The Dangers of Abstraction and the Limits of Dialogue

When we are directly confronted with the messy complexity of another human being, abstractions and caricatures are no longer so neat and tidy

I was startled recently to recall that my first involvement with the modern ecumenical movement took place in 1990—a quarter-century ago now. It was a preparatory meeting in Quebec City, a splendid, old-world city where some of the first Catholic roots on the North American continent were put down more than 400 years ago. 

We gathered in advance of the seventh general assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), to which we were all headed in February 1991 in Canberra, Australia. Leaving a Canadian winter in February for Australia where summer was at its zenith was a severe mortification, but we cheerfully bore this burden in our bags along with shorts, sandals, and sunscreen.

From Australia, my involvement with the WCC through the 1990s took me to many parts of the world—to five of seven continents, in total. I used to say to my friends, only semi-facetiously: “Join the Church—see the world!”

But at one point in all my travels, I felt pangs of guilt over the enormous costs incurred—none of which were paid by me. What concrete good did I have to show for all these meetings? What tangible changes in the world could we see after all flying to Australia, Europe, Africa, or South America—as well as many cities across North America? I wondered: could not these costly airline tickets have been sold and the money given to the poor?

My conscience did not let up upon my return, for it was then that I was repeatedly confronted with a stark fact: not only did 95% of the Christian audiences I talked to know nothing whatsoever of the WCC—they also didn’t really care. Moreover, all our carefully crafted programs and statements virtually evaporated upon our return. A few dozen of us, gathered from around the world, could barely persuade our own people in our own communities upon our return to take up the work we had so earnestly discussed. What hope was there to move the entire Christian world towards unity?

Thus my conscience doubled-down on its efforts, demanding to know: was the entire ecumenical movement a grand waste of time—a junket of meetings in warm locales for elites to talk to one another, as some have portrayed it?

After one WCC meeting, I reflected back on a discussion I had with a young and gracious Romanian Orthodox man with whom I shared a room. His country was only a few years out from the collapse of communism and struggling desperately to figure out how now to live—economically, politically, and religiously. (He gave me an icon of the Theotokos which I have still. Indeed, it is beside me as I write this.) We talked about nothing special—a bit of theology, but a lot more about similarities and differences between Canada and Romania; about being young undergraduates trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It was then that I realized the whole point—likely the only point of lasting significance—of all these meetings: the chance simply to talk to one another as human beings, to share our hopes, our frustrations, our experiences—even the mundane ones. It was not the statement we issued at the end, or the plans and programs we made for the future. The whole point consisted simply in the human encounters we had with one another.

This trip down memory lane was inspired by Pope Francis, who recently (and rightly) reminded us that encountering one another as human beings is the first and perhaps most important step to change, conversion, and growth leading ultimately to unity. Preaching on Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman, the pope said of Jesus: “His attitude tells us that encounter with those who are different from ourselves can make us grow.” Continuing, he argued, “In this way, we already begin to experience unity.”

The wisdom of the pope’s words has also been confirmed many times in my years of working with Orthodox Christians. On the Internet we may construct certain caricatures of each other (“Papist!” or “Xenophobic Russian nationalist!”); in books we may think we have found the complete and total truth about each other. But the face-to-face encounter changes many things.

Suddenly we are confronted with the messy complexity of another human being in front of us, and many of the abstractions and caricatures are no longer so neat and tidy—they must be significantly altered and sometimes even abandoned entirely. It is much, much harder to scream, “Heretic! Come back to the one true church or fry in hell, you apostate scum!” to someone with whom we have just discovered a mutual love of Bach or baseball, or a mutual hatred for American beer or Brazilian cuisine.

(At a WCC meeting in Brazil in 1992, I struck up an improbable friendship with a reserved patrician Frenchman and a very loudmouthed Englishwoman originally from Bermuda. We used to tell jokes to each other in French about the unchangeable menu: always rice and beans, three times a day. When we could take it no longer, we found a shop in the village where we slyly but delightedly paid the cook for some off-menu items: pommes frites, chocolate cake, burgers, and beer.)

If, then, the movement for Christian unity is to proceed, we need not only theologians and scholars to discuss ideas. We need, as the pope said, first to get to know one another—to have a coffee, to participate in a joint project (the ecumenical pro-life march in Washington last month is a great example of this), to discover each other not first as Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, or Brazilian Pentecostals but as human beings.

This point was seared into my mind by one of my graduate courses on the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose thought and experience gives intellectual heft to the pope’s words—and perhaps also my own. Levinas, having been sent to the camps by the Nazis, watched almost all of European Jewry ground up in the Third Reich. Afterwards he asked, as many did: How was this possible? What allows the Nazis (and other anti-Semites) to launch the Holocaust or other attacks on the Jewish people—which are increasing in alarming frequency today in France, as we saw recently? How can one human being raise a fist against another merely because of differences in ethnicity or religion?

Levinas survived the Shoah, and would later attempt something of an answer to that mysterium iniquitatis. Part of his answer was (to simplify): abstraction leads to extermination. Thus Levinas would come to insist on what he called the primacy of an “ethics of the face,” noting that the face of the other person makes demands on me that I am not free to ignore. When I encounter your face, I encounter a real human being in the flesh first and foremost—not a Jew or a Catholic or a Greek but a human. When I see you only as an abstract category or label (Jew, Catholic, black, Armenian, etc.) and not as a fellow human being, it is much easier, both psychologically and morally, to justify harming or eliminating you.

Christians today, thankfully, are largely beyond murdering one another because of theological differences, and much of that is due to modern ecumenical dialogue and to myriad face-to-face encounters in local communities the world over. Encounter and dialogue, then, as the pope noted, are crucial. But we can easily and rather naively put too much faith in them. Having agreed with the pope, let me now ask whether his other statement on the same day—“Dialogue between religions key in countering violence”—is not, in some contexts, incapable of fulfillment with certain peoples. As we have seen repeatedly in this month alone (never mind going back years, decades, and indeed centuries) there are some people in the world with whom dialogue is utterly futile because they are interested in killing—not in talking, still less in reasoning. To use the pope’s argot, they would rather give me a punch in the nose than a chance to chat.

We must speak frankly: there are some people who are committed to conquering their perceived enemies and their chosen method—their only method—is lethal violence. I am nearly finished writing my next book right now, titled Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Syria, Egypt, Armenia, or many other countries knows how many millions of Christians, ancient and modern, from the seventh century to the twenty-first, have perished or been persecuted because certain Muslims were more interested in jihad than in jaw-jaw, more ruthless in pursuit of conquest than conversation. (At the same time, however, as the book will show, there have been periods and places where Muslim-Christian relations were rather amicable if often one-sided.)

Constant exhortations to Christians, then, to continue to dialogue with other religions must be met by even more constant and even more vigorous demands, by, from, and for Muslims themselves, that they now and forever forswear any and all uses of violence against all people over cartoons or other equally absurdly trivial and non-life-threatening things.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 75 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).