Can We Dialogue?

I am traveling this week and so will delay the next post on Theology After Darwin. I want to take a bit of a break and put up a question about our church and the way we deal with questions, problems, and conflict. Last spring I linked to the talks given at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference with particular attention to the interaction with N.T. Wright and his book Jesus and the Victory of God. The best talk of the conference, however, (my vote anyway) was not on JVG, but rather the talk by Kevin Vanhoozer “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation” on the interface between Wright’s work on Justification and reformed theology. I’ve listened to it on my commute several times over the last six months including again just this last week.

Perhaps the best part of the talk is Vanhoozer’s concluding summary which is a call for dialogue. Speaking about the state of the discussion of justification and reformed theology Vanhoozer concludes:

(46:00 in or 4:54 remaining) The wisdom of Solomon in this case consists not in dividing, but dialoging. And in this regard I have to say that the saddest line in Tom’s new book on justification is his comment about the present moment of the justification debate. He says “we are not in dialogue” thinking of his would be interlocutors. So let me conclude with a call to all parties to beat their diatribic swords into dialogic plowshares.

Diatribic swords are wielded so often with our church – with all too ready self-righteousness; justification, Calvinism, inerrancy, emergent, emerging, egalitarianism, complementarianism, and evolution, to name but a few of the tinderbox issues. Watchblogs and congratulatory high-fives abound. Of particular relevance to many of my posts … who can deny that the tendency Vanhoozer rightly calls out in the debate over justification is equally present in the discussion of creation, evolution, and intelligent design? The air is ringing with the sound of clashing diatribic swords. This hurts the church, the people of the church, and the witness of the church and leads to the question I would like to address today.

How can we build an atmosphere of dialogue in the spirit of Christian unity?

Vanhoozer does not stop with a simple call for a melting of swords to plowshares, he elaborates on some ways to achieve this result. After an interlude contrasting the elephant and the spider in the room he continues:

(48:36 in or 2:18 remaining) The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin believes that no one single voice can speak all the truth. Often it takes two voices or more, two different but complementary perspectives to say what is the case. And might this not be the case with Tom and the reformed tradition? I don’t hear too many blatant contradictions between their respective affirmations, yet each side perhaps needs to stop denying certain things. The reformed need to accept the ecclesiological implications of being declared in Christ, the necessity of reading everything in the big covenantal picture. Tom may need to retool his understanding of the law court and develop a fuller understanding of our adoption in Christ. No one person, not even one with Tom’s energy and prodigious intellectual gifts, can work a paradigm revolution singlehandedly. I think he needs to win, not more battles, but more allies.

But both sides of the discussion, however, need to keep working on what I’ll call the dialogical virtues. Habits of discourse that are conducive to understanding others and to making oneself understood. Among dialogical virtues such as honesty, fairness, and clarity, one stands out in particular, humility, the opposite of pride or self-righteousness. The dialogical virtues, first cousin to the intellectual virtues, aim to inculcate right communication and right thinking. So in the end it is all about (w)rightness.

And make no mistake, the dialogical virtues that I’ve just enumerated are ultimately the fruit of the Holy Spirit. With that thought in mind I can perhaps guess what St. Paul might say back, not only to Tom, but to all of us, it might be “love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

There are several excellent points here.

First – we need each other. No single voice can speak all the truth, no single mind can concieve all the options, no single life is long enough to acquire all of the data. I learn more from those who thoughtfully challenge my views and positions than from those who simply agree. This is especially true in the areas of theology and biblical studies. But we have to be able to sit down in dialogue and explore both our points of agreement and our points of disagreement.

Second – we all need to concentrate not on winning battles but on making allies. Ultimately our goal within the church is to search for truth in Christian unity, not to score points or win debates. We are not called to conquer our fellow Christians, victory is reflected in willing unity not enforced submission.

Third – we need to cultivate and practice the dialogical virtues – honesty, fairness, clarity, and humility. And, to add to Vanhoozer’s list the virtue of patient attentive listening.

Conceding a point to keep the peace is not a dialogical virtue. Nor is a wishy-washy anything goes tolerance. There is truth and there is error. But we find the truth not by proclamation or intimidation, but by patient and thoughtful persuasion.

Are the dialogic virtues worth cultivating? If so how can we cultivate them and build an atmosphere of dialogue in the spirit of Christian unity?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Can We Dialogue? at Jesus Creed

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