Monday, October 30, 2006

The Ethics of Conversation: A Critical Self-Assessment

No cultural activity may be more fundamental to our humanity than conversation. Conversation is far more than the simple exchange of words. That is, conversation is far more than the sounds created by our mouths which then cause our ear drums to vibrate. Instead, conversation is the encounter of human thoughts and experiences; without conversation, can we even call ourselves human?

Nevertheless, the nature of conversation necessarily makes it a dangerous activity. Words can too easily become verbal daggers. Even if conversation remains productive and positive, conversation still poses a threat, for true conversation makes both sides uniquely vulnerable. Words are alluring, seductive. Words can convince us to turn from the error of our ways. Words can cause us to question everything we know. Truly, conversation is dangerous, for it ultimately puts a mirror before us and asks, “Why?” Why do you believe? How do you know?

In light of the spiritual and personal jeopardy that we face in earnest conversation, what are our responsibilities to one another? How can we care for someone who has exposed her mind and heart to us? I have become convinced that our sacred duty in conversation is a humble, truthful and open disposition. If we enter into conversation unwilling to be changed, we are practitioners of intellectual and theological arrogance, not the productive and potentially sacred encounter of humans. If we enter into conversation willing simply to agree with our partner in dialogue or unwilling to share our views will full conviction, we deprive her of our own sincerity and practice a cheap relativism. If we enter into conversation as a battle of wits, we deprive one another a chance to know another person deeply and thus practice a sophistry that values rhetorical victory over human contact.

Conversation can humanize and dehumanize, uplift us and drag us to the cultural dregs. My prayer is that we choose the former for the sake of God’s kingdom and reject the latter as an outmoded remnant of a sinful perspective that treasures being correct over being fully human.