Today I feel like giving up.
I remember talking to one of my professors about conversations I have with friends who are still of the mainstream, traditional Christian theological positions and my frustrations in feeling so often that the conversations were like a one-way valve. As long as the conversations affirm their "truth" (the real truth, not truths), everyone is at peace. As long as I stay curious about their views, we get somewhere. Yet I feel a curious lack of curiosity about mine.
Dialog by definition means being willing to allow for contrary views to sit inside you a bit, to hear how they work for others, to accept a person's reporting of how those beliefs work and so on. You don't have to agree. But if someone says, "Agnoticism makes me happy," we have to start with believing that person, not discounting the experience. Otherwise, the dialog becomes about showing the person that agnosticism is a delusion and the happiness is not real. Take Bart Ehrman... that's exactly what people say. He can't really be happy because he's an agnostic. He can't possibly teach about the Bible because he loves it; he must have an "agenda." Hello, why agenda? Why not the same thing everyone else has - a desire to share what they think, believe, know, understand? And why wouldn't that make him happy?
Dialog means accepting a person's reporting of her experience as true for that person - that the person speaks authentically for herself. Agreement is unnecessary, but risk is. We must risk assumptions. That means the diehard postmodernist must risk the assumption that fundamentalists are mean-spirited every bit as much as the fundamentalist must risk the assumption that postmodernists are by definition immoral, and so on.
Perceptions are about all that can change. I rarely expect anyone's real beliefs to be moved by dialog. But perceptions are huge! If I disagree with someone, but also respect her, I will defend her right to see the world the way she does because I hope she'll also defend my right. And I hope we'll like each other.
So how do we encourage or facilitate dialog? I have tried very hard to restate what others express, using their words, attempting to see their viewpoint without injecting mine into it, even when I don't agree. I work hard to see the internal logic, the beauty, the rhythm, the source of peace or joy that the belief gives even when it has not been that for me. I offer curiosity when I can't offer agreement.
Through online relationships, I feel I've grown to appreciate many beliefs I don't hold - I can see why Mary matters to Catholics, I admire the way daily reading of the Bible and believing the words are from God to "you" personally changes how a person lives, adds depth to a person's experience, allows someone to feel close to God. I understand that believing in God leads to purpose, piety and passion for many people.
Yet so often, I feel that a similar sharing of my ideas, my beliefs, leads to corrections or counterpoints. Rare is the person who doesn't share my beliefs who says, "I can see that you are much happier now and you find meaning and peace in your life through x, y and z." No. The people I enjoy reading are labeled dangerous. The thoughts I have are not allowed to breathe, but require a comment of disagreement - and then the right to disagree is thrown up as the reason for that comment.
These corrections are meant to be gentle or are seen as the offering of a counter point. But the truth is, if someone can't say back: "I get it! I see why you see things that way even when that doesn't fit my understanding of the truth," then we can't be dialog partners, let alone friends. How can you expect my support of you if you can't give it as well?
So getting back to my professor, when I shared all these frustrations and asked what is to be done to encourage dialog between conservatives and liberals, his response surprised me. "Why do you keep talking to them? They don't value dialog."
Well of course he's right, but then I don't see how dialog is a tool for greater mutual understanding. A huge chunk of the world doesn't believe in it.
I feel hopeless today about ever creating a world of peace, let alone maintaining friendships.