2006-05-03 14:00:00

Paper of Rev. George Zavershinsky (Moscow Patriarchate Representation in Ireland) read at the international Orthodox-Catholic Conference “Give a Soul to Europe. The Mission and Responsibility of the Churches”

Theology of dialogue: dialigue as a modus of human existence

Thanks to an almost limitless stream of information, the world is getting more compact and capable of investigation. This has both a positive and a negative impact on human relations. Under the influence of ever-renewing data, it is easy to become confused and lose one’s own natural ability to analyze, having instead been drawn into relying on the type of analysis typical of the mass media. This type of thinking which makes it easier to get into contact than it was before such an intensive data exchange. However, there is a risk of losing personal identity and particularity since it appears more appropriate to be like everyone else. Otherness may become suspect and unwelcome. The apparent simplicity of relations can lead to oversimplification of personal attitudes to the point where they can even cease altogether.

At the same time, the unprejudiced researcher enjoys an abundance of the available news. He can analyze this and acquire knowledge to share with others. He may enter into dialogue with others using common knowledge, culture, tradition, religion etc., although there may in reality be nothing common except the will to come together. Moreover, respect for the other in his uniqueness and originality should bed a key factor in true dialogue.

In the current paper we will approach dialogue as a modus of human existence which is peculiar to the human relationships of a given particular character. While following the thought of Buber, we will try to pick out those points which are of theological rather than social or philosophical value. This will help to further our topic with its trinitarian concern and consideration of the three-dimensional Trinity-like dialogue where the third participant confirms the authenticity of the dialogue.

Over quite a long period there has been a problem as to how a true human relationship is to be described in terms of dialogue rather than debate or dispute. Many different obstacles, including “withholding, expectations, biases, deceptions, disruptions, conflicts, ambiguities, and vagueness”, appeared to prevent dialogue. Selfishness tends to prevail within human nature while consciousness reminds us of that fact that we are of living with others. Otherness is inevitably a real fact of existence. Having related to another person, one may recognize his life as reflecting a being who is even more real than one’s concept of oneself. While remaining in the firm belief that I know who I am, I nonetheless am aware of missing the great value of myself which is known to others. This unknown value must be taken into account within dialogue, since one’s self is being penetrated by the other who is also interested in comprehension. Human interest in the world and its Creator has been considerably redirected towards dialogical or communal issues by the impact of a personalist approach in philosophy and theology.

Viewing the most significant writings of famous dialogical thinkers of the beginning of the last century Buber, Rozenzweig and Ebner, pride of place must be given to Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. In his brilliant book, now a classic, both poetry and philosophy are utilised by the author as he reveals the significance of men’s relations with each other. There cannot be an existence taken apart from relation to other existences, therefore, having once entered into dialogue, all the participants are within the common existence as far as they are open to it. Buber emphasized the meaning of the dialogical common existence since he argued the fundamental value of the relationship I-Thou and its distinction from the relation I-It. The relation I-It indicates objectifying and monological relations rather than those which are communal and dialogical, between I and Thou. Thus, one may say that the pair of words I-It indicates degrees of separation from others, whereas the twofold term I-Thou indicates a togetherness of close bonding.

Buber mentioned a phenomenon common among men, a certain kind of speech through which a human being coexists with other human beings, speech-with-meaning, in his consideration of the role of dialogue. This speech-with-meaning reaches out for personal reciprocation, which may or may not occur. Therefore, dialogue can be viewed as a form or modus of a person being recognized within being-with-the-other, that is, within the relationship, continuously influencing the essential being. There are two different I’s within the pairs I-Thou and I-It. However, the world itself is not twofold but is to be considered rather in two different and related modes. The distinction between these appears to hide itself from investigation and may be expected to vanish for those attempting to live in dialogue. The dialogical modus of being provides the person with a “two-dimensional” perspective instead of soliloquized relation within I-It. The one-sided I is to be transformed into the I reciprocally reflected in Thou. Nevertheless, there are two related modes in the same reality of being, which is acceptable as a principle as well as for immediate grasp of its wholeness. At the beginning of his book, Buber considers “two primal life stands” as follows.

