Dialogue is a popular concept in religious and theological circles today. Everyone is supposed to be in dialogue. Sermons and lectures must yield to it. Above all, divergent theological and ecclesiastical groups are expected to be in dialogue. Refusal to engage in it is regarded as churlish, obscurantist, and arrogant. Evangelicals who are lukewarm in dialogical venture incur particular displeasure.

Now, dialogue has much to be said for it. Christian mission demands that others be addressed and that we take account of what they say. The more direct and personal this dialogue is, the better will the ends of communication and community be served. Defectiveness in dialogue is regrettable.

Yet dialogue is no panacea. In and by itself it solves little. Although unavoidable, it can be frustrating and futile. Certain difficulties exist that can make the ideal of free and fruitful interchange unattainable unless steps are taken to overcome them. In the dialogue between orthodox and liberal theology, these difficulties are both principial and personal.

Principial Difficulties

1. The first principial difficulty is the difference in basic presupposition. The believer in the full deity of Christ and the man who accepts Christ only as a genius of religion are up against a fundamental problem that will affect almost all the subjects they may meet to discuss. Whether we believe in the self-revealed God of Scripture or God as known in some other way is another example. This kind of difference restricts the possibilities of dialogue in many fields, since apparently peripheral disagreements are often implications of the fundamental divergence. Dialogue, then, will either be shallow and valueless or will have to keep coming back to the underlying problem, which obviously calls for broad and prolonged discussion and holds out little hope of easy solution.

2. The second difficulty of principle, which is very clear in modern theology, is the related difference in approach, which can make all dialogue both confused and confusing. Helmut Thielicke has analyzed this difference in the first volume of his Evangelical Faith. He sees today a confrontation between what he calls Cartesian and non-Cartesian theology. Cartesian theology, beginning with man, adopts an anthropocentric and subjective approach, whereas non-Cartesian theology, beginning with God, adopts one that is objective and theocentric. Now, even as a difference in method this can cause endless confusion in statement, and thus condemn dialogue to futility, unless the difference is perceived and allowed for. More serious, however, are the material implications of the difference in method, as may be seen from a comparison of Tillich and Calvin, for example. In this case dialogue cannot begin even on secondary matters until the question of approach has been thrashed out. This will call for continuous discussion over a broad area of activity rather than a few brief encounters.

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3. The third principial difficulty is the difference in theological norm. All theologies have norms or standards, and when these differ dialogue is perpetually frustrated. Thus the appeal to Scripture as the supreme rule clashes with the appeal to tradition or the papacy or reason. Clarification of norms must be achieved if dialogue is to be possible at all.

But clarification is not enough, since it eliminates neither the difference nor its implications. The liberal may well perceive that reason or relativity is subject to Scripture in orthodox theology, but this will not alter the fact that for him Scripture is subject to reason or relativity. Occasionally the same results may be achieved irrespective of the norm, but this cannot be taken for granted and is indeed unlikely in most topics. And so dialogue is constantly pressed back once again to a fundamental issue for which there is no prospect of easy or immediate resolution.

Personal Difficulties

1. Personal difficulties are hardly less serious than those of principle. Since these are usually ascribed predominantly to the orthodox, it might be helpful to focus here on the obstacle they pose to dialogue on the liberal side. The first difficulty here is failure to give serious consideration to what is being said by the opposite partner in the discussion. Evidence has mounted in recent decades that, for example, evangelical books are not widely bought in liberal circles, evangelical scholars are seldom invited as guest lecturers to liberal schools or platforms, and evangelical positions are neither properly studied nor understood by the liberal establishment. This obscurantism, as one might easily describe it, makes dialogue futile. Obviously I cannot talk to a man who will not even listen to what I say and who seems to have dismissed my position in advance. I certainly cannot talk with him if he will not even give me a chance to speak. Patter about dialogue is empty in such circumstances.

2. The second personal difficulty is the setting up of stereotypes in place of realities. We all tend to do this, making straw men out of those with whom we disagree and then flattening them without difficulty. One common stereotype in the liberal world is that a serious view of inspiration means mechanical dictation. The matter has been explained a thousand times, but the stereotype remains. In many cases extremist forms of a belief are equated with the belief itself to create the stereotype. Or supposedly logical inferences are drawn and these are presented, criticized, or summarily rejected as though they were the teaching itself. Now obviously dialogue is brought to a standstill when the stereotype is substituted for the reality and there is unwillingness to do the little work that is needed to correct the picture. Authentic dialogue presupposes an honest grappling with what is actually held by others rather than an unscholarly and complacent fixation on what we think they think.

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3. The third personal difficulty is the manipulation of dialogue in advance so that it can never get going as a real discussion. This may be done by establishing the terms of the parley so that undesired issues can be ruled out of order or squeezed out for lack of time; in these circumstances even a chance to speak is no guarantee of authentic dialogue. Or again, it may be done by steering the dialogue to a fixed end. This is the problem in a conference with an assured majority. Free and frank discussion may indeed take place here, but it has little bearing on the findings, so that the invitation to dialogue is bound to have a hollow sound. All that happens is that another view is stated and perhaps a few concessions are made to it to give a happy appearance of fair play. But from the very first there is no real chance that this other view will be given such serious consideration that it might affect the outcome. When the issue is an open one, and the rules are not weighted, then a measure of dialogue can indeed be achieved. When the issue is not open, and the rules are weighted, honest and effective dialogue is eliminated before it is even attempted. What, then, is the point of attempting it except as a form of witness?

Possibilities Of Dialogue

1. In view of all these difficulties, are there any possibilities of dialogue at all? A first possibility, of course, is that of the general and continuous discussion in which the differences of presupposition, approach, and norm are the subject. This is a discussion that can and will and must go on, although whether it will be dialogue in an authentic sense depends on the attention that the parties pay to one another. The prospect of easy or early resolution of the issues is in any case slight.

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2. A second and more promising possibility is that a true understanding of opposing positions might emerge from discussion, so that respect will be shown even if agreement is not reached. This again, however, requires a willingness to do some honest study and to break away from stereotypes and caricatures. If this is done, then light will be shed on the reason for disagreement on many modern issues such as abortion or the role of women in the ministry. This does not mean, of course, that the disagreement will go away. But certainly mutual understanding and respect will produce saner and sounder discussion, which is an achievement of sorts.

3. An even more promising possibility is that agreement may result in some areas even though the approaches differ. In England, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics could combine in opposing the proposal for Methodist union even though their doctrinal reasons were diametrically opposite. A danger of reductionism arises here. One might put out a common statement on monotheism with Unitarians, but without qualification this would be of little worth. One might agree that salvation includes more than eternal bliss, but this is a far cry from focusing Christian ministry on political action. All the same, so long as reductionism is avoided, limited agreement can certainly be reached in some areas through intelligent and sympathetic dialogue.

4. A final possibility of dialogue is that it may produce a better personal understanding, especially when it takes the form of living encounter. Much hostility and misrepresentation arise out of controversy at a distance. Personal meeting can often lead at least to better relations. It can do, so, however, only if the principial and personal difficulties are faced and both parties work to overcome them. Mere encounter is no guarantee of sympathy or respect. In other words, dialogue is not a magic password. One has to work at it seriously and honestly to fulfill even the modest possibilities that it offers. An example from its warmest advocates would be welcome.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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