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Is this a Dialogue or a Debate?


Growing up, my elders taught me to be wary of opening up my mind to ideas outside the Fundamentalist belief system. The devil or the spirit of the age could tempt us.

This has a lot of sense to it. Children are impressionable. Caution is warranted, especially when the YouTube algorithm can take you down dark paths.

But in the long run, this attitude is untenable. If everyone remains wary of everyone else, nobody will learn anything new.

This is a particular problem for me as someone who wants people to come to Jesus. How can I insist someone listen to me and be open to my way of looking at the world if I cannot listen to them and be open to theirs? I seem to recall someone saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (NRSVCE)

Invisible Walls

Let’s go a step further, though. Most of us are not hiding behind barricades in our house to keep strangers and their radical ideas out. If I don’t answer the door to the knocking Mormons, it is not because I am afraid of being converted. I’m just anti-social.

But even if we don’t physically keep ourselves away from new ideas, we can still have conversations with people while keeping an invisible wall up. It is a wall only we see, and we can be very good at hiding it.

A man came to my door trying to share the Good News of the Protestant Gospel with me a few months ago. I opened the door, and I listened to him. He was zealous. He brought out all the same Scripture verses I had learned growing up, and I tried to dialogue with him about it.

The conversation didn’t feel like a dialogue, though. It felt like he had his talking points as a salesman of the Good News, and no matter what I said, there was no real engagement. There was no willingness on his part to consider what I was saying, but he expected me to take seriously everything he was.

I get his dilemma. As a conservative Catholic living in California, I feel the need to stake my ground more firmly than maybe I would if I were in Texas. No, I am not progressive. Yes, I do have convictions. Get behind me, Satan!

But if that wall stays up, every conversation I have will be impoverished.

The Pope’s Dope Quote

Pope Francis hits on this point a lot, especially in Fratelli Tutti. He says in one part that we need to relearn how to have a conversation. I love this quote concerning debates with people we disagree with.

Halfway through, we interrupt him and want to contradict what he has not even finished saying.

Fratelli Tutti

What Can We Do Instead?

black father talking to son in fir trees field
Photo by Any Lane on

What might be a healthier way to be firm in our convictions but open to new ideas?

  1. We could enter into dialogue first seeking to listen. What do they think? How do they feel? Why do they feel that way? Where are they coming from? We let our friend talk first.
  2. Then we ask ourselves, “What can I learn from them?” I already know what I believe. What new piece of information or way of looking at life can I gain from them, take with me and incorporate into my view of the world and myself?
  3. Then we consider where we have common ground. Where are the points of agreement? What do we have to offer of our own perspective that corresponds to theirs?
  4. At this point, we have cultivated good will. They know we have respect for their beliefs because we have just proven it to them. Now, we can consider the points of disagreement. Where can we not budge? Also, though, what are they saying that can clarify or shape what we believe?

What does all of this come down to? In the end, it is a question of whether we will show others the dignity of treating them as we want to be treated or commit a soft form of “ideological colonization” – seeking to impose our views on others, whether through badgering or emotional manipulation.

I am certainly guilty of doing the latter. I hope I can grow in practicing the former.

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

Pope Francis is a pretty smart guy. Listen to this podcast about what he has to teach us.

Also, you might enjoy these videos I made, reflecting on aspects of the Catholic faith.


2 thoughts on “Is this a Dialogue or a Debate?

  1. Very thoughtful and loving response to a somewhat difficult and uncomfortable situation. We are called to listen, to love, and to touch the lives of others whether we agree or disagree with their view. Thank you.

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