Never Spoken with the Whole BeingSpoken with the Whole Being
In Space and TimeSpaceless/Timeless
One-sided: SingularTwo-sided:Mutual
Subject-Object DualityInterhuman Betweenness

When taken separately, the parameters in the second column seem to be the opposite of those in the first. However, a certain continuity can be recognized since we consider these characteristics in an existential rather than terminological way. All human beings are provided with rational, and experiential, as well as spiritual modes of knowing. Having been spoken to the Whole World, the word-pair I-Thou has left its wholeness and in becoming partial has brought about the pair I-It. With reference to the Whole Being never spoken within I-It relations, the movement toward wholeness can only be urged. Though, Buber argued that this movement is rare and not strictly necessary since the originally experienced I-Thou relationship is peculiar to human being itself.

Experience is followed by use, which is followed by knowledge, which can be illustrated by a coming event as it leads to a new experience. There is a cyclical relationship between the two modes of human being. In ascending towards the spaceless and timeless, one starts from being within space and time. But the state of being within space and time has arisen from within the spaceless and timeless. A lop-sided intention may lead someone to attempt to enter into dialogue with another, who is similarly lop-sided. One’s acceptance of the relationship I-Thou means the mutual perichoral intention of allowing one’s I to know the being of the Thou and come back to replenish one’s own knowledge. Having reached the definite limitations of knowledge acquired by the “subject-object” rational method, one may be intuitively looking for existential knowledge or experience from within the “interhuman” relationship. Thus, we may talk about I-It and I-Thou relations as two related modes, having presumed, however, that I-Thou takes priority.

To understand his “life of dialogue” it is important to see how Buber sees the interaction between the dialogic relations expressed by the two initial words pairs I-Thou and I-It.

• The I-Thou relationship comes first, and the I-It relation emerges from it;
• The I-It is the “eternal chrysalis”; the I-Thou is the “eternal butterfly”;
• The I-Thou continually becomes I-It; and only at times is the It capable of
returning to
the Thou;
• The I-It need not become the I-Thou; yet, to truly become a human per
son, one must
meet the world as Thou; and
• The “inborn Thou” continues throughout life to seek genuine meeting.

The primordial position of I-Thou has been revealed to him by his formidable intuition, and the image of the butterfly suggests the idea of something having reached its perfection. Whether perfection or just the idea of perfection came first - there is a kind of dialectic or antinomy, which seems to be applicable to in any chicken-and-egg or butterfly-and-chrysalis question. Rationality can be troubled by antinomies, “mutually contradictory propositions each of which can apparently be proved”. It happens, as Kant argued, because of “the fallacies that arise from applying the principles of space and time to matters that are not thus experienced”. Each of the four Kantian antinomies consists of thesis and antithesis. One of the antinomies presented by him concerned space and time. The thesis says: “The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.” The antithesis says: “The world has no beginning in time, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space.” Within the dialogic world these might be referred to the pairs I-It and I-Thou respectively. As the relation I-It takes place within space and time, this belongs to the world of the thesis, similarly, the world of relationship I-Thou to that of the antithesis. On the one hand, the Buberian dialogic pairs I-Thou and I-It prove to have experiential rather than rational meaning, and one could not call them antinomies. On the other hand, they belong partly to non-experienced reality and there is clear antinomy when applying categories to them. Therefore, while speaking of Buberian antinomies, one should consider them in a dual, rather than, Kantian, sense. As we shall see later there is also a Christian interpretation which could be given to the antinomy of I-It and I-Thou.

The very concept of antinomy became a significant part of Christian theology at that time of the Christological controversies. There were no appropriate terms in which to consider interpenetration (“interchange of the properties”) of the two natures of Christ (communicatio idiomatum). The Greek word antinomy appeared appropriate for incompatible, but mystically united natures, having been hypostasized within the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The purely personal meaning of Christian antinomy probably corresponds to Buberian rather than Kantian philosophy. Therefore, coming back to the interference of I-Thou and I-It proposed by Buber, it follows that the true human person meets “the world as Thou” and that the “inborn Thou” continues throughout life to seek genuine meeting. True dialogue may occur if It and Thou are hypostasized within the human person of I, and the I of I-It becomes the I of I-Thou, from which I-It actually emerged. Consequently, the antinomy of the It and the Thou within the relational pairs I-It and I-Thou becomes true in a Christian personal sense, just as the antinomies of divine-human, or spirit-flesh, or soul-body do, when referring in part to the person of man and wholly to the Person of Christ.

