Five things I’ve learned about dialogue
Phil Wyman reflects on lessons learned from talking with pagans – and being excommunicated for it
I’ve made national news on a couple occasions in the United States for exploring new ways to exchange different ideas on religion. In the first case, I and the church I pastor were excommunicated from a denomination I had been a leader in for 20 years after starting dialogue with local witches and pagans (“Befriending witches is a problem in Salem, Mass”, Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2006). The second article described a conference between Christians, pagans and atheists that the church sponsored. (“Christians and atheists start a calmer dialogue”, Christian Science Monitor, 10 May 2007).
These are examples of two radically different dialogues and relationship developments; yet, the principles, which made respectful dialogue possible were the same.
Exchanging ideas demands discussion. In some cases we have only a few moments to dialogue with people. In other cases, we may have a lifetime to develop a relationship. The assumption that we can develop trust at significant levels in quick interactions is a bit too much to expect, and so there must be simple actions we can take to ensure that we make others feel both respected and comfortable.
Here are a few basic things I have found important:
1. No matter who you are, you should consider yourself to be a flame-throwing, Bible-thumping, wild-eyed preacher. You have opinions you are passionate about, you will share them passionately. Since you have this soapbox, you might as well be honest about it, and consider yourself a “preacher”. If you can see yourself that way, you just might begin to see your opinions the way others see them.
2. Allow others to preach to you, but it is best if you can let them share first. If another person shares what they believe with you, they owe you one. The fair exchange of ideas and thoughts requires a two way street. Those who only preach and do not listen are not respected, and do not create dialogues. Let them buy radio time if they want to monologue. If we wanted to listen to a monologue we could turn on the Gospel Radio Hour. If we are interested in discussion we need to listen at least as often as we speak.
3. Listen. Really listen. Do not assume you know everything the other person is going to say. Even if you know their worldview like the back of your hand, you will find that people do not perfectly fit the worldview of their belief system. Everyone is an individual. I’ll bet most of us haven’t even studied the back of our own hands, which makes for a perfect illustration of dialogue. If you are thinking about what you are going to say instead of what the other person is saying, it is like typing: your hands are in front of your face the whole time, but you are paying absolutely no attention to them.
4. You must truly believe that every person has something valuable to say – this is even more important when your worldview is the furthest from theirs. As a Christian, I remind myself that every person carries the image of God. This may not be the paradigm you use to remind yourself to attribute value to another, but it is critical that you find a way to tell yourself that every person has something to teach you. Liberals, conservatives, occultists, religionists, atheists, politicians, lawyers, hookers, drug addicts, children, the mentally retarded – everyone has something to teach you. When you truly believe this, you will behave as though it is true, and others will see this in your eyes.
5. Be willing, and learn to critique the weaknesses of your own worldview. One of the great relationship-builders between our church and the local Neo-Pagan population in Salem was a confessional booth we set up in an outdoor booth in October. We offered free confessions, and when someone sat in to experience the confession, we confessed the sins of the church to them and asked for forgiveness. This was a dramatic and public way to illustrate what I mean. As we learn to critique ourselves as deconstructionists of our own worldviews, people will realise that we hold our positions intelligently, and openly.
Phil Wyman is a pastor of The Gathering at Salem church in Massachusetts
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform.