Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Conversation: Notes in Aid of Understanding the Gift

Conversation: Notes in Aid of Understanding the Gift

[Written in 2011]

In 1994 I was part of a group that met in Balmain, NSW, to explore possibilities for involving the laity more effectively in the life and renewal of the Catholic Church. At the end of 1994 that group formulated the following mission statement:

“We are believers who are attempting to establish a forum for conversation within the Catholic Church of Australia. Our aim is to prompt open exchanges among the community of believers, mindful of the diversity of expression of faith in contemporary Australia. This springs explicitly from the spirit of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II: ‘Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.'” (Gaudium et Spes, n.92).

The focus of this group, which called itself Catalyst for Renewal, became conversation. Forums for conversation were established. Perhaps the best known of these forums is Spirituality in the Pub. Other forums included a small publication called The Mix, Catalyst Dinners, Bishops Forums, Forum for the Future. The group also sponsored a major conference – Vatican II: Unfinished Business – at Hunters Hill in 2002. Regular Reflection Mornings are also organized by Catalyst.

Committing myself to engage in conversation meant seeking to understand conversation. I quickly came to realize that conversation can only occur where people are willing to extend common courtesies to each other. For example, they must be willing and able to listen, to take the other seriously, to be patient and respectful and so on. I soon realized that conversation is actually quite different from argument or even discussion. It is also far removed from mere talk.

My commitment to engage in conversation and promote conversation actually led me to recognize a distinct human experience here, one that is potentially profoundly transforming. The etymological connection between the words “conversation” and “conversion” is significant. In fact, I have come to the conviction that, apart from the common courtesies indicated above, the one thing that will make a conversation a conversation rather than an argument or merely a discussion or just talk, is the desire for, or at least the openness to, “conversion” in and through this encounter with the other.

I have come to the following conclusions:

· There can be no conversation in the substantial sense of that word if there is no “desire for, or at least openness to, ‘conversion'” in at least one of the parties.

· Some people are in fact unwilling or even unable to engage in conversation. That can render any attempts at conversation fruitless. The ideologically bound or the chronically angry, for example, are not likely to be able to engage in conversation.

· If I maintain a commitment to “conversion” in the encounter, even if the other does not, it can be a moment of conversation for me.

· Conversation is self-transcending, it draws us into the Mystery and requires submission and abandonment to the Other, beyond doctrines, laws and systems and beyond winning and losing.

It is quite remarkable the way the word “conversation” has become so much in vogue over the past ten years or so. Thus the BBC invites us into a “global conversation” and the Sydney Morning Herald urges us to “join the conversation.” In human affairs however, much use generally precedes much abuse. C S Lewis wrote somewhere that nothing will rob a word of its power as quickly as popularity.

The word “dialogue” is often used where we could also use the word “conversation.”

I will endeavour to outline here some ideas that might help us each to develop a useful way of approaching the challenge of conversation.

1. Conversation as an act of love

First and foremost it helps immensely if we think of conversation as an act of love. Conversation is a matter of people meeting people in the most constructive way possible. It is seen most fundamentally as a moment of promise rather than threat, even if it is also threatening. They do it because they care. People and relationships are the focus, not ideologies or arguments or winning or losing.

Paulo Freire[1] writes:

“Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.”[2]

Pope Paul VI writes:

“The dialogue of salvation (colloquium salutis) began with charity, with the divine goodness: ‘God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son;’ (John 3:16) nothing but fervent and unselfish love should motivate our dialogue.”[3]

The Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication, requested by the Second Vatican Council and Approved by Pope Paul VI in May 1971 notes:

“Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love.”[4]

2. Conversation as encounter

We can think of conversation as encounter. Encounter includes the ideas of both “with” (“en” or “in”) and “against” (“counter”). In fact, in the deepest of relationships – the relationship of marital love – we see this tension at work. The more two people love each other the more they become both interdependent with each other – we might say they become one as a result of their love – and they become independent of each other – we might say they become two as result of the love. Conversation as encounter is a potential of human nature waiting to be activated. It lies at the heart of the process of human maturation. In other words, we cannot become human without it. Thus Pope John Paul II was able to write:

“The capacity for ‘dialogue’ is rooted in the nature of the person and human dignity. …. the human person is in fact ‘the only creature on earth which God willed for itself’; thus we cannot ‘fully find ourselves except through a sincere gift of ourselves’ (cf Gaudium et Spes 24). Dialogue is an indispensable step along the path toward human self-realization, the self-realization both of each individual and of every human community. Although the concept of “dialogue” might appear to give priority to the cognitive dimension (dia-logos), all dialogue implies a global, existential dimension. It involves the human subject in his or her entirety; dialogue between communities involves in a particular way the subjectivity of each. This truth about dialogue, so profoundly expressed by Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964), was also taken up by the Council in its teaching and ecumenical activity. Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an “exchange of gifts” (see Lumen Gentium, 13).[5]