Individual perceptions of dialogical relations may be different and sometimes dialogue transforms into monologue or it becomes centred only upon established matters. The personal approach would identify dialogue as existing between those who understand and recognize the richness of each other, each seeking from within the other something vital which is lacking in himself. Buber distinguished three realms of dialogue: genuine, technical and monological.

1. Genuine Dialogue: “Whether spoken or silent...each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relationship between himself and them.”
2. Technical Dialogue: That communication which is “prompted solely by the need of objective understanding.”
3. Monologue Disguised as Dialogue: That situation in which “two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.”

Genuine dialogue is characterized by the intention of the “inborn Thou” becoming identified with the real Thou. This may be easily understood when speaking of human love, for instance: man is unconsciously seeking a woman whose image impresses him as his ideal (or a woman likewise seeks a man). Her Thou implicitly exists within the man and impels him to seek her embodiment. Though, in that particular case the force of his feelings can eliminate other personal dimensions of dialogue and the relations of human love are eventually monologized and/or objectified.

The personal dimension in dialogue is of more importance in the case of seeking God. When present in human personal life, God comes into dialogue with man and bears witness that this dialogue is true. Witnessing is necessary since the truth emerges from dialogue as confirmed by the third party involved in dialogue. The role of the third party is to confirm that the dialogue is true and all the participants have a sincere and open intention to communicate dialogically.

In the Bible, the Holy Spirit witnesses to the relationship between the Father and the Son. This is the true dialogue of love as the Father reveals His love toward the Son whose answer to His Father is eternally the same. Love of the Father is revealed to men who are seeking God and believe in His Christ. The fruits of the true dialogue between the Father and the Son are revealed to others through the Holy Spirit as the Witness to the relationship of the Father and His Son. There is a manifest form of dialogue which is revealed to humankind, which responds and participates in it. We will pursue further the impact of the Trinitarian doctrine on the theology of dialogue and, inversely, of the dialogic perspective in Trinitarian theology.

Dialogue begins with meeting, which causes the participants to recognize what is occurring between them and to answer truthfully. “All Real Living is Meeting” - genuine meeting, for Buber, is immediate, personal and reciprocal, which means that its wholeness refers to the wholeness of I-Thou instead of particularity of I-It relations. In contrasting the genuine meeting with the “mismeeting”, he recognizes the importance of clarifying that which is original and supreme from the first.

The above characteristics of both meeting and ‘mismeeting’ can be found in Kramer’s research. Dismissing the other appears likely to be an initial reaction of someone holding back from dialogue. In an attempt to avoid encountering the unknown, unpredictable other, one tries to label the other with a well-known epithet and continue to ignore his otherness. There also may be an attempt of misrepresenting the other by depicting him or her as a being on a lower level and, hence, of lesser importance than oneself in that meeting. In that case the encounter becomes a one-sided “mismeeting” and dialogue fails to emerge from it. On the other hand, where personal uniqueness and equality are accepted by both sides, the meeting may produce real dialogical relations of I-Thou. The participants reciprocate the otherness of one another as a principle of their relations and go forward towards living dialogue.

Having grown up in a certain cultural, social, geographic and ethnic environment, one cannot overlook the fact that the other is similarly conditioned, comes from a different realm. Culturally or traditionally imprinted stereotypes are consciously or unconsciously present within us. They impel us to sit in judgement on those from outside our culture or tradition. This may lead us to a distorted view of that the other does not look, speak, behave etc. as he should. Thus, the opportunity for dialogue is missed because of the stereotypes, although they might be overcome through resolving some internal/mutual tensions. Buber’s policy is to consider a person as truly addressing another and responding even though there are tensions, because they have been caused only by distorted powers of recognition and cultural one-sidedness. The more one progresses in dialogue, the less those stereotypes can affect one.

