Loving Conversation

For me, this is a goal of the education of human beings. It should be the first goal of a student who wishes to be fully human. She or he wants to be brought into a dialogue with The Creator, to enter into dialogue with the writers, thinkers, and worshipers of the past, and to participate in ongoing conversation with classmates, teachers, and the world at large today.

“When all out thoughts…have been brought into a loving conversation with God, then we know obedience in its fullness.” (Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome, p72, Doubleday)

For Nouwen, the conversation is “loving” because it occurs with a loving God. When we allow our idolatrous thoughts to be converted into conversation with Him, we are praying constantly, as Jesus and Paul modeled. He notes that prayer itself may be a “true, bitter, and ongoing struggle against idolatry”.
I like reading the phrase “loving conversation” not only as a noun phrase, but also as a verbal phrase, “loving conversation”, with an emphasis on the affection we have for the art and act of dialogue. It means to love reading, writing, and the fellowship we have with other people. It means loving those people we are in dialogue with, listening to them, risking and trusting them with our ongoing struggles, and enjoying the work of making sense of difficult texts and of our life together.
Occasionally I have felt lately that there are obstacles to clear thinking about texts and about each other which get in the way of our making sense of a reading, or of paying thoughtful attention to other people who are engaged in conversation with me. I have been calling these obstacles clutter since they inhibit my ability to see clearly. For instance, my own prejudices against characters like George Wickham or Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice stand in the way of any opportunity to actually see the world from their point of view. It might be actually helpful for me to consider the points of view of these characters in order to understand that certain of their behaviors may stem from the restrictive atmosphere of society in Austen’s day. I feel justified in my derision of their conduct, the same as I feel justified in blaming Raskolnikov or Uriah Heep for their cruelty. But even my reasonable self-righteousness may in fact be a form of clutter which prevents my seeing clearly.
To pull together both senses of “loving conversation” would mean having a loving conversation with others in which we value and respect their ideas, helping each other to sweep away the clutter of misreadings and prejudices. We must do so in the most loving manner possible – and we must actually enjoy and relish such conversations.
But what of obedience? When is the right time to make value judgments about ideas and characters? This is where I believe reading becomes more than a form of exercise. We really are to involve God in our thinking as we are reading. We are to admit –to Him, to our partners in conversation—that we are engaged in a struggle. We struggle to make simple the difficult; to render meaningful the senseless; to construct a valuable whole out of pieces; to submit our wandering thoughts to a rigorous discipline. And we yearn to know that we are doing so in spiritual “obedience”, as Nouwen says.
And isn’t that a struggle that even Job was engaged in? When we look at the world – as presented in literature, as found outside our door, as felt in our hearts – and witness its senseless acts, fragmented pieces, difficult conditions, and wandering attention span, we can in response bear witness to wholeness as well.
By ensuring that “loving conversation” is a goal in a literature class, participants are keeping dialogue going which admits two or more voices at play. [Play is another expressive term for what occurs in a conversation with or about great books] The interplay of two or more voices is necessary for a democratic classroom (or an interpretive community, or a society); even when one of these voices is suppressed, it still enters a silent dialogue which is obedient prayer. One biblical way to understand such a two-sided conversation is as one between law and gospel. As theologian Carl Braaten explains this traditional preaching pattern, a sermon must always include a reference to the law, and a reference to the gospel. This form is helpful to us in a literature class because literature deals with the range of earthly human experience, which falls into two categories: a) human beings after the fall but prior to conversion and b) human beings after conversion but before physical death. We might imagine that the tension between these two sides is like that between our conscience and our unruly desires, or between the great amount we know is demanded of us and the small amount we are actually able to meet the demand. If we can begin to think as we read and listen in a way that invites God into a dialogue with us about everything we are experiencing, we may begin to carry on a loving conversation with Him and with each other that begins to shape and mold us into more loving people.


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