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Dialogue with Rowan Williams


Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, by Rowan WilliamsFalling into a good conversation is one of life's great joys. When a chance meeting conspires with an inviting atmosphere, we can find ourselves caught up in the back-and-forth of conversation. In retrospect we may acknowledge that we have gained insight from the encounter as well as a deeper love for the other person.

It's not the ambience alone that makes conversation rich. We often gain insight when, with someone we trust, we face up to life's hard edges, think our way around the difficulty, and learn from the other's approach.

Yet this rich experience of dialogue is often lost in modern consumer society. When the values of efficiency and production are as dominant as they are today, dialogue can be seen as no more than the trading of opinions. But that doesn't do it justice.

A recent book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explores the experience of dialogue. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction is primarily a book of literary criticism, a study of Dostoevsky's major novels. It has received fine, appreciative reviews in Eureka Street and other literary magazines. But my interest here is less in Williams' reading of Dostoevsky than in his view of the meaning and function of dialogue in human life.

For Williams, dialogue is more than a fulfilment to which we aspire, although it is certainly that. It is far more, too, than a moment or even a series of moments in a person's life. Williams sees human identity as fundamentally dialogical. Through the exchange of dialogue we become ourselves. In dialogue, insights emerge that shape our lives in a way that is new not only for the hearer but also for the speaker.

So a view of dialogue that sees it simply as a means of revealing something previously hidden from the hearer, yet known to the speaker, does not do it full justice.

Central to dialogue is the response of the other, of recognition or failure to recognise. When someone mishears a statement I make, I have the oportunity to express my understanding in new words. At that moment, I can make clear what I have not said and may also be led to articulate dimensions of which I was previously unaware.

With this dynamic in mind, Williams says: 'dialogue and interaction bring to light, not to say bring into being, hidden dimensions in a speaker. To engage in this venture is to accept at the outset that no speaker has the last word ... that at the outset no one possesses the simple truth about their own identity or interest'.

Openness in dialogue implies we are open about ourselves and open to the other. Williams calls it 'responsibility for the other'. By responsibility he does not mean we have a resigned acceptance of the other's burden. Rather, the opposite. We are so open to others that they find it possible to take reponsibility.

Responsibility for the other is 'a matter ... of discovering what the other can say in one's own voice, and what one can say in the other's voice. In that mutual displacement, something new enters the moral situation, and both speakers are given more room to be who they are, to learn or grow by means of this discovery of "themselves outside themselves".'

If we were to use the ordinary categories of Christian faith, this understanding of dialogue would be expressed in terms of love. But this view of love takes us beyond the sentimental, benevolent take on love adopted in much contemporary popular culture.

For Williams, love is difficult: both speaker and hearer must empty or deny themselves in order to enter the world of the other. Love also requires the 'labour of self-restoration', the willingness to rethink one's self-understanding in the light of one's encounters.

Such a practice mirrors the self-giving love of God in Christ: it is love for 'God's view of the self'. If lived in this way, love has the potential to be 'the foundation of a renewed human community'.

Of course, neither Dostoevsky nor Williams thinks this perspective proves the existence of God to a detached, speculative observer. They both believe, however, that the language of love discloses a moral economy far more liberating and life-giving than that which entraps many characters in Dostoevsky's world — and in our own.

James McEvoyJames McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.

Topic tags: James McEvoy, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction



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Existing comments

What a wonderful and inspiring piece!

Cassandra Golds | 04 June 2009  

After reading this piece, I'll certainly add this book to my reading.

I wonder though whether true dialogue, as Williams and McEvoy describe it, can exist in the context of an authoritarian structure, secular or sacred, where one party carries a big stick, albeit behind their back?

Warwick | 04 June 2009  

An extremely fine piece, and James' comments on dialogue go to the heart of a very rich theological understanding of the human person. Al McFayden has written on similar themes - the call to personhood taking place via dialogue with the other - and I recommend his books to anyone interested in this topic. By the way James, I always like reading what you write. Very thought provoking.

Cameron Johns | 04 June 2009  

As a teacher, of some decades ago, dialogue was negotiation; that which a teacher uses after having communicated ideas , commenced the activity, mental and physical, to explore the ideas, and then probes each student's understanding of the ideas put forward through discussion and dialogue.

Thank you James for showing this in your review.

John | 04 June 2009  

Thanks for this, James. This is further evidence that my engineering tutors were missing the point when they told me that our greatest advance was our opposable thumbs; the development of language has been far more important, and was the medium through which my tutors communicated.
David Williamson gave up teaching mechanical engineering to become a playwright.

David Arthur | 04 June 2009  

An article that explains nothing about the book it reviews, and concentrates on the politically correct meaning of a single abused word. Will someone please explain how Williams can 'dialogue' with the deceased Dostoevsky, or is this just another irrelevant tome consigned for the remainder tables? Perhaps next week I can 'dialogue' with Shakespeare!

Dion | 05 June 2009  

Nice one James, but not everyone (like yourself and Rowan Williams) has the words! Most of us poor buggers out there are just waiting for the other one to finish before we get the chance to put our own weights up.'Must empty themselves...?'. I thought that 'must' and 'have to' were injunctions of yester year.

Claude Rigney | 05 June 2009  

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