Over the last year, I’ve had three occasions to hear a speaker by the name of Terry Halliday, who holds appointments with the American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University in the fields of globalization and law. Working in the university context, he has developed a valuable model of engagement, that I think is quite valuable for the Christian community within which I work, and may equally be useful for other religious communities as well as any communities formed around ideas and deep commitments. The basic idea is conversation.
What is striking to me is that we often employ very different approaches to this. One is what I would call the closeted approach. We have very vigorous conversations, to be sure, regarding the things we care about, but we do this only within our own community. We may be involved in conversations outside our community as well, but in those contexts, we give no hint of how our deeply held beliefs inform our views. Likely, the reason is fear that we will be excluded from the conversation if we let people know who we are and the sources that shape our views. Sometimes it is simply a matter that we have never connected our faith or worldview with the discussion at hand. There is a disconnect between our deeply held beliefs and the important conversations that go on in a university, or in other public settings. We are effectively closeted, with our faith or other deep commitments not only personal but private. The question for any of us who take this approach is whether we can for long take this schizophrenic approach to life, whether we can for long hold to commitments that have no relevance outside our community of belief.
The second approach is what I would call the confrontational approach. On the campus I work there are preachers who show up in warm weather who basically tell people they are going to hell, who denounce passing students for what they wear and for their presumed activities. That is an extreme version of confronting but it illustrates what is at the heart of this approach. It is essentially a monologue. There is no discussion where others are seriously listened to and understood. Presumptions are made without personal knowledge of the other. While it has the advantage of being able to say you have been faithful to the core of your message, it is rare that this approach is appreciated.
What Dr. Halliday has advocated (most recently at a conference I’ve just returned from), is the model of conversing. He notes that a conversation is:
- An exchange
- An expression of inquisitiveness
- An expression of wonder—inquiry
- A relationship building experience
- A prelude to action
Many of us are finding that there are in fact important conversations to be had in the university on everything from the high incidence of depression among grad students to issues around race and gender, to discussions of the values and ethics that inform the development and applications of various technologies to societal issues like sustainability, various forms of inequality, and more. And we are finding that people deeply appreciate real conversations, where respect and mutual learning occur (do we think we can also learn from others?). We are finding that many are interested in knowing how our faith perspective informs our thought about an issue, when we are also open and interested in the perspectives of others.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is whether we have thought about our beliefs in more than personal terms. Have we considered their relevance to the work we do, to the headlines in today’s paper, to the important issues of the day? Have we deeply mined the resources of our faith, or simply repeated the things we learned in our youth?
I like the last two points Dr. Halliday mentions. Conversing can lead to warm relationships, even with those with whom we many differ, and they may sometimes lead to shared beliefs and ideas on which we act together. That seems to be something we can use more of.