Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dialog despair

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.


brian said...


I agree with your professor, to an extent. But, all is not hopeless.

I don't think it's conservatives who don't value dialog though. It's fundamentalists. Fundamentalists can be conservative, Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Liberal, etc., etc. We have to accept that there are those who aren't interested in dialog, no matter how much they may say they are. What they want is a monolog- with you on the listening end.

But, when it comes to Christian Conservatives, there's a special challenge. They have been taught and warned that people are going to try to sway them from the one true faith. Their whole "mission" is to try to convert people to their way of thinking. If they listen at all, it's only because they've been taught it's an effective skill to close the deal. As someone who has strayed from the fold, you (and I) have been misled, in their eyes and the danger of dialog with you is they might be led astray themselves. To mix metaphors, they're willing to throw you a lifeline. But, they're not going to jump in and swim with you.

I know it's discouraging. What I've had to do is to learn what subjects I can and cannot discuss with various people and to just accept those limitations. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises, like in the case with my mother. Sometimes things get better over time. There was a period of a few years when my best friend and I didn't talk at all because he continually belittled Christianity every time we spoke. Finally, he learned to respect me enough so that even though we still disagree, we both know how far we can and cannot go.

Hopefully, you can maintain your friendships. You may have to step back from them a little. You may have to find other things to talk about for a while. Then, perhaps, little-by-little they'll realize you aren't dangerous and haven't lost your mind and they'll value the relationship enough to take a risk and actually dialog with you.


Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I too agree with your professor and the comments made by Brian...Some, if not the majority of people are not interested in dialogue, building bridges,learning the art of conflict resolution,listening, or finding common ground. And,all one can do is model those aspects of dialogue that we feel are important to fruitful dialogue. I feel your'e pain...and would only add for consideration that sometimes to maintain relationships with certain individuals we can "do things" we have in common rather than talk about things. Imitimacy and friendship can be achieved and maintained by doing things together with a limited amount of conversation. I have several relationships like this and I have had to learn over the years that as much as I enjoy dialogue and the imtimacy associated with it, it is often not the cup of tea for many other folks for one reason or another....

Ish said...

Hey Julie,

I think part of the problem is that dialogue is a pomo concept. Modernist lean toward monologue. The wise and enlightened one spews forth a fountain of wisdom and knowledge, and good students listen and absorb like sponges.

Pomo advocates dialogue, understanding, and the concept that while YOU don't have all the truth, neither do I; but together, we can get closer!

Actions speak to modernist. If you act Christ-like, the may accept monologue from you, which can be transformed into dialogue.

Just my $0.02.

PS -- My "gotcha" counter-points are usually directed to you because I am having trouble with a point. You've helped me wrestle through some issues with your frustrated responses to my "counter-points". So, thanks.

Cheryl said...

I feel your frustration too, Julie. Especially when over at Jesus Creed, when some folks write, I know exactly what their position will be as soon as I see the author. But you know what? They probably can say the same thing about me. :)

What I've found that I believe also is a BIG factor is that some people enjoy dialog, and others don't. Period.

It's not about an unwillingness to examine issues, I think it's more the extrovert (external processing) and the introvert (internal processing) ways of dealing with things.

And what I've found is that the more important the issue is, the more the extrovert wants to process outloud, drawing energy and insight off the dialogue with others. With the same important issue, the introvert is far more likely to hold their cards close to the vest.

I'm an extreme extrovert in that regard, but my closest relationships tend to be with introverts. Sometimes it's frustrating, but I've learned a lot about the ways that people deal with things...neither being right nor wrong.

I know that's probably not as much of a deal in blogging, but I think it really comes into play in real-life personal relationships.

Hang in there!

Rob A. said...

Very thoughtful piece, Julie, and I share your concerns.

I think it was the book Infotopia that discussed a study in which conservatives and liberals met to discuss hot-button issues -- and each side ended up more polarized afterward. The author used this to buttress his idea that dialog is overrated.

I guess that dialog needs a mutual desire for understanding for it to be productive. If you have that mutual desire, you can't lose. And if you don't have it, you can't win.

