Speaking recently to an interfaith dialogue group, Baptist historian Walter Shurden drew upon Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s “I and Thou,” one of the 20th century’s most influential works on genuine relationship and communication.
Shurden observed that all the significant ethical movements of our time have to do with “we” – the community that is always possible, and always vulnerable, in the human family.
Reuel Howe, a pioneer and significant voice in the early years of modern pastoral studies, pointed to this same reality in his influential book, “The Miracle of Dialogue.”
Older theology students will remember Emil Brunner’s concept of revelation as “encounter” – where truth is found in authentic meeting with the “other” and the discoveries made possible therein.
Something that transcends both parts emerges when the encounter/dialogue occurs.
More theoretically, in the 19th century, German philosopher G.F. Hegel suggested a way of viewing history itself as a progression of a “thesis” meeting and engaging an “antithesis” with the result of that engagement being a “synthesis,” which becomes the thesis for the next engagement.
The result of the encounter is a discovery that moves the process of history to a step above the previous one.
These voices remind us that the human journey can be seen not as a race or contest to be won to gain the spoils of victory for the successful, but as a cooperative quest to gain the fruits of discovery for all.
It is part of the genius of our political system that opposing perspectives can be freely offered to the forum of public opinion and choice, and that at least in principle the collective wisdom of the citizenry can decide what to embrace.
In theory, our process is a grand dialogue, where opinions, perspectives and policies are offered in the service of the common good, and the resulting distillation of value is better than any individual perspective would have been without the encounter.
A “we” that brings together pieces of truth from diverse sources is better than the winner of a contest between “I’s.”
In practice, our process has become more a contest than a quest, and debate has replaced dialogue – debate where the question is not “what have we learned that will help us move ahead?” but “who won?”
Who managed to land the most zingers and score the most gotchas? We tend to watch and listen with the same perspective we take to a World Series or a Super Bowl.
Team loyalty merges with hostility toward the opposing team, and what is engaged in good-naturedly in sporting contests becomes almost unconsciously a part of the fabric of our society when it gets connected with deeper anxieties, fears and prejudices.
There are expert and extremely well-funded masters at work helping that connection happen.
Debate focuses on winning and the benefits of victory for the winning side. Dialogue focuses on what can be gained for both sides as a result of the discussion.
Debate is a contest between “I’s” while dialogue is the creation of a “we” that opens new possibilities for both sides of the conversation.
For the “we” to be a genuine plural, it must be more than an expansion of an “I.” When a group embraces an I-deology and thinks in lock step, no matter how numerous, it is little more than a cloned singular.
A “we” that is a genuine plural will reflect diversity of perspective and a willingness to let that diversity be a creative force rather than a threat to the security of status or preconceived truth.
The way things have developed in our current climate, a contest is most certainly before us; and, as in the “debates,” there will be winning and losing. Some will experience the thrill of victory while others will suffer the agony of defeat.
Perhaps it isn’t too much to hope that after the finale of the debate/contest, there might again be the possibility of dialogue and discovery.
If the I, me and my of our present atmosphere can be replaced with the we and our of a community of justice for all, we might come to a new understanding of victory not unlike that of the vision of Isaiah, where former predators and potential victims live and eat together, swords are beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 11:6 and Isaiah 2:4).
It might require that we the citizenry demand of our leaders the struggle and discovery of dialogue, rather than settling for the entertainment of debate. What we ask for – and respond to – is probably what we get.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).