. Here’s a noteworthy one from the British/International Catholic journal The Tablet: “Truth and reconciliation – what the Catholic Church needs after Trump” .]

4 thoughts on “Might the Churches Also Enable Dialogue? “Let’s Dare to Dream.”

  1. Of course meaningful dialogue is important, necessary… and of course each group, religious or not has an issue, or issues, that are the hard ones, that they try to avoid dialoguing on – but those are precisely the issues that need to be addressed. Certainly as our country polarizes that much more these days, the need for such dialogues has, if anything, intensified.. Thanks… thoughtful commentary… Rob P.

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  2. Your call to dialogue on polarizing issues is a formidable challenge indeed, John! Your careful analysis of the steps is clarifying but also underscores the agonizing work at hand

    Some historical precedents remind us how formidable it is. The creative relationship between two great spiritual masters, Jacques Maritain and Garrigou LaGrange, was almost destroyed by their different approaches to the Spanish civil war; Maritain with the Republicans, LaGrange with the Nationalists. In the 1937 Constitutions of the Society of Mary members are prohibitive from making “reference to Nationalities”, so incendiary was such references that even membership in a Religious Order often could not ameliorate antagonistic feelings. The ecumenical efforts of Lutherans and Catholics, following closely the methodology you articulate, has been decades in the process. On a personal note, I confess to being stymied in trying to dialogue on polarizing issues with those with whom I nonetheless have deep spiritual affinities.

    Some practical things I attempt to foster dialogue: First, to remember the distinction between dialogue and eristic. Dialogue is argument for the sake of clarification; eristic is argument to prove the other wrong. Second, Rogerian listening—“Is this what you’re saying…?” But I have to add there is no cookie cutter approach to dialogue. Richard McCormack stresses that those involved in discussions on abortion should have as a rule of thumb “When the exchanges become heated, stop the discussion.” I think St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is true: “You meetings are doing more harm than good.”

    So it’s a formidable task you remind us of, John. But as Jesus said, “Nothing is impossible with God”; and “by this will all know you are my disciples…”

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  3. Thank you John for this excellent article. Since I am from Dayton Ohio I would love to know the name of the Church that is trying to dialogue. Dayton has for several years been the tragic epicenter of the Opiod Crisis in the U.S., with many people dying in Dayton.
    Dayton is also riddled with racism, poverty, loss of its big industries, such as National Cash Register, Dayton Rubber, and other global industries due to the Reagan government giving these industries huge tax breaks if they would move to foreign countries. Dayton in the fifties was the patent capitol in the U.S, inventing new products.
    I live in ElPaso County the center of the Evangelical movement. Before the Covid Pandemic there was a group of us people ages 50 to 90 years old,, thirty to 50 of us, meeting every Tuesday afternoon for two hours at the Monument Library. We were called the Socrates Group. The discussions were always decided a week before by the group with the understanding that all opinions were acceptable.if respectfully presented. 40% of the group were atheists and agnostics. At times religious fundamentalists would try to take over the group but their divisive arrogance was always repulsed. Many in the group were retired military, teachers, social workers, nurses and business professionals. We have really missed our gathering..
    Religion was always interesting in how one had to talk about the spirit. The word God or Jesus was according to many a delicate or hot topic. Many had left their church due to its narrowmindedness and condemnations.
    We were pretty equally split between men and women.
    The catholic church in Monument has become very conservative and we had a number of people in our group who have left that church as they did not find any joy there, but only love of dogma and ideology. Often the most tolerant in the group were the atheists and agnostics which I found interesting and exciting. When Dorothy Stang was murdered the Gazette did a front page article. The Bishop however never showed any interest in the story and of course none of his churches ever asked for information. I offered to give a talk at the Monument Church and never received a response. The Socrates Group saw the movie on Dorothy and there were many questions about the Amazon, Dorothy and the importance of this forest.
    So again thank you for your excellent article and your attempt at dialogue. I am sorry about the demise of CTA and other progressive groups. We have gotten old and we have been oppressed with a very conservative hierarchy. I wish you well with your endeavors.
    David Stang

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    1. David, thank you for your reply. I am trying to get permission from the Dayton church to reveal it’s name; not heard back yet. I had not known that Dorothy’s life was being ignored by Colorado clerics, mainly since I’ve seen so much good writing about here in places like the NCR. As to the “passing” of groups like CTA, some are still hanging in and I do believe the present moment may (?) enable them either to regroup or to morph into some of the newer emerging forms of lay Catholic leadership more capable of at least trying to dialogue than too many of our clerics. Also on Dayton, the devastation you describe is real, but there are good folks working for the recovery of inner-city Dayton which has seen so much of the devastation. Primary among such folks is Brother Ray Fitz, SM, former president of UD and now Chaired professor of social justice at the appropriately named Fitz Center at UD. He and I were classmates in the SM until I left, but we’ve stayed in touch and his work is both visionary and practical — and not just for Dayton but for metropolitan areas around the country dealing with inner-city and heavily racial oppression. John

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