The discovery of dialogue 2

Dialogue is not about laying down one particular perspective. In terms of Christians living as William Johnston did in Japan it is no longer about preaching western culture and insisting on certain ways of doing things; rather he promotes a new context of inculturation which allows dialogue through mutual respect.

Johnston offers his thinking on the implications of such a dialogue characterised by sincerity, honesty, love of truth. He says that selecting pieces of the gospel to justify dominance or a particular perspective is not about truth; it’s the whole gospel that matters.

He says that alongside this there needs to be the belief that the spirit also speaks powerfully through Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews so that any dialogue involves listening rather than feeling threatened or unsure. ‘But if we persevere in our journey through the storms of dialogue we come to deep inner peace in the appreciation of what is essential in our own faith and what we can profitably learn from Buddhism. We strengthen our commitment to Jesus; we see that one who loves the gospel loves all religions and cultures.’

The dialogue is not then about pressurising or promising anything; it’s not about stern threats or charming enticements. Johnson says it doesn’t involve malicious bribes or backstairs politics. So this means a certain detachment. In other words the dialogue is not about persuading someone to be a certain way or think along a certain line rather it’s about purity of intention.

Here Johnston reminds me very much of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. He advocated starting every analytic session ‘without memory, desire or understanding’. He didn’t want intrusive thoughts to stand in the way of what was happening in the present moment.

The task for the analyst or psychotherapist is rather to be present to and become aware of whatever ‘thought’ the patient hopes to communicate in their time together, whether through a memory or the account of a recent event, or through silence or just a particular way of being that day. For Bion it was about how to be truly present rather than overloaded with theories or propaganda about how the person should be feeling. He was very aware of the potential for theory to be used defensively: ‘We learn these theories – Freud’s, Jung’s, Klein’s – and try to get them absolutely rigid so as to avoid having to do any more thinking.’

Towards the end of his life at a talk in the US he said, ‘Discard your memory; discard the future tense of your desire; forget them both, both what you knew and what you want’ – and the reason, he suggests, is ‘to leave space for a new idea.’

Both Bion and Johnston are talking about disinterested love where there are no desires for results whether Christian ‘conversion’ or psychoanalytic ‘cure’. There is detachment from the fruit of our labour; the spirituality of conquest is to be replaced by service. ‘The East loves the perfection of action – the purity of one who does things because he does them, not from fear of punishment or hope of reward.’