More than just talk  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

What passes for conversation is often a predictable recitation of undeveloped thoughts and unexamined feelings, exchanged as the currency that buys rudimentary comfort and affirmation: “Know what I mean?” “Yeah.” This kind of two-stroke exchange, just a notch above grunting at each other—what a friend of mine wryly called “grooming behavior”—is hardly an evil in itself. Some of it may be necessary. But neither is it sufficient for sustaining intellectual vitality or fostering authentic intimacy. Conversation confined to such formulaic exchanges may simply serve as a narcotic to dull the hunger pangs of an undernourished spirit.

To “converse” originally meant to live among or together, or to act together, to foster community, to commune with. It was a large verb that implied public, cooperative, and deliberate action. When we converse, we act together toward a common end, and we act upon one another. Indeed, conversation is a form of activism—a political enterprise in the largest and oldest sense—a way of building and sustaining community. Consider, for instance, the large, long public conversations out of which have emerged the very structures and foundational documents that give shape to the social contracts we live by. A good conversationalist directs attention, inspires, corrects, affirms, and empowers others. It is a demanding vocation that involves attentiveness, skilled listening, awareness of one’s own interpretive frames, and a will to understand and discern what is true. It may be that we don’t often enough consider conversation as a form of social action, as a ministry, or as a spiritual discipline.

From: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2009) pp. 88-90.

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Thanks for sharing this, Denis. I wonder what related disciplines we need to be cultivating in order for the "spiritual discipline of conversation" to be practicable for us? If all spiritual disciplines reinforce and sustain each other like a web, which are the ones whose threads most closely intertwine with those of "conversation" that help make it viable? I'm guessing a discipline of silence/solitude is one. I saw a clip of Christopher Hitchens today saying that he doesn't think Americans know how to argue (=converse) about politics very well. (Maybe that's so obvious it doesn't need saying.) We're good at shouting matches and name-calling. But conversation, not so much. Maybe we first need to learn how to be quiet and listen and follow another person's train of thought... Or maybe I'm simplifying the whole thing too much?? At any rate, it's a good quote. Thanks for posting it.

October 20, 2009 at 5:09 PM

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