Dialogue means conversation, but a conversation with the purpose of learning the truth. Dialogue involves an exchange between speaking on the one hand and listening on the other. For the global Church, it is a manner of being together in charity, which gradually renews the atmosphere needed for a shared profession of faith. In order to foster charitable, ecumenical dialogue, the Church should always consider these 3 things: the common ground for dialogue, the conditions of dialogue, and the themes to be approached in the dialogue.
The Common Ground for Dialogue
Dialogue is appropriate to a situation where differences exist between people who have, nevertheless, certain common ground, and who aim at greater fellowship in thought and action. For the Christian churches, the common ground is God’s revelation as expressed in the Holy Scriptures. These are something more than a mere book or set of regulations. They are the inspired, unfailing Word of God. Their witness is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ and has meaning through relation to him; it is lived and understood through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Church and through the faithfulness of God’s People. Another common reference must be the experienced reality, and, as such, it calls us to seek to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13, ESV). Thus the convergence which dialogue seeks to establish, on the basis of our common ground, is not merely “horizontal”, reached through agreement on common formulas at the end of a theological discussion. It is essentially vertical and alive, and proceeds from the commitment of all in the loyal service of their common Lord.
The Conditions for Dialogue
The things of God cannot be dealt with except under suitable conditions, therefore attention should be paid to at least five general conditions.
1. First, this type of dialogue must not be seen just as an academic exercise; it is an effort to participate with other Christian churches in a spiritual movement that is animated by the Holy Spirit. This, of course, presupposes purification of heart and a genuine love of other people as our brothers and sisters.
2. Second, commitment to one’s own Church is essential. While it is true that the number one enemy of dialogue is monologue (as seen in polemical controversy), enemy number two is a false sense of broad-mindedness. A false desire for appeasement does not pay due attention to the other person in his otherness; it is a failure to show oneself as one really is. Of course, commitment to one’s Church must be a dynamic, critical loyalty. Dialogue is a way of making progress, on the condition that one consents to be challenged.
3. Third, the preoccupation for dialogue must not stop at one’s own Church. It must concern Christian churches all over the world, in a desire to serve God’s Kingdom. The rivals of such preoccupation would be theological rigidity, clinging to unimportant forms, the refusal to reconsider anything, and the rejection of renewal.
4. Fourth, a very important condition for dialogue is respect for others and for their “whys and wherefores.” This willingness to really listen in order to understand the other is essential. Dialogue is hampered by reducing one’s convictions to a sociological attitude—an attitude, power-conscious and therefore competitive. This is pure self-assertion and a priori self-justification.
5. Fifth, spiritual preparation is the main condition. This means waiting on God, offering oneself to His Holy Spirit which “blows where it wishes,” a readiness for repentance in the spirit of the Gospel, a sense of penitence for faults committed against the unity designed by God, and prayer. It is crucial that the ecumenical dialogue be a fully Christian activity, taking place within a setting of joint intercession, which disposes both heart and mind not only towards God but also towards others, in a charitable spirit.
The Themes of Dialogue
Good conversations require good subjects—things worth talking about, which enliven and inspire all the participants in the dialogue. Here are three suggestions based on general ecumenical experience.
1. First, the themes should be not only theology but the life of prayer, pastoral questions, the sociology of the religious groups, current issues in the life of the community, or its history. The importance of history cannot be overemphasized, for divisions have arisen within (and because of) certain conditions of understanding and formulating doctrines, within a certain form of piety and of church life.
2. Second, the development of knowledge and science, confronts people today with tremendous tasks, especially in the ethical sphere. These tasks concern the entire Church and require joint research. Christians must also cooperate in order to promote justice and peace in the world. Here the ecumenical dialogue will acquire its full value in so far as it is endeavoring to be a witness and a service in a world which searches for hope and solutions to its problems.
3. Third, on the theological plane, certain questions prove to be more crucial than others. There are the questions being studied such as ministries, the problem of authority, creation and redemption, the Holy Spirit and the Church, what is the universal Church and how its unity is manifested. The order of importance of topics should be born in mind. The life of a Church and its theology form an organic whole in which there are fundamental realities or truths. For instance, is it possible to examine the question of pneumatology in a fruitful way if we have not yet reached clarity on the christological question, or if we are not in agreement about the whole question of salvation? This is just an example, although a very important one; but it would seem that, since Christ is the center of all things, we should always revert to christology, in order to get to the root of the questions still dividing us.
Charitable, ecumenical dialogue is necessary and possible in the global Church if the participating churches are aware of their common ground, work toward ensuring and guarding a proper atmosphere in which the essential conditions for dialogue are met, and seek to identify and prioritize relevant, edifying themes for the ongoing dialogue. This kind of ongoing dialogue is both possible and necessary for realizing God’s Kingdom on a global scale.