The discovery of dialogue

William Johnston was an advocate for the new mysticism and alongside this for what he called one of the great discoveries of the modern world – dialogue. He thought dialogue was one way to live the gospel and that it was an authentic way.

It may seem obvious to those of us who have been involved or are still involved in the talking cure of psychotherapy and therapeutic counselling that talking and listening and working things out in an enabling atmosphere is the best way to solve problems.

Many world leaders – (especially those who want total power) – seem to still think that violence or bloodshed and altercation is a better way to do it; but they are inevitably proved wrong. As is generally acknowledged it is only when countries are sick of war, weary with bloodletting, or when everything that’s worth anything has been destroyed that the leaders start to talk about peace through dialogue… Then they get round the table and negotiations begin.

Violence and war clearly allows for universal primitive emotions of murderous rage to be expressed; but there are other ways of trying to process such emotions including turning them into feelings that can be shared. Perhaps it seems as if violence and war is the ‘manly’ way of sorting things out, perhaps dialogue sounds as if it would be too easy or too soft in some way, but as Johnston reminds us authentic dialogue is very demanding.

This is why people find therapy such hard work – and that’s just the therapist, for the patient/client it can be an exhausting process. Why? Because we are asked to be completely honest and frank, and to respect human dignity (even the dignity of those who may have hurt us most), to listen and respond, to discuss and explore, and if necessary to compromise and to separate ourselves from our most cherished viewpoint. Johnston writes, ‘dialogue at its higher point asks for what is most painful to human nature: disinterested love. And what could be more in keeping with the gospel?’

Like nonviolence, dialogue is an obvious aspect of the gospel and it needs to happen quickly both inside and outside the church. But why did it go so wrong? The viewpoint of many in the church and especially early missionaries was – and occasionally still is – not to be open to dialogue. For example, the early missionaries believed that the unbaptised were on the path to destruction and that their task was to rescue souls from error and eternal fire. In that case why would you listen to what might be Satan? The church in its recent dealings with victims of child sexual abuse chose to turn away and not to listen; to shut their minds and hearts to any and all dialogue and to hold fast above all else to the reputation of the institution. Why would you listen to people who you thought were undermining that reputation?

In the gospel – those who have no status are invited by Jesus to speak, and we hear their voices. The gospel is full of dialogue: talking and listening. It offers the talking cure.