Light of Truth

Valson Thampu

The thoughts that ensue have been occasioned by an article by Jacob Parappally titled ‘Dialogue Is Our Best Hope’ (Light of Truth, May 1-15, 2022). I thank him for the same.
We are all for dialogue, even if we are indifferent to what it is and what it takes to dialogue. Characteristically, we remember dialogue only in the face of crises. The discipline of dialogue is not native to our way of life. We rarely ask, ‘Are we dialogic?’ Or are we habituated to monologues? No one disputes that dialogue is our best hope. But whether or not we are dialogic, is a different matter altogether.
The ‘dia-’ in dialogue denotes ‘in-between’. Dialogue is what happens ‘in-between’ people. This is quite different from a serial exchange of words. The fact that some individuals or groups sit together and generate words in studied politeness to each other does not mean that they are in dialogue. The essential precondition for dialogue to happen is willingness on the part of the participants to accept the ‘in-between’ dimension of dialogue, without which dialogue amounts to no more than a series of monologues, interspersed with interjections or silences. The participants in a genuine dialogue emerge from themselves and encounter each other in the in-between space. My three-decades-long journeys through inter-faith dialogues terrain leave me wondering if this really happens. Looking back, I am not sure if genuine dialogue ever happened, or a culture of dialogue was created during this period.
If you ask Jesus, he would say, ‘How can you do dialogue unless you deny yourself?’ Only through self-denial can one attain the freedom from the self that creates the in-between space for dialogue. This is crystal clear from the ‘dialogue’ between Jesus and the woman of Samaria (John 4). By asking the Samaritan woman for a drink, Jesus took the initiative to create the in-between space, where he ceased to be a stereotypical Jew and became thirst. This enabled the woman too to be gradually more than a Samaritan creature, and realize that she too is thirst, which is true liberation. That is what all human beings are spiritually: thirst. (When Jesus said from the Cross, ‘I thirst’ he also meant that he is thirst, which was misunderstood.) The core of this episode is the insight that much of what we do by way of religion is an obfuscation of that truth. ‘Thirst’ is the metaphoric in-between space in which the spiritual dialogue between Jesus and the woman –between man and woman- takes place. The model of dialogue we practise is a denial of thirst. So, Jew remains Jew; Samaritan, likewise. It is assumed that dialogue takes place, somehow.
You shall recognize a tree, Jesus said, by its fruit. Shouldn’t the tree of dialogue too yield fruits? What fruits have we gathered from our esoteric dialogue-tree over the years? If dialogues take place for years, and there is nothing to show for it, it is natural that dialogue comes under cynicism. It is not enough to say ‘dialogue is our best hope’. This faith needs to be validated not merely by philosophical or theological arguments, but also by the fruits thereof.
Lest we take dialogue for granted, consider the ruptured dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Jesus, the living Word, resorts to silence. Why? The text adumbrates an issue crucial and common to dialogue as dialogue. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asks Jesus. At once a problem looms large. What does Pilate mean by ‘king’? Yes, Jesus is king; but he is not ‘king’ in the Roman conception of that word. The same word denotes two radically different order of realities to both parties. That is to say, no ‘in-between’ space exists for them. They are divided by the word, presumably common to them. Put somewhat technically, there is no ‘inter-subjective agreement’ between them. In such a context, they can share words, but not meanings. How would this amount to dialogue? We deceive ourselves, if we assume that it does. This issue recurs in relation to ‘truth’. What is truth? Pilate asks. Why doesn’t he receive an answer from Jesus? Not because Jesus does not know the answer. After all, he is the truth (John.14:6). The problem is that Pilate’s truth cannot be Jesus’ truth. What dialogue, then, between them, so long as Pilate sits on the seat of power, obliged to condemn the innocent One? Yet, it is as important to ask, ‘What is truth?’ as it is to ask, ‘What’s dialogue?’
Dialogue, like charity, must begin at home! Do we maintain a margin for dialogue in our church life? Is there any dialogue between churches? Any provision or opportunity for an honest and open-hearted exchange of views among ourselves? The author of the article under reference rightly points out that ‘The hierarchical structure of the Church did not promote much dialogue within the Church at least in the vertical level of relationship. It followed the chain of command style which demanded submission from all those under authority without any dialogue.
Inter-religious dialogues are like industrial expos, at which various commercial firms showcase their wares. Imagine, in such a context, the personnel manning a pavilion being open-minded about their wares, carrying on a dispassionate discussion on merits or demerits! Where power and profit rule, dialogue stays exiled. Negotiation may be possible, as the author says, not dialogue. Negotiation is, in my line of thought, dialogue sans the in-between meeting of minds.
It is not my case that we must renounce dialogue. Arguably, there is no alternative to dialogue. My limited purpose here is to sound a note of caution about taking dialogue for granted. Dialogue is a powerful, liberating and transformative experience. If, notwithstanding this, we have little to show for the many decades of dialogue we have left behind, it could well be that we mistook something else for dialogue. ‘The least you can do, if you want to help humanity,’ said Confucius, ‘is to call things by their right names’. Jesus is God’s dialogue with humanity. The Cross is a perpetual reminder that there is a cost for dialogue, unless we continue to insist that dialogue should be like the grain of wheat that refuses to fall down and die and opts to remain alone. Ironically, aloneness is the ambience in which our dialogues are conceived and conducted.

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