Dubious About Dialogue
A Reflection On a Much-Used Term That Has Lost Its Biblical Meaning
There is much emphasis today on the concept of “dialogue.” Most English speakers simply equate the word with “discussion” and English-speaking Catholics hear a lot about how the Church should be in “dialogue” with the world.
Of itself “dialogue,” understood merely as having a discussion or conversation, is surely a good thing. Discussions and conversations set the framework for understanding, for evangelization and the conveying of the truth. In this sense dialogue is good and understandable as something which keeps the door open, so to speak.
But there are some of us (your current author included) who are troubled by the use of this word in the rather unqualified sense. Even in English, “dialogue” has a rather vague and indeterminate quality regarding content and time. Does dialogue really capture the central mission the Lord gave the Church which is to go to all the nations, teach them everything Jesus commanded and make disciples of them? I don’t think it does.
Dialogue implies a rather back and forth quality, whereas teaching implies that one party has truth to convey that the other party needs to hear. Teaching also has a goal of getting the other to come to understanding and compliance with the truth, science, technology, or discipline that is announced. Hence it makes sense that Jesus did not say to the Church to go forth and dialogue, but to go forth and teach, to summon all to repentance, to a new mind, and to come to believe the good news set forth by Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is a summons more than a dialogue, a teaching more than a discussion, a call more than a conversation.
The problem with the term “dialogue” gets more complex when we go to the Greek New Testament. There the use of the term dialogue is in some senses good, and in others, anything but flattering. Let’s take a look and see how the word dialogue can at times indicate both the best and the worst of what we as a Church really hope to accomplish.
The Greek root words that underlie our English word “dialogue” are dia ‘through’ + legein ‘speak.’ In the scriptures there are several different forms of the word that occur. Two of the forms indicate an unflattering notion of the word, and a third form while used positively is far more vigorous that we mean by dialogue today. Let’s look at each form that occurs in the Greek New Testament.
I διαλαλέω (dialaleo) - which Strong’s dictionary defines as “I converse together, talk of.” It is used only twice. Once in Luke 1:65 where the people in the vicinity were all talking and puzzling over the fact that Zechariah had received his speech back at the birth of John the Baptist. And in Luke 6:11 where the religious officials were talking and scheming together about how to kill Jesus after he healed the man with the withered hand.
Already we are clued in that the word as used in these texts does not bespeak a conversation that is clear on the facts or even holy.
II διαλογίζομαι (dialogizomai) – which Strong’s Dictionary defines as “to go back-and-forth when evaluating, but in a way that typically leads to a confused conclusion”. The term implies one confused mind interacting with other confused minds, each further reinforcing the original confusion.
Yikes, even worse. It would take too much time to discuss all 16 occurrences of the word but among the uses of it are when the disciples were discussing and trying to understand Jesus’ rebuke of their lack of faith during a storm at sea and how it related to the multiplication of the loaves. They debated among themselves as to what he meant (Mat 16:7). On another occasion the word is used of the debate and discussion among the Pharisees when Jesus asked them if the Baptism of John from heaven or from men. They disputed, connived and could not agree (Mat 21:25). The word is used in Mark 2:7 when the scribes “dispute” in their hearts about whether Jesus could forgive sins, etc.
So this form of the word indicates a “dialogue” that is inauthentic, scheming, and confused. More subtly it indicates a kind of reasoning that seeks to avoid a conclusion by steering a conversation or line of reasoning toward uncertainty; a conversation that is not really interested in truly disclosing or sharing the truth.
I am sadly convinced that many people who use the term dialogue today are actually engaged more is this sort of discussion. It permits a certain credibility to the participants, since they are nobly involved in a “dialogue” but it does not “call the question” or have as a goal making the Gospel reasonable and therefore demanding of respect.
III διαλέγομαι (dialégomai) from diá, (through, from one side across to the other + légō, "speaking to a conclusion"). Dia intensifies lego so it is properly, "getting a conclusion across" by exchanging thoughts, words or reasons. And this form of the word is used positively, but as we shall see far more vigorously that it would seem most people mean by the word dialogue today.
It occurs 13 times in the NT, usually of believers exercising "dialectical reasoning." This is the process of giving and receiving information with someone in order to convey a deeper understanding of the Lord and His word, and will. As such it is more than a mere on-going conversation, but one that is goal-directed, even boldly so. Consider some examples from among the 13 times it is used:
(1) It is said of St. Paul in Acts 17:2, 17 and 18:4) when he entered synagogues on the Sabbath and reasoned (dialexato, dielegeto) with them from the Scriptures. To give the sense of the “tone” of these dialogues consider the following line from Acts 19 - Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly (eparresiazeto) there for three months, arguing persuasively (dialegomenos kai peithon) about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)
And thus we see that the “dialogue” referenced here is no mere conversation, but a bold setting forth of the Christian vision with the goal to change minds and convert hearts.
I am just not that convinced that this is what most people mean today when they call us to dialogue.
(2) The term is used in Acts 20:7-12 (humorously) of Paul’s preaching at Troas in which preaches a long one and a young man named Eutychus sitting in an open window ledge goes asleep and falls out the windows three stories to his death. Paul runs to raise him from the dead and goes back to finish the Mass! (All in a day’s work!) Dialogue here too does not seem to mean mere conversation but the exhortation we call preaching.
(3) It is used in Acts 24:25 to describe Paul’s testimony before Felix: As Paul talked (dialegomenou) about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid And here too we see “dialogue” referring not a simple conversation but to an exhortation so clear that it incites fear in a Roman official. Again, I must say I don’t think this is what most people who call for the Church to engage in “dialogue” have in mind.
Indeed, in none of the 13 occurrences of dialegomai can I find any sense of mere conversation, or a “getting to know you – sharing information” sense. Dialogue in the New Testament Scriptures is a word that indicates an often bold exhortation and/or defense of the faith. It is goal-oriented, not merely relational, and has in mind to draw one to repentance and to Christ.
So what are we to make of the frequent calls to dialogue today? If, by it we mean a bold and confident proclamation of the faith, so as to present it as reasonable and worthy of obedience, then dialogue is a good thing!
But as stated above in several places, I do not think this is what most who call for dialogue today have in mind. Rather they have in mind more of a mere exchange of ideas, a reaching of mutual understanding and respect.
These are not bad things in themselves, especially as a prelude to teaching. But they often seem today to be presented as ends in themselves; as a final goal.
The Church was not sent by Christ to all the nations to “dialogue” (Matt 28:20) in the modern sense of that word. Rather she was commissioned to teach (in the more ancient and bold sense that the Greek New Testament means by dialegomai). There is a place for respectful listening, but to present it alone, and apart from the fuller mission teaching is misleading and conveys a less than evangelical stance.
I do not call for a banishment of the word dialogue, only a more proper understanding of it in the biblical sense as a clear articulation of the reasonableness of our faith whereby we are contending for souls and even boldly refuting errors. If that is dialogue, bring it on!