Dialogue as a Pastoral Experience:

 by Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D.

Image credit: Chelsea Wan
Public Domain

Dialogue, especially inter-religious dialogue, is a pastoral activity. While it allows one to be a teacher and a student and while it encourages theological reflection, it is neither pedagogy nor theology. Dialogue is not about things, or ideas, or rituals, or traditions.  It is about people who use things, have ideas, celebrate rituals and follow traditions and the willingness to enter into a conversation with others about our engagement with the things, ideas, rituals and traditions that structure our lives. As a pastoral activity, in dialogue one needs to be curious, courteous, and caring.

Dialogue is that simple. It is no more than a conversation and requires nothing more than the courage to be in conversation with another. It is a pastoral activity in which the focus is on one’s partner and the goal is letting one’s partner speak. But it is an unusual one since it demands mutuality. The other is a partner, not a client, nor a patient; not a teacher, not therapist, nor even a chaplain. 

Yet, the skills a chaplain employs are the same skills we need to create a meaningful dialogue. In my career as a hospital and long-term care chaplain, I learned that chaplaincy rests on two fundamental principles, the same principles that guide successful dialogue. The first is to be there, both physically and mentally. The second is to listen. As a chaplain, I had no need to respond to my clients beyond what was needed to enable them to express what was on their hearts and minds more clearly.  I wasn’t to teach or to preach or even to fix things. I was there to listen, to learn, and, when asked, speak honestly and non-judgmentally. I was there to create a dialogue.

Image credit: Henderson Hills. License: CC BY-ND 2.0

One’s dialogue partner is one’s teacher, one’s guide into one’s partner’s world. In dialogue we enable each other to speak about each other’s reality. Dialogue begins in silence and ends in relationship. 

Rabbi Lewis J. Eron

Likewise, to enter dialogue, then, one must first be prepared to listen before speaking and to listen to what one says as deeply as to what one hears. One’s dialogue partner is one’s teacher, one’s guide into one’s partner’s world. In dialogue we enable each other to speak about each other’s reality. Dialogue begins in silence and ends in relationship. 

Dialogue is not an encounter, although it is a possible response to an encounter. It is a deliberate, conscious choice. To move from encounter to dialogue, the partners need the courage not to flee, nor fight, nor freeze. Dialogue requires one to be present, to be open, to listen and to share. 

Dialogue’s goal is more dialogue. More dialogue leads to deeper understanding of one’s self and one’s partner and this better understanding allows for other activities and experiences to emerge. But those are possible benefits, not goals. 

Dialogue recognizes the power of words to create connections out of the chaos of ignorance, anger, fear, pride, guilt – those very human experiences that separate us from each other and from our selves. Dialogue reflects a willful attempt to use words to give voice to the best and to the worst that we have within us and, by speaking and sharing these words, gain control over them.

Dialogue is a pastoral activity. As such, in dialogue one does not try to dominate the other. One seeks clarification rather than justification. There is no attempt to harmonize differences or find compromise positions beyond challenging exclusivist claims that marginalize the other.  

In dialogue, as in other pastoral activities, self-awareness is a primary tool. One needs to feel secure enough in one’s cultural and spiritual tradition to speak honestly of one’s own experience. One needs to know where one’s fears and courage lay. One must be able to acknowledge one’s strengths and one’s weaknesses. And, one must remember that one does not speak for one’s tradition but out of it and one speaks only for one’s self.

Respect for one’s partner and one’s self rests at the heart of dialogue. Without honoring the full humanity, including all our very human faults, of each other, there can be no dialogue. Over time through dialogue, mutual understanding will develop, trust will grow and friendships will emerge, but without mutual respect there can be no dialogue. There are only words.

Rabbi Lewis Eron, Ph.D. is the rabbi emeritus of Lions Gate CCRC in Voorhees, NJ.  He graduated the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1981 and received his doctorate from the Religion Department of Temple University in 1987. He has been involved in interfaith dialogue on the local, national and international levels.

Interested in reading more about dialogue, interfaith dialogue and the possibilities it creates for peace and understanding in our world? Check out these books from iPub Global Connections, The Power of Dialogue: Jewish – Christian – Muslim Agreement and Collaboration by Ruven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler, and The Age of Global Dialogue by Leonard Swidler.

Read more blog articles on dialogue here at iPub Forum: Spotlight on Organizations that Promote Dialogue: One Small Step and Dialogue Dimensions, Directions & Degrees. You can find more articles on dialogue by searching in our dialogue category of this blog. And look for future articles by Rabbi Lewis John Eron coming soon!

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