Constant Ongoing Learning in Dialogical Community

These six words were used by my good friend David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer university, to describe my “approach” to engaging others. This observation was prompted by my recently making a “mid-course change” in the procedures for the ecumenical conversation on what it means to “follow Jesus” that I am currently hosting on this website. What led to my making this change was what I learned was working well, and not so well, during the first month of a twelve-month conversation.

As I thought more about this phrase, it became obvious to me that it captures a great deal of my “approach” to life throughout my Christian pilgrimage. So, I will now elaborate a bit on this, morphing into why I believe this approach to life is so challenging in these times of extreme polarization in culture and why I will persist anyway.

This approach was exemplified in my collaborative model for leadership during my 40 years serving in Christian higher education. I was always motivated by a vision for pursuing excellence (As a colleague of mine once said about me: “No matter how good things are, Harold can always picture them being better”).  But my method for pursuing excellence always involved my seeking to create a synergy between my vision for excellence and the visions of those serving under my supervision, brought about by our talking respectfully to one another regarding our agreements and disagreements. In sharp contrast to a top-down style of leadership, such collaboration made it possible for the results to reflect the best thinking of all of us, not just the leader, and contributes to a strong sense of community.

This phrase also fits well with what I gradually came to believe is the purpose of Christian liberal arts education, expressed in only three words:  Conversations seeking truth.

But the obstacles to “Constant Ongoing Learning in Dialogic Community” are enormous these days. I will note three such obstacles.

LACK OF HUMILITY: In our age of extreme tribalism, you seldom hear someone say “I may be wrong. So, I may have something to learn from someone who disagrees with me.” Rather, the norm seems to be “me and my folks” – whether that be my political party, my church, my group of friends – have the whole truth about the issue at hand, and we have nothing to learn from those who disagree with us.

This tribalism reflects a total absence of humility. As finite and fallible human beings, none of us has a “God’s eye view of the truth,” and, therefore, we can learn a great deal from talking respectfully about the various “partial glimpses of the truth” that each of us may possess.

ADDICTION TO SPEED: This obstacle is the most subtle and under-rated. We typically want quick answers to complicated issues; preferably answers that can fit on a bumper sticker. This “addiction to speed” keeps us from the laborious and time-consuming task of engaging in the “constant ongoing learning in dialogic community” that is needed to deal with complexity

LOSS OF A SENSE OF COMMUNITY: To talk about being part of a “dialogical community” seems quaint these days. In our hyper-individualistic American culture, too little attention is paid to doing what is best for “all of us,” in contrast to what is best for “me.” Therefore, there generally is inadequate motivation to get together as a “dialogical community” to respectfully talk to one another, and, thereby, learn from one another about what is best for our entire community.

These obstacles to “constant ongoing learning in dialogical community” are so formidable in contemporary American culture that one is tempted to sink into despair. But I persist in my attempts to exemplify this approach to life. Why? Because, as I say every chance I get, as a follower of Jesus, who has called me to love others, I embrace the following foundational principle:

To provide a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about that disagreement is a deep expression of love.

The odds are stacked against my attempts to model respectful conversation being successful. But I am not overly concerned about being successful. Rather, claiming the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew13:31-32  (The Parable of the Mustard Seed), I am committed to faithfully planting “tiny seeds of redemption” through my various respectful conversation initiatives, entrusting the harvest to God.

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