A Note on “Dialogue” for New Calvinists

by Aaron Anderson

Readers will notice our unabashed ommitment to ‘dialogue’. Taking our cues partially from the usage of this term in recent years by those in the ecumenical movements, we think dialogue is an apt term to describe the approach we will take in our engagements with Reformed theology. This is because “dialogue” (dia-logos) calls to mind an indelible feature of human language, namely, that humans are shaped by their language as much as they describe reality with language. What we say is always shaped by the modes, attitudes and goals implicit in our communication, and consequently communication can be understood in a way that closes off certain vital questions or in a way that invites participants to continue their exchange. This is precisely why the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

It is not the case that we are disembodied, angelic creatures exchanging ideas in an immediacy divorced from our emotions, imaginations, loves, and embodiment. Just as, contra Descartes, there is no such thing as “pure” thinking or “pure” consciousness, there is no such thing as a communication of “pure” ideas from one cognitive receptacle to another. As James K. A. Smith has recently pointed out, our cognition is shaped by our intending, aiming, loving, and imagining, and this shaping comes about in the company of fellow human subjects.  In our incessant encounters with other human subjects, our language can and does shape the “limits of our world,” precisely because language is something that shapes our imaginations, desires, and goals, and can form and deform our ability to receive the communication of others. Therefore, it’s worth exploring language’s ability to facilitate dialogue.

Dialogue is a word that highlights the constitutively receptive nature of human communication. We are created to receive reality (though never fully and exhaustively) and therefore to discover ourselves in the encounter with fellow human subjects. Indeed, Lumen Gentium, a dogmatic constitution of Vatican II,  states that humans are “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself”; and thus man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” What could this possibly mean?

As noted above, dia-logos, a term first employed by Plato, brings together two roots: logos, usually defined as “speech” or “reason,” and dia, meaning “through,” and not “two.” Among many possible renderings, thinker David Bohm proposes that dia-logos is a “… derivation [suggestive of] a stream of meaning flowing among and through and between us” (On Dialogue, p. 7). Dialogue, then, is not communication that pits two isolated, competitive “others” against each other, where they remain in their communicative trenches, winning arguments, exchanging opinions, treating each other as objects for analysis. Rather, dialogue is a “stream of meaning flowing among and through and between us” which effects union and therefore a collapse of the ego. Of course, dialogue is not opposed to rigorous argumentation and rhetoric; rather, argumentation and rhetoric are crucial moments that, when well practiced, have their necessary place within the ultimate human desire for union with the other.

If readers sense a theological undertone here, they are not misled. Christian doctrine holds that God, in creating, rather than enslaving creation or collapsing it into himself, frees creation to be itself by finding itself in God. Because God does not oppress his creation, but rather frees it to answer to him in love, the “communication” of God and creation is not competitive, but dialogical. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger states:

The act of being on the part of God that affects being is an act of freedom … The exitus, or better, the free creative act of God, does in fact aim at reditus, but this does not mean that created being is revoked. Rather, it means that the coming-into-its-own of the creature as an autonomous creature answers back in freedom to the love of God, accepts its creation as a command to love, so that a dialogue of love begins – that entirely new unity that only love can create. In it the being of the other is not absorbed, not annulled, but rather becomes wholly what it is precisely in giving itself. (The End of Time?, p. 101)

Underlying all human communication is gift, God’s ongoing communication of love to humanity, which establishes the pattern of dialogue as constitutive of creaturely existence. Humanity is, therefore, intrinsically “dialogical,” completed by both giving and receiving.”Dialogue,” the very relationship in which God stands in love towards his creation and the innate creaturely “answer” to God, is at the very heart of existence. Dialogue is legitimized theologically, then, and is not just a vain attempt by overly optimistic persons to flatten all differences and ignore outstanding disagreement.

To strive for a kind of communication in which speaker and listener are united in their commitment to charity and truth involves an attempt to actively overcome obstacles we tend to erect that block authentic, mutual understanding. In the context of ecumenical dialogue, this “blocking” is often manifested by an insistence on construing the context for dialogue as purely polemical. Not only can this blocking be against charity – it is also a deterrent to the task of critically clarifying and contrasting crucial theological differences, which is precisely what is so pressing for our New Calvinist brothers and sisters, as well as for our writers. The Catholic ecumenist, Eduardo Echeverria, puts it this way:

Inseparably united with listening and theological discussion is the necessity of comparing and contrasting different theological viewpoints, critically examining disagreements that are obstacles to full visible unity with the Church, and hence dialogue – with the two dimensions of listening and theological discussion – is a means for resolving doctrinal disagreements and determining whether the beliefs of the interlocutor are true or false. Sometimes dialogue is made more difficult, indeed impossible, when our words, judgements, and actions manifest a failure to deal with each other with understanding, truthfully and fairly. For this to happen, we must be not only intellectually responsible, exercising intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness, fairness in evaluating the arguments and positions of others, intellectual humility, insight into persons, problems, doctrinal accounts, and communicative, rather than primarily polemical, knowing your dialogue partner’s confessional background, seeing the positive in his tradition, and the like. (Dialogue of Love, p. 14)

At the same time, we recognize that irrationality and prejudice can darken our collaborative pursuit of truth – and especially as Christian language-users we acknowledge that this darkening often has its origin in sin, a reliance on our sufficiency apart from God that twists and distorts our ability to describe and inhabit reality properly.  So, Calvin, in his commentaries on Luke, warns, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.” And the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan reminds us that “Besides the love of light, there can be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters.” (Insight, p. 214)

Our creaturely existence involves an intellectual journey into light that easily comes under the shadow of ignorance, and the wound of sin can ensure that our ignorance remains willing. Dialogue can be co-opted by selfishness, dishonesty, and ignorance, refusing the risk of painful encounters in favor of a premature “being-together which betray[s] the truth.” Thus, one critique of more optimistic currents in the ecumenical movement of twentieth century was that its participants had refused to address the difficulty in the fact that different churches and communities made competing truth claims regarding the nature of ecclesiology, justification, ministry, and more.