So maybe the real issue is, how do we make people *want* to understand others?

Dave said...

Was there some specific encounter that drove you to this point of despair? I can relate to what you are saying about the one-sidedness of having to relate to ideologues -that make a lot of sense to me. But I'm just curious about what brought these early morning thoughts out from you. Perhaps its the sinking feeling that all the hard work you've put into trying to understand, respect and value others isn't being reciprocated. If so, yeah, that's very discouraging, I'd agree.

I trace the communication breakdown back to the difference between people who see truth and meaning as multivalent and those who don't. I almost wonder if there's some kind of "brain orientation" thing going on that isn't sufficiently explored, understood or explained in everyday language... because a lot of the problem just seems to be about people "not getting" where the others are coming from... or if you find someone who has a similar perceptive grasp on reality, then you are thrilled to see that someone else does get it! I think there are so many different wavelengths out there that people are on that we all feel to some degree like besieged, misunderstood minorities. I think you understand that rigid, "I have the answers" type fundamentalists also feel discouragement similar to yours because most people hold them at arms length and don't seem interested in learning about and exploring the glorious truths that they've discovered/had revealed to them.

Earlier today, I was listening to Chrissie Hynde (of the Pretenders) singing the song "State of Independence." It's on a CD by a group called the Moodswings. Have you ever heard it? I recommend it highly if you haven't! It's very inspirational, I am confident that you would love it and it would make you feel better! Really!

Anonymous said...

I have nothing terribly cogent to say. Brian, et.al. are correct; only some people value communication per se. For many it is ONLY a tool to use in promoting "truth."

Only some of us feel a driving need to see from the perspective of the other.

And, sometimes, those we are closest to are precisely those we can't talk very well to about ideas and perspectives that differ. It is too dangerous emotionally or we can't see those people objectively enough to listen. There is a reason that prophets tend to be without honor in their own lands! ;-)

Btw, I left a post at TD if you are interested.


julieunplugged said...

Thanks for everyone's feedback.

This situation is online - a forum I've owned for the last nearly 7 years. I am very close to the women on it and during those years together, I've slowly evolved from evangelical to agnostic liberal to the person I am today- which is someone fascinated by faith and Christianity.

We've had many rich discussions and at times, I feel like we've heard each other or have discovered the falsity of an assumption. Those days are great.

But just this week, what is happening is more clear to me somehow. There is a fundamental lack of curiosity about what others believe because they already know what the truth is and it is just not always interesting to hear about someone whose ideas are "not true." Moreover, while they don't feel like a majority, they do hold the a priori view of faith and so alternate perspectives do feel like a challenge rather than sharing. I can see that.

I don't know how to solve that.

I hate it when someone gets angry at me. I hate it when the assumption is that because a view is different, it is something that must be countered with clear disagreement first.

I hate that ideas come before people.

Online relationships are more challenging. We don't have the movies to go to. We only have our posts.


Anonymous said...


Dispair not. Folks like you can help us get there. Keep at it. If you stop, I will have to come to Ohio and shout at you!

I will always listen. Keep talking.

my15minutes said...

FWIW, I think you are great at creating a world of peace and maintaining friendship.

TiaDavidandOurLittleChickens said...

"There is a fundamental lack of curiosity about what others believe because they already know what the truth is and it is just not always interesting to hear about someone whose ideas are "not true." Moreover, while they don't feel like a majority, they do hold the a priori view of faith and so alternate perspectives do feel like a challenge rather than sharing."

I wanted to reply to this part of your response. In the situation in question, I want to suggest another pov. That the level of curiosity-lack and seeming disinterest, may be, on several poster's part, the season. The fall is busy, the holidays are busy. The lack of posts from many may not be disinterest at all, even if there were a couple others who may have said it was. They don't speak for all.

With posters plural involved in conversions of some kind, and looking at a bigger picture than one contributor's few-months-time experience, I can not say I see at all a lack of interest or curiosity based on belief. At least, I tend to see a lack of traffic on threads to be more than just religiously motivated. Please don't diguard my own viewpoint because I'm part of a so-called majority (still think that's bogus on a site that size); I nearly became a stated agnostic for most of this year which would have what...been like a republican senator becoming independent?

