It has become increasingly commonplace, even pedestrian to bemoan the current state of public debate on almost any topic. For anyone remotely following the interminable cycle of news and commentary, it is obvious that there is in fact no real exchange of ideas taking place, and no common project being undertaken. What we are witnessing is an almost complete collapse of our capacity to speak with one another and share a common space. And while there are a great many benefits to the communications technology that comes to us as social media (indeed, the initiative of Macrina Magazine which celebrates its first anniversary this week was born out of genuinely positive and sustained social media engagements), the edifice of internet communications technology in effect seems more akin to a digital tower of babel than the birth of a new harmony inducing lingua franca.1
Critiques of social media abound: from the Luddite-esque refusal to acknowledge any good whatsoever, to more nuanced appraisals which take into consideration the diverse uses that it is engaged for, and the ways in which the various algorithms shape its users. It is certainly evident that the sheer viciousness of what constitutes public discourse in our day is something that simply could not have even been envisioned in a time prior to “social” media. The recent presidential debates in the Unites States, or the recent reporting of whatever Pope Francis may or may not have said are sad indicators of where things are at.
Into this, the words of the Italian Catholic priest and educator Fr Luigi Giussani (1922-2005) come both as a challenge and promise. In an English translation of some of his early works and presentations to school and university students, gathered under the title The Journey to Truth is an Experience, Giussani speaks of dialogue as “the instrument of co-existence with the whole of human reality made by God."2
Now, for many people “dialogue” is something of a buzz-word, or what the Australian cultural commentator Don Watson refers to as a “weasel word.” When used as such “dialogue” is often used synonymously with the term “compromise,” and then it usually is code for activities that result in a kind of banal, lowest-common-denominator agreement to disagree. Many words spoken, much ink spilled, very little achieved, and a great deal of time (and often money) wasted.
But dialogue, according to Giussani, is something enriching. In fact he argues that it is of vital importance for the Church’s Catholicity. “Each one of us,” he writes, “because of one’s particular temperament, tends to stress certain things; contact with others reminds one of other things and of other aspects of the same thing. Dialogue is thus a function of those horizons of universality and totality to which man is destined.”
Dialogue takes as its starting point the human condition – in all its brokenness and all its sinfulness. This is, in fact, what we all have in common, despite our socio-economic-political backgrounds, despite huge variances in our family upbringings and worldviews. Giussani asks us to start dialogue from what it is that we have in common:
To take what we have in common with the other as a starting point does not at all mean saying the same thing, even if we use the same words: what is justice for another is not justice for a Christian, what is freedom for another is not freedom for a Christian; education in someone else’s conception is not education as the Church conceives it… What we have in common with the other is to be sought not so much in ideology as in the other’s native structure, in those human needs, in those original criteria, in which he or she is human like us.3
Starting from our original or native structure we can begin to verify the various proposals that are offered as responses to the malady of our present context. This then becomes an opportunity for us to verify the faith that we have been gifted with, which is an opportunity for our own growth and maturity. And while this is not something that is to be done lightly or flippantly, if it is true, then the revealed contents of our faith should stand up to scrutiny, even the most strident. The Gospel, so says a friend of mine, is pretty robust.
This method of dialogue is, in its turn, an instrument of mission and evangelization – not because it provides knock-down arguments for God’s existence, or whatever doctrine of the faith we might be seeking to provide an apologetic for – but because it begins with the questions to which both another’s ideology and our Christianity proposes solutions. Giussani would often quote the American protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, saying that “nothing is more incredible [i.e. impossible to believe] than answers to questions that have not been asked.” Dialogue is the means by which we can get at those questions of ultimate meaning, and side-by-side with those for whom life seems to be so very different, we can begin to move beyond our preconceived ideologies and approach the Truth.
In this sense, and undertaken in this way, dialogue can be said to mimic the tender method of God that we see in the Incarnation:
It is part of the mystery of God that He acts so gently, that He only gradually builds up His history within the great history of mankind; that He becomes man and so can be overlooked by His contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that He suffers and dies, and, having risen again, He chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom He reveals himself; that He continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to Him. […] And yet–is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love.4
It is this spirit of open and fearless dialogue that I have been so privileged to have seen unfolding on the pages of the Macrina Magazine over these past 12 months. Christians of a wide variety of confessions, animated by a genuine desire to see Christ as a present presence in the world today – offering unique takes on justice, education, politics, economics, life, death, joy and sorrow, and a great deal more. The exchanges have been of a tremendously high caliber, and have been a welcome source of consolation when the tenor of public debate has seemed to become increasingly degraded. It has been a privilege to have been a part of this bold project, and I am excited to see what is to come of it in the years ahead.
- See the important essay by D.C. Schindler, Social Media Is Hate Speech, A Platonic Reflection on Contemporary Misology, Humanum Review (2020:2), https://humanumreview.com/articles/social-media-is-hate-speech.
- Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2006. See particularly pp.131-132.
- Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. From the Entrance in Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011), 276.