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Diatribe or Dialogue: Which Way Will You Choose?

A Christian psychologist and a Jewish philosopher have been watching and listening to a public conversation that was a political campaign for key positions of leadership within their society.

The psychologist was troubled that what should be a reasonable conversation wasn’t.

Instead, it had become a contest of hurled barbs over a wall of separation that allowed little if any actual interchange or discovery of common interests and goals.

The philosopher was concerned about what he saw as the objectification of the “other” into someone (or a whole group of someones) to a caricature that could be used and manipulated as a foil for self-enhancement.

They fell into conversation, sharing their frustrations over the loss of what they saw as an essential feature of human community.

Surprised at first, perhaps, that their different backgrounds came together so pointedly in response to what they were hearing outside, they delved deeper into their respective visions of what was possible and what was needed.

The Christian psychologist offered that if people could balance proclamation with listening and could discover the new reality of what could emerge from the openness of genuine communication, many of the problems that were fracturing society could be addressed and moved toward resolution.

The Jewish philosopher observed that the human tendency to reduce and demonize any who might not fit the subject’s “template of acceptability” seemed to have taken control.

As a result, those labeled “others” were deprived of their personhood and were reduced to the labels of their ethnicity, their faith, their resident status or any number of other lines of separation that offered a designation for dismissal.

Subjects were thinking of others as objects, rather than as other subjects, who could be used and manipulated rhetorically and intellectually into less than human realities.

This is a hypothetical story. Most likely, Reuel Howe, author of “The Miracle of Dialogue,” and Martin Buber, author of “I and Thou,” never had this conversation.

But, their influence in psychology, philosophy and theology in the past century is easy to see in the themes and emphases that have emerged in all three arenas.

Their encounter and subsequent conversation could well be a metaphor for the present context in American society, where public conversation has degenerated into little more than competing sound bytes, seeking not discovery and insight but applause lines, and where relationships seek control rather than cooperative understanding.

A longer view of history seems to teach us how easily we can forget and ignore its lessons. The names and costumes change, but the challenges to community and the perspectives that operate within them remain strikingly similar.

Buber wrote his landmark “I and Thou” in the context of the heyday of Hitler’s nationalism in Germany.

The images of “objectification” from that era are forever burned into the memories of subsequent generations, with wonder as to how any kind of civilized community could allow such to happen.

The recent discovery of Heinrich Himmler’s journal reflects how a person in that setting could send gifts to his grandchildren in the morning, observe the latest techniques for the extermination of Jews in the afternoon, and enjoy dinner with his staff in the evening.

Extreme, to be sure, but accompanied by silence and even explicit assent by many.

Howe was a pioneer in the formal field of pastoral care, and he addressed the necessity of relationships being based on two-way communication rather than on dominance and control.

The “miracle” of dialogue is that in it a reality that was not present before comes to be in the life of relationship and community.

Like the “sign” miracles of the Gospel of John, genuine dialogue and community point to the reality of the sacred in life.

It’s a long way from two men of deep faith having a private dialogue and the enormous arenas of our public conversation today.

Maybe it would help if we could turn down the volume and sharpen the focus of the conversation with a little more humility and a little less grandstanding.

We do have a choice between whether we engage in thoughtful dialogue or public shouting.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.