The evangelical Reformed sector of Christianity is especially sensitive to this ambivalence in the ecumenical movement, attentive as it is to the importance of clear doctrine and the unavoidability of “propositional” truth. Because of this ambivalence, adherents of New Calvinism have been especially suspicious of the possibility of dialogue with Roman Catholics, maintaining a sharp distinction between the “shell” of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, and its inward distortion of gospel truths. Dialogue is here synonymous with compromise on theological and spiritual truth; it would seem that, in the realm of ecumenism, dialogue is almost necessarily constrained by the limitations and deceptions of sin, which issues in all sorts of ignorance and prefers to keep itself in darkness.

However, in keeping with our observation that God’s dialogue of love with us is at the very heart of the creaturely order, it should be noted that precisely because sin is that which turns us inward, that which tends to refuse joyful union with anything outside of itself, dialogue can itself be a practice of conversion and repentance, a practice that heals the wounds of sin by rendering us prayerfully open and attentive to our dialogue partners. This is why, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “Prayer is the ‘soul’ of the ecumenical renewal and of the yearning for unity” (UUS, 24). Though clarification, arguments, and the refinement of concepts are necessary to the ecumenical effort, it is prayer that grounds and energizes this effort’s success, because only prayer can open us again to the unity that has been lost in sin.

With these observations in mind, we lay out two possible objections – with responses – that might seem to present a terminal challenge to our attempt at dialoguing with New Calvinists. We understand that many who identify as New Calvinists (and broadly evangelical) may still object to the use of this term, even after our preliminary reflections above  It would seem that our starting point is misguided in two ways, and therefore our project must necessarily fail.

First, our audience might object that dialogue with Catholics still cannot exist de facto if there is neither agreement upon basic doctrinal points nor clarity on the message of the gospel forthcoming from Rome; rather, it may be insisted, the evangelical response to Rome must be evangelism, not dialogue, a call away from idolatry and into truth. Anything less than this must be a compromising of the pure gospel message.

Second, it might also be objected that dialogue is a term that, if not completely inappropriate for ecumenism, has been mostly co-opted by cultural and theological liberalism, understood by evangelicals as part of a secularizing and unbiblical project aimed at eradicating doctrinal truth claims in order to get on talking about greater, liberal values such as freedom, equality, and spiritual fulfillment. In other words, “dialogue” typically signals that parties are substituting idols in place of discussing religious truth, all at the expense of the proclamation of the gospel.

As to the first objection, we hope to demonstrate that there has not yet been a proper “showing” on the part of evangelical New Calvinists that Roman Catholic theology is intrinsically incompatible with evangelical truth; rather, we will argue, the task still remains of engaging in a critical clarification of terms, assumptions, and misunderstandings, a task not yet sufficiently accomplished. There remains much in New Calvinism’s engagements with Catholic faith that is assumed, but not exactly argued for with a deep, comprehensive grasp of the best of Catholic theological thought. Many New Calvinist engagements with Catholicism are often insulated from the key sources that inform Catholic theology, and instead of engaging with Catholic theological sources in a sustained, patient manner, instead refer the sources back to prior evangelical pronouncements on the insufficiency of Rome’s theology (see our forthcoming review of Gregg Allison’s book). From our standpoint, it would be begging the question to insist that there can be no dialogue between New Calvinists and Catholics, if we can sufficiently show that a New Calvinist understanding of Roman Catholic theology and practice has failed thus far to accurately assess its sources and life. That is precisely what we will strive to do, and in doing so, we hope to show that dialogue is indeed the truest description of the communication-in-difference that can take place between New Calvinists and Catholics.

In response to the second objection, we are in agreement with evangelicals and New Calvinists that dialogue assumes unflagging commitment to clarifying one’s commitments and convictions to the greatest extent; otherwise, the word dialogue is co-opted and the possibilities for authentic rapprochement are cut short. In other words, the term dialogue will be invoked throughout this site, because dialogue demands clarity and charity, not an emptying of terms or a refusal of truth. Again, because dialogue works from a holistic vision of human communication, we are convinced that encounter between Catholics and New Calvinists that assumes intellectual humility, mutual understanding, and charitable (rather than polemical) imagination will generate the very clarity and distinction so necessary to theological argument.

We think our New Calvinists readers would find much agreement, then, with Pope John Paul II when he states in Ut Unum Sint, “Love for truth is the deepest dimension of any authentic quest for full communion between Christians … In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth … who would consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of truth?” (UUS, 36, 18). It is precisely our conviction that Truth is ultimately one that impels us to rigorously clarify and display our differences.

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