By SARAH DANNEMILLER
What do a Muslim, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and atheist have in common? Not very much, as each operates from very different philosophical starting points. It would be odd, then, to claim that each of them ought to walk into a room together, sit down, and talk about these fundamental differences. Yet, I believe this collision of differences can remedy our intellectual and spiritual weaknesses.
The prevalent use of social media has drastically changed the way we communicate and interact with one another. We consume information like our favorite take-out: just the way we like it. We don’t have to invest as much intellectual or emotional labor into forming our beliefs about the people and world around us. As a result, we have lost the art of dialogue.
The theater of speech has atrophied into a menagerie of lines drawn in the sand, where you are immediately given a side to stand on whether you consciously chose that side or not. When we begin to speak, we are met with silence-inducing accusations and personal attacks, when what we need to be met with is kindness, understanding, and compassion.
If we can’t listen to one another, especially those who disagree with us, we run the risk of losing those life-giving principles that nurture the conditions for liberty. Humility, open-mindedness, empathy, perseverance, and courage must be cultivated if we hope to flourish. However, this requires hard work because the cultivation of these virtues demands an encounter with the ‘other.’ This ultimately entails the healing of both our own wounds and that of others.
Yet the question remains: how do we listen to the ‘other’ with the openness, empathy, and perseverance that dialogue requires? We do so by the same means we acquire the other things in life that are risky but well worth it, like love, trust, and faith; we leap. In order to learn how to dialogue with those who are different from us, we simply have to enter into that dialogue. Consequently, we may discover the transformative power of such encounters as we receive understanding and compassion from the least likely of places—from those who are fundamentally different from us.
The Abilene Interfaith Council’s Café Conversations are a prime example of such a project. A little room in the back of a local coffee shop in a West Texas town transmutes into a microcosm of human reciprocity. How do we accomplish this, you may ask. First, everyone who attends a Café Conversation commits to an agreed-upon set of standards for dialogue. For example, we restrict ourselves to “I” statements in order to avoid falsely perceived attacks and unwarranted assertions. This way, everyone has the opportunity to clarify and correct any misunderstandings one may have of a particular group.
Second, we witness to the diversity of the room by sharing our religious affiliation with one another. By doing this, we have accepted the reality that there will be dissonance. We then proceed to discuss topics that matter to the entire human family because they get at the heart of what it means to be fully human. As such, Café Conversations are hard work and there is a lot of pain and fear to wade through. True dialogue requires emotional and spiritual labor. While it’s inevitable that voices will raise and eyes will water when those very human topics of race, gender, and faith find their way onto the table, individuals who attend Café Conversations remain committed to responding to such pain and fear with compassion and understanding. One only needs to take a seat at the table and look to the left and to the right to find exemplars of mutual reciprocation.
By listening to the ‘other’ and by sharing ourselves with the ‘other,’ we strip ourselves of the need to be right and the fear of being wrong. In receiving each other with all our insecurities, doubts, and confused beliefs, we bear the healing marks of reciprocated vulnerability: empowerment. Paradoxically, it is through attuning ourselves to the lives and voices of others that we discover our own authentic selves and learn how to fearlessly share that self with others.
Sarah Dannemiller is a graduate student at Abilene Christian University, earning her Master of Arts in Theology. Her research interests include questions in philosophy of religion, theological anthropology, and mystical theology. She was recently confirmed in the Episcopal Church of the United States and is currently a member at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX. She also has been a member of the Abilene Interfaith Council since 2015 and has served as an officer of the board since 2016.
If you are interested in the project of human cooperation and the discipline of dialogue and desire to cultivate compassion and kindness within yourself, please join us at the Abilene Interfaith Council’s Café Conversation, hosted every fourth Thursday of the month. We will start our conversations back up in September 2018 in the back room of Meamiz Coffee House from 7:00 – 9:00 pm. If you have any questions or would like to facilitate a Café Conversation please contact Sarah Dannemiller at .
Abilene Interfaith Council works to promote communication, understanding, and peace among people of different faiths who live together in our community.