Monday, May 24, 2010

Why "dialogue" will never win converts

Why has "dialogue" as a model for interaction between Christians and other religions failed to produce any fruit? Undoubtedly because in a model of interaction between the Church and non-Christian religions that is based on "dialogue" and "meaningful exchange of experiences" there is a misplaced emphasis on learning about one another rather than on the salvation of souls. For a long time I thought this failure of the dialogue approach was a strategic blunder; i.e., I thought it was poorly thought out, untested in Christian history, prone to engender confusion and all in all was just a bad idea. While maintaining all of these things, I now see that any approach to non-Christian religions that is based solely on "dialogue" as its cornerstone is not only strategically a bad move but is actually antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel and is doomed to failure essentially and innately. One who chooses to pursue the route of "dialogue" by that very fact ensures the failure of their efforts.

This thought came to me while reading Josef Pieper's book Tradition: Concept and Claim, which is not so much about the theological or ecclesiological concepts of tradition but rather tradition in the broader, philosophical sense. Pieper points out that Tradition is too often defined as the simple handing on of information from one group to another; this is the definition one gets of tradition in secular dictionaries of sociological college courses that study "folklore." Yet, Pieper says, this in itself cannot be tradition, for otherwise such things as simple reporting would be considered tradition: a reporter goes out and gains information and conveys this information to an audience, yet nobody would claim that tradition has taken place. The same could be said for a scholar publishing a work on an historical epoch. I can write a book about ancient Rome and  pass on the knowledge of ancient Rome to a third party reader via the book, but I am not really passing on a tradition, just knowledge.

One difference, of course, is that Tradition doesn't just pass on knowledge, but passes on knowledge in its cultural context. But the critical distinction needs to be placed on the recipient of the tradition. When a true act of tradition takes place, someone passes on the tradition to a recipient, who assents to it and makes it his own. Pieper says of the act of receiving tradition:

"[This] is what the act looks like, in which the activity of tradition first reaches its goal and is consummated, by means of which alone someone "is part of a tradition" and participates in it. This is reception in the strictest meaning of the term, hearing something and really taking it seriously. I accept what someone else offers me and presents to me. I allow him to give it to me...Taken all together, this means that accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief. It is belief, since belief means accepting something as true and valid not on the basis of my own insight. but by relying on someone else" (Pieper, Tradition: Concept and Claim. St. Augustine Press, 2010.pp. 18-19).

According to Pieper, the act of "receiving" a tradition is akin to an act of faith - when receiving a tradition, one is put in a disposition of humility, receiving as a gift something being given by another (hence the verbs about something being "passed on" or "handed down" in relation to tradition). To accept what is handed down is not to just understand facts; rather, it is to assent to and receive the tradition, thus making oneself "part of the tradition" and the next line in the chain. In fact, it is only in assenting to the tradition and becoming part of the tradition that one can even fully understand the tradition.

Here is where the problem with dialogue comes in. The entire Christian message -call it the Gospel, the Good News, the Faith, the Teaching, whatever - is, in its most essential form, Tradition. All throughout the New Testament and the Fathers, the Gospel is spoken of as something that is received and then handed on; i.e., a Tradition, something that is given and that as a tradition demands assent. It is not a set of facts given out for one to ponder, but a tradition that is given and that the recipient must actively receive. Consider these verses and how the Faith is portrayed as a tradition:
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us, according as they have delivered them unto us... (Luke 1:1-2).

For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: And that he was buried: and that he rose again according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread... (1 Cor. 11:23).

And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle (2 Thess. 2:15).

In all these verses we see that the Gospel is essentially a Tradition. So he who would really know the Gospel and enter into it must not only learn about it but receive it as a Tradition. But in a situation where the Gospel as tradition is replaced by dialoguing "about" the Gospel, we see that the message is robbed of all its power and vitality because we are no longer seeking to pass on a tradition but to simply relate facts and experiences. No matter how weighty our facts or how compelling our experiences, these can ultimately never produce conversions or belief because the essence of what the Gospel is has now been removed. Without the element of "handing on and receiving" that St. Paul sees as central to the Gospel, how can we be surprised if efforts at simple "dialogue" do not produce conversions? Indeed, they are incapable of doing so, just like a car with its engine removed is no longer capable of transporting anybody anywhere.

When we approach non-Christians from a position of dialogue (versus handing on a message that demands assent, that actually asks something of the hearer), we are merely telling facts and experiences about the Gospel without even preaching the Gospel to them. This is infidelity to the call of Christ and unfair to the hearer, who has a right to hear the Word of Life from the Body of Christ.

Given that this approach has been a dismal failure, we see that the proponents of dialogue have tried to rework the entire notion of Christian missions to say, in effect, "That's okay that our dialogue-based model has not produced any conversions, because we're not really trying to "convert" people anymore anyway. We just want to share mutually validating experiences enriched through dialogue about the contributions our respective faith communities make to our spiritual growth." In other words, they failed to find gold and covered it up by claiming they were never looking for it in the first place. Dialogue-based approaches have failed to win souls for Christ and it is now denied that winning souls is even a goal. That's too outmoded and based on an "ecclesiology of conversion." How medieval.

Is there a place for dialogue? Of course. Every evangelical encounter starts as dialogue, but i(and this is the distinction) t is a dialogue that goes someplace - that leads from the conveyance of facts to the proposition that the hearers take some of concrete action on what they have heard. St. Paul might begin his sermon on the Areopagus with a dialogue about the comparative merits of Greek religion, but this only serves as a springboard to lead him into the essential message - the preaching of the Gospel, where he warns them that God will no longer overlook their ignorance, that He demands all nations repent of their sins because God has fixed a Day of Judgment, and that this Judge will be none other than Jesus Christ. What St. Paul certainly does not do is tell the Greeks how great their paganism is and then encourage them to continue to worship their false gods and petition then for worldly favors like "peace on earth." This is the difference between limp-wristed dialogue and real, Spirit-filled preaching that leads to repentance, conversions and baptisms.

The real place of dialogue, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in the introduction to the Summa (I.Q.1,art.8), is to establish common ground with somebody so as to delineate the parameters of the debate. But that this dialogue should lead to a disputation, with the express purpose of coming to a conclusion, is never questioned by St. Thomas. When we do dialogue with someone, it is to establish our common ground; to know basically from which angle we have to deliver the Gospel message. But to dialogue endlessly without ever delivering the message is to not only fail to fulfill the mandate of Christ to preach to every creature, but is also a failure to even properly use dialogue as a tool, since it substitutes for an end what is only a means.

So long as dialogue and "mutual enrichment" are treated as ends in themselves, no pagans will be moved or impressed with the Catholic Faith. They will only further look down on us for compromising our principles and will continue to siphon off weak members of the Body of Christ who no longer know why they call themselves Christians. I highly recommend Pieper's short and very readable little book on Tradition for a refresher on what Tradition is and how it is handed on. But let us all in the meantime remember St. Paul's malediction in 1 Corinthians and make it our own: "Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16).

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