I hear a lot about how the world is divided. Lots of people claim to want to build unity (the is the Week of Christian Unity). But it is pretty rare to have unity if we can’t have a civil conversation.
John Backman has a new book Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart that addresses some of the issues around conversation. Tim Otto reviews it at Englewood Review of Books.
One of John Backman’s best answers to the question that titles his book, “Why Can’t We Talk?” is that rather thanbeing good, we’ve settled for being infavor of the good.
It is an insightful answer. One of the deepest religious impulses—on both the right and the left—is to believe that we believe the right things and are therefore superior and saved. Talking vulnerably with others threatens that stance. Genuine dialogue runs the risk that we might realize we are wrong. But if we move beyond being religious to being righteous (by finding our deepest identity in God), then we are secure in God and can welcome without fear any new truth that dialogue reveals.
How do we go from thinking ourselves as good because of holding the right beliefs to being good? Backman proposes that it is through “engaging the work of the soul.” Soul work involves spiritual practices such as prayer, scripture reading, and a rule of life (the book has a helpful appendix that outlines how to do these practices). He also proposes that dialogue itself is a spiritual discipline, a “habit of the heart” that transforms us. In a virtuous spiral, as we give ourselves to dialogue we grow in goodness, and as we grow in goodness we become more capable of dialogue. The two mutually reinforce each other.