However, even within the process of communication serious distortions and misunderstanding are possible: they may occur at any time throughout the dialogue. At any point it is necessary to confirm the recognition of the other as a living partner rather than an object. Since this disruption has occurred, one steps back and must consider oneself again as standing at the very beginning of dialogue and looking at the other as a unique and co-equal person, accepting his otherness.

When dealing with human existence, one must consider all surrounding beings within its peculiar mode of relations. Who or what can appear as “the other” to a particular man while he lives his life as relational? First, there are various material objects, whether useful or otherwise, recognizable as related to man. Secondly, other persons, having been perceived from a certain view, become - more or less - significant for man, urging him to communicate. And lastly, beings, from beyond the sensual world, are able to communicate with man since he is provided with spiritual receptivity. In Buberian thought there are three different non-hierarchal relational realms. He specifies those of man’s life with regard to nature, to men and to spiritual beings. The fourth realm, which Buber addresses later on and separately from “vaguely described” spiritual beings, is the particular relation with the Absolute or God. In his essay, “What Is Man?” (1938) Buber speaks of this realm:

[A man's] threefold living relation is, first, his relation to the world and to things, second, his relation to men - both to individuals and to the many - third, his relation to the [endless transcending] mystery of being - which is dimly apparent through all of this but infinitely transcends it - what the philosopher calls the Absolute and the believer calls God, and which cannot in fact be eliminated from the situation even by a man who rejects both designations.

Life with nature or in relation to the world and to objects may appear to concern the relation I-It only. However, if one speaks about the unique wholeness of being of a thing, then its perception in terms of Thou would be possible. It means that he, “the sayer of Thou”, bestowed on the object the ability this unity and wholeness which the object now manifests. One may say that this living wholeness is within the relation I-Thou in the life with nature.

Relations between men are essentially described in terms of genuine meeting, as mentioned above. The phenomenon of spoken language as a peculiarity of both sides in this relation, and differentiates this realm from the other two. The matter of how far changes in human dialogue have genuinely originated in changes of language could be a profitable subject for serious research. Nobody can by himself generate I-Thou dialogue. “Genuine dialogue occurs by virtue of relational grace, which arises from and generates the spirit of genuine meeting”. What relational grace is mentioned here? It is “not a theological term but spontaneous presence of mutuality”. Buber said that “this ground and meaning of our existence constitutes a mutuality, arising again and again, such as can subsist only between persons”.

There is a certain difficulty in clarifying the Buberian term grace in its non-theological meaning. When appearing as a definition for some particular kind of grace, the presence of mutuality appears to be a nebulous concept, whereas by approaching the more theological meaning of grace, one can grasp the very central idea of confirmed dialogue. That is, dialogue in its true being should be confirmed by grace, which had itself initially prompted the dialogue issuing from a genuine meeting. This grace always witnesses to dialogue in its continuous mutuality.

In Buber’s perception, grace might presumably be related to the “inborn Thou”. The otherness of the “inborn Thou” is revealed to man through and by accepting and confirming the other in a genuine meeting. This, finally, generates I-Thou dialogue. However, Buber later turned to looking for the fourth realm of the “eternal Thou” instead of the vague “spiritual beings” of artistic inspiration. In the third and last part of I and Thou Buber wrote about the relationship between I and the “eternal Thou”, and about the dialogically oriented movement he calls “turning”. His theological and philosophical insight had led him confidentially to the assurance that God as “eternal Thou” can be glimpsed in every genuine I-Thou relationship.

If I myself should designate something as the “central portion of my life work”, then it could not be anything individual, but only the one basic insight that has led me not only to the study of the Bible, as to the study of Hasidism, but also to an independent philosophical presentation: that the I-Thou relation to God and the I-Thou relation to one’s fellow man are at bottom related to each other.

