One of the most common, most unquestioned and most damaging stereotypes of dialogue is that its primary aim is simply to create more harmony and peace in the world.
This is the same thing many people think about mindfulness meditation as well – ‘If I sit on the cushion, then I will feel more peace…
In both cases, this Nirvana-now expectation is a quick ticket to either (a) immediate disappointment in the mindfulness/dialogue practice or (b) avoiding the practice altogether since it sounds so weak-sauce or mushy or sissy or spineless.
Even though both of these practices can result in peace and greater comfort (especially over time), in many cases their immediate effect is to open ourselves to more discomfort and tension, rather than less – as we turn towards the painful stuff inside us or between us.
For some people, that sounds like “yet another reason to avoid dialogue,” while for other people, it presents a practice much more appealing (and less spineless and mushy). No one clarifies these points better than my colleague Arthur Peña – a gay Christian man who understands dialogue to his core. No one has pressed me more forcefully or taught me more powerfully than Arthur.
Out of hundreds of e-mails with Arthur over the last year, I’ve selected a few parts that really distill this clarification well – organized by specific overarching questions:
1. Is Peaceful Co-existence Between Religious Conservatives & the Gay Community Possible?
On this point, Arthur says exactly the thing many of us avoid (but pretty much believe): “There is no room for peaceful co-existence here. Whether they know it or not, gay-affirming people have declared war on the church (Catholic or Mormon, as well as on those Protestant churches–both liberal and conservative–which are still trying to defend ‘Biblical Authority’).”
Arthur goes on to point out how gay-affirming people have felt for years a similar declaration of war from the Church. For instance, in a conversation where I shared with him my conviction that “we can know something from God,” Arthur told me what a “deep threat” particular beliefs like this were to him, with “our sense of ‘rightness’ in the cosmic order of things (as a gay community) at stake” adding “our sense of truly ‘belonging’ to the universe and to society is at stake; our sense of safety from violence and persecution and discrimination is at stake.”
He emphasizes the fight as impossible to avoid: “Yes, it can be a war ‘fought’ with charity and respect. But it is a war to the death, nevertheless, at least at the ‘meme’ level. Gay-affirming theology and traditional Mormon theology (and the superhuman authority it claims to represent) are irreconcilable, and they cannot both be correct. One of these memes must win, and the other must lose.”
“People have set their hopes on memes which are, I would argue, in fact and quite inevitably, in a battle-to-the-death.”
He continues, “We must, then, clear our heads of the deluded hope that broken hearts, shattered faith, and lost lives can be entirely (or even largely) avoided if we can just talk, if we can just meet heart-to-heart, if we can just ‘humanize the enemy’ and enter into dialogue. Yes, perhaps a temporary (and in my opinion, obfuscating) “truce” can be called in this way, and the “collateral damage” can be minimized by talking, by meeting, by understanding.”
“Let’s just say that I want to be like those Allied and Axis troops who decided to play soccer together instead of killing each other that one famous Christmas eve (I think it was) so many years ago. Let’s hold to affection and respect, even if we sometimes wear different uniforms (I don’t even know which uniform I’m wearing!). As to whether we will ultimately have to aim our memetic guns at each other, and pull the triggers, I do not know. I can only say that I do not want to.”
2. What is a Reasonable Expectation of Religious Conservative Institutions in this Conversation?
“I just watched Elder Christofferson [apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] provide a kind of apologetic for the recent ruling that clarifies church teaching on same-sex marriage. Given his assumptions about the truth of his church, he sounds very reasonable (and charitable) to me. The interview with him can be found here.
“I wish that gay-affirming people would realize you can’t ‘reform’ a church–a church that is based on claims of superhuman authority–on fundamental doctrine, without calling into question that core authority. They should break away and form their own church, or they should challenge the church’s authority and truth claims directly and forthrightly, instead of asking a superhuman-authority-based religion to stop being what it is (or what it claims to be).”
“I find this sort of indirect attack on the church’s authority to be quite frightening, because it strikes me as irrational (asking an entity to stop being what it is) and disingenuous (because not open or clear or direct or honest).”
“To be true to their own beliefs, and to truly respect the beliefs of the Mormon church” Arthur continues, these “people need to leave the church and to fight it openly and directly–not ‘reform’ it (such an entity cannot be reformed on this level–the level of authoritative church teaching–without ceasing to be what it is).”