The Dalai Lama emphasizes the obvious practical corollary of this when he writes:

“In human societies there will always be differences of views and interests. But the reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to coexist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue. The promotion of a culture of dialogue and nonviolence for the future of mankind is thus an important task of the international community.”[6]

The contemporary commentator, Aldo Carotenuto, writes:

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. He was referring to social chains but the same is true when it comes to ties of a psychological kind. One psychological chain that binds us is the belief, albeit usually unconscious, that we can only exist by manipulating others. There is no possibility of dialogue in such a situation, and it is only through dialogue that truth can emerge. Without dialogue, one identifies with an ideal; one feels one has the right and the duty to shape the other.”[7]

The Australian journalist, Tony Stephens, is insightful when he writes:

“(Tim Costello) used (‘the politics of grace’) to describe the relationship with his brother, whereby the two men disagree on many issues but maintain a dialogue. He used it to describe his conversion to the merits of at least some aspects of a goods and services tax. Costello asks: ‘Can the politics of tribe yield to the politics of grace – politics in which people are free to speak their convictions, and at times to be strongly disagreed with, but without fear of intimidation. Tribal politics demand that you are either for us or against us. If you’re not one of us then we’ll cut you off. It’s epitomised in the way Hansonism demarks the white tribe off from Aborigines, newly-arrived immigrants and single mothers. The politics of grace includes the belief that we can be a diverse but inclusive family, that while we may often disagree, we will always keep the conversation going’.[8]

3. Conversation as event

We can think of conversation as event. Our English word “event” comes from the two Latin words, e meaning “out” and venire meaning “to come.” An event is therefore an experience in which truth comes forth, reality breaks into our lives in some new and revealing way. This “coming forth” and “breaking in” is hardly ever spectacular. Typically it will in fact be subtle. We may not even notice it until we reflect on the event at a later moment.

To engage in a conversation requires a certain submission. It is not a matter of mastery in the end but grace, not conquest but gift. In a good conversation the “in-between” is all important. That is unoccupied territory. Nobody owns the “in-between.” This calls for great respect and a willingness to listen at depth. St Benedict puts it well in the early words of the Prologue to his Rule: “Listen with the ear of the heart.” It is as if there is an individual conductor here.

The contemporary philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer writes:

“We say that we ‘conduct’ a conversation, but the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather, it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like an event that happens to us. Thus we can say that something was a good conversation or that it was ill-fated. All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own, and that the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it – ie that it allows something to ’emerge’ which henceforth exists.”[9]

A contemporary Catholic theologian writes:

“What is authentic conversation as distinct from idle chatter, mere debate, gossip or non-negotiable confrontation? As the classical model for conversation in the Western tradition, the Platonic dialogue, makes clear, real conversation occurs only when the individual conversation partners move past self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement into joint reflection upon the subject matter of the conversation. The back-and-forth movement of all genuine conversation (an ability to listen, to reflect, to correct, to speak to the point – the ability, in sum, to allow the question to take over) is an experience which all reflective persons have felt. Authentic conversation is a relatively rare experience, even for Socrates! Yet, when conversation actually occurs – in a chance meeting, a discussion with friends and colleagues, a particular seminar session – it is unmistakable.”[10]

4. Conversation that is not conversation

The sociologist, Charles Derber, in his book The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), writes about the “conversational narcissist.” He is referring to the person who, in different ways, some more blatant than others, uses the context of a conversation to keep drawing attention to himself or herself.

Derber reminds us that there is nothing simple or straightforward about conversation. All types can – and generally do – turn up for a public conversation. There are some people who seem incapable of engaging in conversation as we have described it above. Whether it is because of ideological reasons or immaturity or a personality disorder, or some other cause, it must be acknowledged. Sometimes, therefore, an attempted conversation must be abandoned or not even attempted.

Apart from the “look at me” attitude, we might suggest some other obstacles to conversation as we are proposing it here.