In the early Christian epoch this formed part of patristic thought concerning how God’s will becomes known to man: God moves towards man and enables him to be aware of this. Man needs only a very dim awareness in order to recognize the presence of the eternal Thou, seeking a relationship with him. That appearance (pro-odos) of God, His descent as a fleeting personal revelation within man’s consciousness, which in the writings of John Damascene was even called a “jump of God” (exalma theou). Since God’s briefest revelation to humanity can radically change perceptions even up to death, there is God’s Thou glimpsed within human relationships, which remain reciprocal, self-offering and genuine, in the Buberian sense. Thus, genuine human dialogue is not exclusively human any more but is witnessed by the “eternal Thou”. This means that dialogue has become confirmed by the third part of the “eternal Thou”, which is mutually true. At the same time the third part is genuinely recognized through the relationship I-“eternal Thou” participated in by all the participants in genuine dialogue. In fact, “eternal Thou” is the source of genuine dialogue.

Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thou the primary word addresses the eternal Thou. Through this mediation of the Thou of all beings fulfilment, and non-fulfilment, of relations comes to them: the inborn Thou is realized in each relation and consummated in none. It is consummated only in the direct relation with the ?h?u that by its nature cannot become It.

The peculiar function of the mediator must be addressed. Although no one can “express” God as an idea, everyone can address God. One comes “before the face” of God and meets the “eternal Thou” through genuine dialogue with a “particular Thou”. Our relationship with each other is never complete in itself and is fully consummated only in the presence of the “eternal Thou”. Therefore, God is the source, giving birth to genuine relationship, while His presence is reflected by the authenticity of the relationship. According to Buber, the “eternal Thou” can never become a human I, and, therefore, remains immanent and unique for every human Thou. It is only the reflection of the “eternal Thou” within true dialogue which makes true every other Thou.

Now we consider that turning point which, according to Buber, is a characteristic of dialogue. The very term “turning” (Umkehr), which in different translations of “I and Thou” appears as “reversal” or “return”, is the Hebrew word teshuvah as translated by Buber. In Hebrew teshuvah means complete turning to God. It may now be understood clearly why Buber used this particular term for the practice of true dialogue. It shows a triangle of confirmed dialogue where the “angle” of the “eternal Thou” is included. This reveals the very personal meaning of the starting point of any dialogue, which leads us to the mystery of personal faith. A lack of faith would never allow true dialogue to come into being. This makes sense of the irreversible completeness of becoming involved in dialogue.

For our following research into inter-religious dialogue to take its place in this work it is crucial that complete turning to God is specified as a basis for dialogue. It is impossible to betray yourself or revert to selfishness while turned towards God just as it is impossible to do so in a mutually true relationship among men. As Buber wrote,

In genuine dialogue the turning to the partner takes place in all truth, that is, it is a turning of the being. But where the dialogue is fulfilled in its being, between partners who have turned to one another in truth, who express themselves without reserve and are free of the desire for semblance, there is brought into being a memorable common fruitfulness which is to be found nowhere else.

As emphasized here, the uniqueness and fruitfulness of genuine dialogical relations are serious arguments for bringing that approach into the praxis of relations between different religious traditions.

While concentrating on dialogue as a modus of human existence, mostly by following Buberian thought, we have considered the dialogical relations I-It and I-Thou in their interference. It has been presented as a type of relational antinomy between I-It and I-Thou, similar in meaning to well-known Christian antinomies. The “inborn Thou” of man seeks to be realized in the real relationship of I-Thou, which is prompted by genuine meeting. We have provided an example of “inborn Thou”, of man impelled to seek woman, and vice versa. We gave the further and more important example of man seeking God. The characteristics of “meeting” with the attendant dangers of “mismeeting” were discussed in order to come closer to understanding the type of meeting which generates true dialogue. We put emphasis on dimensional changes in moving from one-sided I-It into two-sided I-Thou and, further, having entered upon relationship with the “eternal Thou”, into three-sided confirmed I-Thou relation (confirmed by the relational grace gifted through the relation I-“eternal Thou”). There might be considered that dimension of Trinitarian theology which may relate true dialogue with the three-sided witness and confirmed content. Trinitarian theology based on the Cappadocians’ synthesis would appear then in its specifically personal points in order to show a dialogical perspective which appears similar to Buberian thought. One may follow the concept of the authentic eternal dialogue within the Trinity and recognize its image as applicable to human true dialogue as well.

Vienna, May 3-5, 2006