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Dialogue threatened with extinction

  • 27 June 2007

One strong theme of both philosophy and social science in the twentieth century is the recognition that as humans we are 'dialogical' beings — people who come to a sense of self only in relationship with others. An indispensable aspect of the process of dialogue is the task of understanding the other on his or her own terms. This dialogical theme has worked its way into wider culture: the aspiration to understand other cultures on their own terms is commonplace today. If we slipped into the assumption that our culture is the norm toward which others should aspire, we would not be surprised to be confronted by our prejudice.

But in recent years, this dialogical view of the world seems at risk. It is certainly contested within the Catholic Church, which at the Second Vatican Council spoke of the church-world relationship as one of dialogue.

Some within the Church raise questions such as: when dialogue requires participants to be radically open to the other, recognising and respecting the fundamental differences between cultures, doesn’t that put at risk the truths to which the church should adhere? These people fear that the notion of dialogue is loaded with relativist assumptions. They point out the influence of liberal culture on contemporary concepts of dialogue, arguing that in liberal cultures, open dialogue requires participants to set aside metaphysical or religious commitments. And with commitments off the agenda, dialogue becomes the purely procedural exercise of establishing an arrangement with which all parties can live.

From the opposite perspective, others are suspicious about what the church might mean by dialogue when it holds that Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive revelation of God. Can a dialogue in which one party is convinced about the rightness of its position meaningfully be called a dialogue?

What is in dispute is the meaning of dialogue itself. Those who raise the first set of questions are keen to hold on to some notion of truth in dialogue, contending that it is possible to get closer to or further away from the truth. They want to avoid relativist views. Those who raise the second set of questions want to set aside ethnocentric views, in which one’s own culture is seen as the norm to which other cultures should aspire. This second group hope to remain open to other people and cultures in dialogue, understanding them on their own terms. The work of a significant twentieth-century philosopher,