D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary
The word “dialogue” would seem to have now become one of the favorite buzz-words of our times. We are all invited, even urged, to attach great importance to the peculiar form of human interchange to which the term refers. In fact, some would seem prepared to attribute an almost preternatural potency to dialogue. They regard dialogue as the great panacea, a quasi-magical means by which all conundrums will be wonderfully unraveled, all problems perfectly and permanently solved.
Just what are we dealing with here? The first and common meaning of “dialogue” is simply a conversation, a discussion. Given this basic understanding of the term, one could be said to dialogue, that is, to have a conversation, about any subject whatever, from the sublime to the most mundane – the Blessed Trinity, this year’s soy bean crop, college football. But we have to make an important distinction regarding this matter of dialogue – between undirected dialogue and directed dialogue.
Undirected dialogue has no finality to it; it is not, to speak more precisely, animated by a final cause. What we have here, then, is conversation or discussion which rambles on with no particular end in mind. It is not ordered toward resolving a particular issue, not aimed at reaching any definite determination regarding whatever might be the subject matter under discussion. Undirected dialogue could be aptly described as an exercise whose sole purpose, in the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, is “to keep the conversation going,” even though, or perhaps we should say, especially because, the conversation is not going anywhere anyway.
With directed dialogue the situation is altogether different. This kind of dialogue has much in common with formal debate. What this implies is that when two people enter into serious dialogue, (a) each has a point of view to which they are deeply committed, (b) those points of view are at variance with one another, and (c) there is a good-will intention on the part of both parties to seek resolution of problematic issues. Directed dialogue, in marked contrast to undirected dialogue, is meant “to get somewhere”; it has a distinct purpose. That purpose, specifically, is, again, to resolve the issues under discussion. On a more fundamental level, the purpose of directed dialogue is to arrive at the truth. That is what it is essentially all about.
Directed dialogue would be a sham, a total waste of time, if those engaged in it were not sincerely and deeply committed to their respective points of view, if they did not see the attainment of truth as the foundational rationale behind the dialogue. If it were to happen that the parties involved in the dialogue should begin to see it as nothing more than a vehicle for reconciling differences between themselves, at the expense of truth, then the dialogue, as dialogue, becomes meaningless. Its very reason for being is undermined.
Genuine success in dialogue can mean only one thing – the attainment and/or the preservation of the truth. There are some people who are avid advocates of dialogue, who promote it incessantly and will enter into it at every possible opportunity, but who do not see its principal purpose to be the attainment of truth. For them, “dialoguing” represents a convenient means of doing no more than bringing the other side over to their side, of gaining victory, not for the truth, but for their point of view, a point of view which often enough is frankly erroneous. It is well that we are aware that there are people who have that attitude toward dialogue, in order to protect ourselves against the naïve assumption that they are acting in good faith, when in fact they are not. Entering into that kind of “dialogue” would be like stepping into a bear trap.
There is another attitude toward dialogue which is fairly prominent today and therefore deserves having special attention called to it. I refer to an attitude on the part of those people who effectively employ dialogue as a kind of escape mechanism, as a means of evading responsibility. I have in mind people who have a definite, and often official, obligation to promulgate, promote, and protect the truth, but who, for whatever variety of reasons, do not live up to that obligation. Instead of boldly and bravely standing up for the truth, in season and out of season, they are constantly “entering into dialogue,” in which activity they show themselves to be positive experts at waffling and weaseling, with the result that the truth they should be defending ends up being seriously compromised. What is happening in such cases, in terms of our distinction between undirected dialogue and directed dialogue, is that though these people are presumably engaged in directed dialogue, it is really undirected dialogue in which their energies are being expended. Their activities therefore become purposeless with respect to the basic rationale of directed dialogue. The only point of the exercise for them would seem to be to engage in amicable chatter, to talk for the sake of talking, while the truth becomes almost incidental, if not downright bothersome.
“Dialoguing” as a means of avoiding one’s responsibilities with regard t the truth is, needless to say, a serious problem, but it becomes a serious problem to the point of tragedy – and beyond – if the truth in question is the truth of our faith. If dialogue degenerates into a vehicle for compromising the truth, when the truth in question is revealed truth, then dialogue becomes something which is positively dangerous.
No one would want to deny that there is an important place in human affairs generally, and in the affairs of the Church in particular, for directed dialogue, as properly understood and ingenuously engaged in. But fruitful and effective as it sometimes can be, it is no substitute for the active, energetic, uncompromising, and unceasing preaching of the Gospel. The truth which we possess through the gift of faith is, at bottom, God’s own truth. It is “ours” only in the sense that it has been placed in our care, not simply so that we ourselves can be nourished by it, but, most importantly, so that we might carefully preserve it and pass it on, integral and whole, to others. I am not aware of any passages in the Gospels where Our Lord enjoins His disciples to engage in an activity which today we call dialoguing. But He does enjoin them, clearly and forcefully, to go forth and proclaim to all men the supreme truth which He brought to this world, the truth which gives light to confused and darkened minds, the truth which sets men free.