Sleeping on this last night, names and faces running through my mind, how many of those names both new and old put ideas over my person. I use the phrase "people before ideas" as a reminder to myself; not that I always do it but because I think it's an ideal in humanity. The only way, I think, for there to be ultimate peace in the world.

"Online relationships are more challenging. We don't have the movies to go to. We only have our posts."

I agree. It's all the more challenging when posters come not caring if we go to the movies, being only around us for one segmented reason that doesn't allow for a holistic knowing of that person. Or, going to the movies almost as currency to get what they're really there for.

Anyway, I think you've done the most admirable job of anyone I've ever known at fostering dialog and communication. It's frustrating when people leave the table and shut dialog down but it's also only the small picture. Looking over a few steps back, at the whole thing, what's been created is unique and beneficial and of more worth than it's sometimes treated. I hope you can see that too.

Anonymous said...

I resonate with this "Yet I feel a curious lack of curiosity about mine."

It is not just about my views or about me but I am finding it more and more where people are simply centered around themselves and don't seem interested in other people - I think that it is a form of narcissism. I don't think that it is Christian, liberal or conservative ... this apathy seems to be rampant among people I encounter every day. Of course it could just be my breath :)

preacherruss said...

Hey, Julie...I know this frustration well. I've experienced it. I've lived with it. And I've seen the look of fear in people's eyes when I talk about a "postmodern meltdown" or mention casually in conversation that "I really just don't get the whole 'hell' thing."

I decided awhile back, though, that I just couldn't let this stuff get to me. And...on top of that...every time I get into one of these gigs with someone, it always pops into my mind, "You know, you used to be exactly where they are and you got over it. Maybe, someday, they will, too."

Matt said...

Julie -

One segment of your response above jumped out at me: "There is a fundamental lack of curiosity about what others believe because they already know what the truth is and it is just not always interesting to hear about someone whose ideas are 'not true.'" Forgive me for spitting out a cliche here, but people who are not interested in hearing the viewpoints of others tend to forget that all truth -- their truth, in fact -- is relative (to themselves). What Brian or you or Dave or I believe may not agree, but it is horribly detrimental to shut others off with no consideration of their opinion -- I've worked in Washington long enough to know that one-sided conversations NEVER work.

A significant part of my faith journey has been listening to -- and learning from -- the truths that others have and are willing to share. The journey has been difficult because of some of the new ideas that I've learned, and while it's even been frightening at times, I feel I have grown a great deal. In just the past year, deep conversations on faith that I've had with a close friend have made me examine myself even more closely -- and while they don't expect me to accept or adhere to THEIR truth, offering it has broadened my mind and my understanding in many exciting ways.

- Matt

julieunplugged said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
julieunplugged said...

Wow. You all are awesome. It's late here in CA and I only have a moment.

Bob: I am finding it more and more where people are simply centered around themselves and don't seem interested in other people - I think that it is a form of narcissism.

This is utterly true. I don't think this is only a problem with Christians at all. It is a human problem, or perhaps a busy American problem, It is most assuredly a problem in southern CA. :)

The issue before me has to do with a specific group where the demographic is more Christian.

Tia, I do hear what you are saying. For me this isn't about one person's departure, if that's what you are thinking. Thanks for processing and caring. Truth is, I'm in a deep reflective period and this last week catalyzed it. It's not limited to a couple months or even any one person's departure. In truth, it has everything to do with a heightened awareness of key issues that I just can't talk about here or yet. Thanks for caring.

Beth, thanks for your affirming words. :)

Matt - I can not even imagine the level of skill you'd need to be in politics! I am so glad I never went that direction.


Anonymous said...

Julie, I've spent a few days thinking, blogging and dreaming about diversity. I wanted to share a few quotes I found on the topic.

"If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity."
John F. Kennedy

"I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stifled. I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." Gandhi

"We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."
Anne Frank

"Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity."
John Hume

Have you wiggled your toes in the surf yet?