3. If not Ultimate Peaceful Co-existence, What’s the Point of Dialogue?
Arthur continues: “This may be a time not for ‘making peace,’ but for the clarification of positions, for the highlighting of the chasms that divide us, and for the taking of (well-informed) sides. My only real concern is that people may take their sides without being fully informed, and with only distorted ideas about what ‘the other side’ really stands for. Our goal then, is not to bring agreement, or harmony, or peace (at least not directly) but, rather, clarity…and a certain kind of mutual respect that can, in fact, arise as the result of clarity.”
“I therefore agree with Elder Christofferson: it is not kind to be unclear.”
“The war is unavoidable. It is already here. Blurry lines just encourage people on both sides to unwittingly stumble into enemy territory. There are real, irreconcilable enemies here on the memetic level; and, to the degree that people identify with those memes–memes which will not and can not ‘back down’–there are real, irreconcilable enemies on the personal level as well.”
“When the lines are blurry,” Arthur emphasizes, problems and more pain arise. “Better, I say, to draw the lines clearly (even as we examine and talk about those lines, and perhaps–when there are reasons for doing so that are clear and transparent–shift them from time to time). Draw the lines–and fight. With charity and respect–and through dialogue–yes. But fight.”
He continues, “The death of one or more memes is absolutely certain–and necessary. And thus the death of certain kinds of hope and faith is also absolutely certain–and necessary.”
“It is not a question of choosing peace over war, or general well-being over general unhappiness. The war is here, it is happening, and it is inevitable. There can be no peaceful co-existence on the memetic level, and any attempt to arrange some kind of peaceful co-existence at that level will only lead to other kinds of hope and faith being destroyed. People will only be led astray by holding out the vain hope of peaceful co-existence at the level of memes.”
“We cannot–and we should not–seek some sort of truce between gay-affirming theologies and SSA-rejecting theologies that are based on superhuman religious authority. This only protracts the suffering, and re-shuffles the cards or the lottery tickets–merely changing who will be hurt, in what way, and when.
“I could perhaps reasonably be accused of advocating the ‘nuclear option’ here–a kind of Memetic Armageddon. There may be gentler ways to ease people out and beyond the confines of the present culture war. In fact, I am sure there are gentler ways. I’m just not so sure that there are, in the final analysis, kinder ways. In my experience, what passes for (and may truly be) “gentler” methods, usually involve the kind of “blurring of lines” I referred to above. This may make it easier for some people (and may serve some strategic interests as well), but I believe it merely makes it harder (perhaps much harder) for other people. It certainly makes it harder for me (which, of course, may make my concerns too self-centered to be of broader relevance or interest).”
“Better, then, in my opinion, to aim for the truth, as clearly and strongly and transparently as possible, and let the tragically inevitable (inevitable no matter what ‘way’ we choose) collateral damage–the broken hearts, the lost faiths, the lost lives–occur on a road that at least promises a deeper, cleaner, more definitive kind of peace-after-war, rather than half measures and compromises and blurry lines that are, I think, almost certain to prolong suffering in the form of a kind of ‘cold’ (and confusing) culture war that never ends.”
“May the truth win out.
And may as few hearts be broken, as few faiths be shattered, and as few lives be lost along the way as possible.
And may I be corrected if I have overstepped bounds, spoken with unnecessary harshness, or failed to see a way forward that is both gentle and truly–in the long run–kind.”
You may agree or disagree with Arthur’s thoughts – but regardless, you will most likely appreciate how much they are worth hearing. They remind me that the purpose of thoughtful, healthy conversation is not simply to ‘get along’ or ‘be nice’ or ‘have peace’…especially on issues where real lives are in the balance and there is likely no ultimate peace between positions to be found.
In these instances (and this is not the only one), perhaps we need be more explicit about truth and clarity as aims of conversation – both of which are best served when we seek to understand each other (and damaged, I am convinced, by the misunderstanding).
In order to get to that truth and clarity, we may well need to sit in some very uncomfortable conversations – ones in which we may feel like they slice through us. Arthur’s words are a reminder to me that even those conversations are worth it – and a warning against what he calls the “tyranny of civility,” which is a kind of oppressive “respectfulness at all cost – so that there can be no actual challenging of things and an insistence on ‘equal validity’ of all points.”
That’s definitely not dialogue – and Arthur knows how to teach that better than anyone I know.
 A meme is defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” Synonyms include “idea, concept, buzzword, trend.” For a more elaborate discussion, see here.