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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

A Miracle in Sonoma?

Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.

One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.

Boy, was that a good call.

The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.

It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.

I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.

Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)

I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.

Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.

All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.

Dialogue, the Internet, the Decline of Religion, and the Bony Fish

Very few articles linger in my memory for longer than a few days. Valerie Tarico’s article on religion and the Internet is one of them. I’ve rarely read anything about which I feel more ambivalent.

For an article of lesser caliber, it would be easy to dismiss her glib tone and half-correct understanding of religion today. But her observations are far too important to take lightly. She may well have put her finger on the essential—and overlooked—reasons why many faith traditions are losing adherents.

An old friend of mine used a great metaphor for articles like this: it’s a bony fish. You have to dig through, and discard, a certain number of bones to get to the meat. But the meat is rich and absolutely worth the effort.

Bony fish challenge us. They challenge us to approach them in the spirit of dialogue, not reacting instinctively to buzzwords and sweeping statements but rather exploring piece by piece in a search for what might be true. They also challenge us to the practice of dialogue, as by talking with one another we can bring more perspectives to the effort and thus gain a better picture of what is there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article and whether it sparks your interest in dialogue to engage with it. Please share your thoughts here.

Singing the Lord’s Song to the “Other Side”

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?”  —Psalm 137:4

This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.

But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.

Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.

On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.

That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?

But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.

Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”

I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.

Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”

And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.

What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?

Reading the Media That Tell Me I’m Right

How many conservatives read Mother Jones? How many progressives ever tune into FOX News?

If Michael Kitchens’ research is any indication, the answer to both questions is: not many. An assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, Kitchens conducted a study that investigated whether people’s religious backgrounds influenced their choice of media on religion. He and his students asked 213 participants to rate their preference for one of three fictitious research summaries: one with positive information about religion, one with negative information about religion, and one neutral.

You can guess what the study found. Religious people preferred the positive summary. Non-religious people preferred the negative summary.

In an article on his research, Kitchens extrapolates from these findings to the political realm. It makes sense, he writes, that “people’s political identity fuels the need to seek information that confirms” their beliefs. This, he reasons, has given rise to a fractured media landscape in which “media sources continue to validate people’s preconceived notions and worldviews.”

I think he’s spot-on here.  What surprises me, though, is his bleak outlook for the future: he says that “harmony is unattainable” and the best course of action is to learn how to conduct “a reasonable debate about ideas.”

But how do we even get to the debate if we are so suspicious of the “other side”? That suspicion comes from the same cycle that Kitchens is on about. As we take in the news media that agree with us, we inevitably hear criticisms of those who disagree. In today’s toxic public square, those criticisms are particularly nasty: we hear our adversaries’ motives questioned, their patriotism impugned, their truthfulness cast into doubt. So how can we approach them with anything that appears like listening?

What if, however, we took one simple step long before the debate: what if we all read or viewed media that disagree with us?

What if we all committed to reading one newsmagazine, watching one news program, or visiting one blog whose worldview is completely different from ours? We could do this not just across political lines, but across other divides too: divides of gender, color, sexual orientation, and yes, religion.

Here’s what I’ve seen happen: once we take in this media from proponents of the “other side,” we realize that their thinking has some rationality behind it, that their motives have more integrity than we’re led to believe, that maybe a few of their points make sense—even if we still disagree with them. This opens our minds a bit. The next time we approach these people or their ideas, we might be just a bit more inclined to listen, and our minds open wider.

Now I’m not talking about the ranting media—particularly the talk radio programs whose sole purpose is to inflame passions and get ratings. I’m talking about thoughtful columnists and pundits who believe something different. This is why I read David Brooks and Kathleen Parker as well as Cynthia Tucker. Maybe I need to suck it up and read George Will, too.

What about you? If you could read one columnist or magazine or blog from the “other side,” which would you pick? Share it here. It might just be a resource no one else has thought about.

Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?

How do we know when our language needs a makeover?

One great thing about writing for the web is that it starts conversations with extraordinary people. Two months ago, Kathleen Turcic commented on an article I wrote for Huffpost Religion, and from there we had a most pleasant and stimulating email exchange.  In the process, she introduced me to her own venture, QuintessentialYou Design.

In a nutshell, Kathleen helps people live out their essential selves into their external circumstances, thus creating a life full of energy, passion, and purpose. While touring through her website, I was struck by how essentially spiritual and postmodern her language is. It’s not exactly light reading, but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it expresses essential truths in words we’re all familiar with.

That got me thinking about the language of faith in general. How do we know when to keep using the time-honored words and phrases of millennia past, and when to update our language?

For instance: You may have noticed that I rarely use the word religion. Quite simply, it carries negative connotations for so many people that it can, I think, detract from my ability to connect with them. (The hordes of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” serve as evidence to this point.) So I talk about faith, faith traditions, and spirituality, but I try to avoid the “R-word.”

Here’s why this matters. Most faith traditions have “good news” that cries out to be shared in, I would submit, respectful dialogue. Christianity, in particular, urges its followers to share the good news of Jesus. Yet these faith traditions, and their language, are at least two millennia old. Are we authentically sharing the good news in our postmodern world if postmodern people can’t understand our ancient language?