· There are people for whom the underlying agenda may be summarized as “This is a necessary game” – their primary concern is to fulfil some social function or duty; these people go through the motions and may do it very well; closer reflection reveals that a social fiction is being played out and there is no real conversation taking place – that is, there is no substance in the words, they are withholding themselves; public figures may feel themselves forced into this process frequently; we might all find ourselves submitting to this sort of “conversation” (ie “small talk”) at the occasional party or social event; at its best this sort of “conversation” is a basic necessity to social interaction, at its worst it is a manifestation of what T S Eliot calls “the hollow men;”[11]

· There are people for whom the underlying agenda may be summarized as “The answer is” – their primary concern is to make sure the content is right and true, and probably suggest – more or less implicitly or explicitly – that they actually know the truth or know where it can be found or, at the very least, know that you do not know the truth and they are keen for you to know that; for these people the ideas and principles and facts are the end, not the actual conversation; they tend to reduce the conversation to debate or argumentation; these people may be genuinely knowledgeable but are more or less dysfunctionally pedantic; they may also be just (anxious?) know-alls, more in need of the sense of control that comes from having “the answer” than the sense of life that comes from connecting with another human being in a process of engagement and honest joint search; these people tend to be detached from, even unaware of, the human dimension and they can kill a genuine conversation almost as effectively as the “Look at me” types;

· There are people for whom the underlying agenda may be summarized as “The solution is” – their primary concern is to reduce everything to a “problem” for which a solution can be found; they generally believe they have the solution or at least know how to reach the solution; these people may be very good at getting things done and solving actual problems – the “can do person” – but they are very obstructive when there is no problem as such, where the process of connecting and conjointly searching is the important thing; they are typically not good listeners, therefore unlikely to be able to wait upon the moment, letting things emerge; life in the end is not a problem, it has no solution, it is a mystery to be lived; conversation is not about problem solving so much as it is about growing into the mystery with others;

· There are people for whom the underlying agenda may be summarized as “This is an ideological struggle” – their primary concern is to win; they tend to reduce the conversation to a competition or fight of some kind, out of which will emerge a winner and a loser and they are determined not to be the loser; it is hard to know with these people whether the content (ie the ideology) or the process (ie the fight) is the important thing; they share much in common with “The answer is” people but are generally more aggressive and confrontational and often enough immovably stubborn, one might even say “pig-headed;”

· There are people for whom the underlying agenda may be summarized as “This is in-house maintenance talk” – their primary concern is to maintain an ideology or current way of thinking and doing things; the exchanges are meant to confirm the status quo; there is no serious attempt to submit to one of the primary purposes of words, and that is revelation – such submission would imply change and thus threaten the status quo; clichés and in-jokes are common to this kind of talk and clearly recognizable (and simplistic) definitions of “good” and “bad” are accepted; different and challenging points of view are seldom engaged honestly or seriously.

We could probably enumerate a number of other more or less typical scenarios for what passes for conversation on a daily basis. You may depend we would also find that there was one disabling factor which kept recurring: The unwillingness or inability of one or more of the participants to be self-transcending. In one form or other – self-absorption, self-centredness, egocentricity, arrogance, selfishness, narcissism etc (ie the very antithesis of self-transcendence) – would typically lie at the heart of most failures to engage in genuine conversation. Significantly enough it is also clearly a major obstacle to the realization of our best possibilities as beings who are constituted by and through relationships.

5. Conclusion

In the end, conversation is a mystery. It is part and parcel of God’s conversation – the colloquium salutis – with the human family and with each of us individually.

Much of what I have presented above needs to be unpacked, developed, nuanced and expanded. You must do that – on your own and with others. This process will involve, first and foremost, the practice of conversation.

Each of us will find our way into that mystery by experiencing it with others similarly intent on discovery. That requires commitment and a high degree of magnanimity.

All the above presupposes a fundamental disposition. As Mary, the Mother of Jesus, entered ever more deeply into the colloquium salutis she declared: “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said” (Luke 1:39).

[1]Paolo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator renowned for his innovative way of approaching the work of education. In particular, he linked education with justice and freedom. In 1964 he was imprisoned in Brazil as a traitor. In 1970 his most famous book – Pedagogy of the Oppressed – was published. It attracted much acclaim and hostility.

[2]See Pedagogy of the Oppressed, The Seabury Press, 1968, 77-81.

[3] Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam (1964) 73. This entire encyclical is dedicated to promoting “colloquium”.

[4] Communio et Progressio (1971) 11.

[5] Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint (1995) 28.

[6] Dalai Lama, Speech to the “Forum 2000” Conference, Prague, 4 September 4 1997.

[7]Aldo Carotenuto, Eros and Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering, Inner City Books, 1989, 111-12.

[8]Tony Stephens, “Reconciliation Revisited”, Sydney Morning Herald, January 16, 1999, 34.

[9]Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (Second Revised Edition), trans revised by Joel Weisheimer and Donald G Marshall, Crossroad, 1989, 383.

[10]David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, Crossroad, 1981, 100-101.

[11] See T S Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”. The first stanza – echoing Celia’s mocking comments to Edward in Act I, Scene 2, of “The Cocktail Party” – is as follows: “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!/Our dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless/As wind in dry grass/Or rats’ feet over broken glass/In our dry cellar.”