Wickedly controversial case in point: “God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die as a sacrifice for our sins.” To the ancient Jews, with their system of temple sacrifices and offerings, this faith statement probably made some sense; they at least had a point of reference from which to grapple with it. We postmoderns have no such point of reference. That’s why, to many people who are not Christians (and some who are), the statement makes God sound barbaric. What kind of God needs a sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own offspring, to appease his anger?

Now, whether you take this statement literally or metaphorically, it does speak to the wild extravagance of God’s all-consuming love for humanity. But many people in our age can’t get past the seeming cruelty of the act itself. Do we need entirely new language, or perhaps a tweak of the old language, to make the same point? Can we change the language without changing the message?

I don’t know the answer, but I think this deserves discussion—not just on the “died for our sins” point, but on many others in many faith traditions. What do you think?

Dialogue and the Prayers We Don’t Like

On Tuesday evenings, several of us in the local chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society get together for prayer, including the ancient monastic rite of Compline. Because of the liturgy we use for Compline, we always pray Psalm 91.

I don’t like Psalm 91.

Psalm 91, for me, is so upbeat as to be out of touch with reality. It includes verses like these:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,

and the Most High your habitation,

There shall no evil happen to you,

neither shall any plague come near your dwelling….

[His angels] shall bear you in their hands,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.

I pray these words as my inner realist chimes in with “Yeah, right.” But I do pray them. That puts me in good company: people across faith traditions have prayed sacred texts for millennia. I’m sure most, if not all, have recited a text that did not fit their mood or mindset that day. Sometimes they’ve prayed texts that chafed against their whole outlook on life, as Psalm 91 chafes against mine.

So why even bother praying this way? Because it does so much good. Among other things, it orients us toward dialogue.

The key is what happens inside us as we pray words we don’t like. In this prayer, we allow the deepest part of ourselves to encounter wisdom outside ourselves, and the conflict between the two stirs up all sorts of things: 

  • For one thing, the conflict awakens us to the fact that we—our feelings, our concerns, our schedules—are not all there is. We recall, instead, that we are part of a larger flow, which allows us to put our place in the universe in the proper perspective. In other words, the praying of sacred texts fosters humility.
  • For another thing, the conflict with a sacred text confronts us with the disturbing possibility that God, life, other people, the universe are not exactly the way we understand them. This brings us to the mindset of I don’t know. The more I realize what I don’t know, the more curious I become about what you know, because together we might understand more clearly.

That curiosity, that realization of our own incomplete knowledge, drives us into dialogue with one another.

Have you prayed sacred texts as part of your practice? How have they changed you? Use the Comments function below to share your experiences.

The More Things Change…

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before—and who was one of the Pharisees—asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The Pharisees replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)

If you think the state of civil discourse has reached an all-time low, this story may surprise you.

Allow me to introduce the cast. Jesus was from Galilee (hence the reference in the passage above). The Pharisees, a Jewish sect, emphasized rigorous adherence to the law that God had given to Moses, as well as to the traditions that sprang from it. Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, had visited Jesus early in the gospel of John to hear what he had to say.

Previously, the Pharisees—who were offended by Jesus and worried about civil unrest among his followers—had sent guards to arrest him. It backfired: the guards came back awestruck, saying, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”

From here the story could go one of two ways. Hearing the guards’ new perspective could inspire curiosity. Maybe, the Pharisees could think, it’s worthwhile to talk with Jesus. They could see if his ideas shed a new light on their beliefs. Perhaps, through dialogue, an exchange of views might draw them both closer to God.

That’s one way. The other, alas, is all too familiar to us: dig in, protect our position by insulting the other side, reduce thoughtful positions to bromides that obscure more than they clarify. This is what happens, for instance, when pro-life adherents call their adversaries “baby killers,” or when pro-choice advocates incessantly trumpet “a woman’s right to choose.”

That’s the way the Pharisees go in the gospel account. To the guards, they say, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?…the crowd [of believers in Jesus], who do not know the law—they are accursed.” When Nicodemus tries to put the idea of a fair hearing before them, they insult him too, dismissing him with a one-liner.

As always, let me offer a caveat. Any of these positions may hold truth. “A woman’s right to choose” is a factor worth considering in the abortion debate. Maybe the fetus is a baby. Perhaps there is no mention of a Galilean prophet in the Hebrew scriptures.

The problem is that the advocates of these positions assert their position and stop there. That cuts off the possibility of exploring for a deeper truth. If the fetus is a baby, does it too have a right to choose? If we can’t determine when babyhood begins, what then? If the scriptures are silent about a prophet from Galilee, does that mean it can’t happen?

Questions like these—when we ask them of each other—help us probe deeper, uncover more truth, and become more empathic with those who disagree. Insults and repetition block our way.

Even two millennia ago, the dynamics of dialogue and polarization were at work. Ultimately, I think, this is encouraging news. It means our divides never go away—but neither does our desire to reach across them.