Journalists and chronologists seem to take a special pride in characterizing and pronouncing judgment on the Zeitgeist or spirit of different historical periods. Terms like the “Dark Ages” or the “Age of Reason” are familiar, not to mention the “Gay Nineties” and the “Roaring Twenties,” which today would carry very different connotations. When “modern” became “post-modern” is debatable, as is the characterization of our time as the “Post-Christian Era,” as some would proclaim, almost with glee. So also, how to define the spirit of our own turbulent times. The jury is still out.

However our times will be labeled, it is likely that we who live in it will not have a final say, which is particularly vexing for a virtue-signaling generation who not only want to do the right thing but believe they are doing things right as well, though they may not always be the same thing. Among whatever virtues may be common today, self-criticism, let alone self-reflection, is not exactly rampant, as I see it. They do not come easily for a way of being in the world that begins with the expectation that I am entitled to define who I am and that all conversation begins or ends on the premise that my comfort and safety are a given that others must yield to.

Ours is an age, it seems, that will accept criticism from no source outside itself. Plenty of evidence around us supports this, though it is somewhat unique in history. In most eras, there has been some acceptance of an objective standard, often theological, sometimes merely tribal or ideological, which the individual does not get to question, let alone define. The words of the Declaration of Independence — “we hold these truths to be self-evident” — emanated from a philosophical, almost religious conviction that there is a “natural law,” accessible to right reason, in fact, virtually identical to it. No one seriously questioned this, though it is demonstrable that the founders did not spell out its implications, nor particularly live by them. Before discounting their value, taking them to heart might be a good place to start.

A by-product of the contemporary mind-set is a tendency to be quick to take offense. In fact, I would be surprised if what I have written so far has not already caused some readers to feel uneasy. It is not my intention to insult or disvalue any person, if I am being critical of some mind-sets I do not think help us. If insult is taken, unfortunately, it only tends to prove the point. Hardly a word or a phrase can be offered by one which will not be seen by some as offensive, judgmental, dismissive or exclusionary. Conversation, or what we called “dialogue” in the days during and shortly after Vatican II, has become quite a challenge, fraught as it is with assumptions and generalizations about entire classes or categories of persons.

Speaking for myself, if you will permit me to indulge, I have not lost hope in such dialogue. The term itself, however, contains certain presuppositions that each participant must accept for it even to begin. First among them is a will to listen to the other, and a willingness to hear things — thoughts and experiences — that might cause both comfort and pain. This is not an easy premise to begin with, but without a mutual acceptance of it, no CON-versation is possible. Conversation which is not dialogical — that is, an engagement of both parties — devolves into declamation (sometimes defa¬≠mation!), whereby each party issues statements that are more like decrees, assertions of will or opinion, not really invitations to receive the words of the other, let alone the person speaking them, into one’s mind and heart. Conversation, real conversation that is dialogical, of course, also implies a disposition to change, even to be changed.

To pause a moment for a deep breath … People of faith, many faiths, use the metaphor of breathing, often expressed in practice, literally, or in method, that disposes one to admitting the presence of another, the Other, God or a Spirit that is somehow seen as life-giving, renewing, good. We often begin with the prayer “Come, Holy Spirit.” Dialogue begins with this willingness to “inhale” the presence, the reality of the other and allow it into oneself. It presupposes a respect for the other as other, for having their own reality, just as you and I do. An equality of respect, we could call it.
Most of us, the best part of us at least, want to find a path to peace and social harmony. The tensions and injustices are certainly real, even if amplified by perception and the repeated display of some graphic, not always contextualized images. At some point we have to find a common path that destroys not lives and honest livelihoods, but attitudes and behaviors that diminish or suffocate them. What makes the image of a wayward white law enforcer kneeing the supine black man so powerful is that it not only awakens experiences of racist attitudes and behaviors, it reveals the horror of all tyranny, where any human being is made an object of another’s will, treated as inferior, forced to bend or be broken. Suffocated.

The voices of sisters and brothers who have lived in such living nightmares cry out to be heard. What has been expressed in public, often peacefully, though not always, has certainly gotten everyone’s attention. No voice should be silenced. No healing can occur unless it is heard. Replacing one form of suppression or subjugation with another does nothing but perpetuate a vicious cycle.

Pope Francis has recently counseled us not to become discouraged. I don’t know what it may take from some to put down the fist and the hammer and come to a table or campfire as clans and families have done throughout human history, where one need not shout or scream to be heard or throw paint or gasoline on a statue or premise to be noticed.

From a Christian perspective, the source of hope, that dialogue is not only possible but that it will lead to justice and peace, is the conviction that God created us, each and every one of us, in the divine image and likeness, and loves us all. This reality becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, reconciling God and humanity in his own flesh and blood, poured out in love on a Cross where he was crucified by a humanity rejecting that same love, which not even death, ultimately, could overcome.

That Jesus is everyone’s savior, if we will let him be, is an affirmation that each and every one of us is so valued by God, that he sent his only-begotten Son who died for us all, and would have died for you and me, if we were the only person in the world. An incredibly heartening consequence of this reality is that each of us, God’s beloved, is a gift to one another. The tragedy of racism and any other dehumanizing class-ism that disvalues a person because they are a member of some group, which human stereotyping devises, is that it deprives one of the gift of the other. Yes, God gives us to one another as personal gifts!

Dialogue opens up the heart to the gift of the other, as ordained by God, as this believer sees, or maybe accessible to the logic of reason, for the non-believer or skeptic. It opens up the mind and heart of a person to the voice of God, speaking through another’s mind and heart. It can help enormously if everyone in the conversation would accept being loved by God, as is the brother or sister in dialogue. While this may sound like an impossible dream, even within the four walls of some homes, the alternative is tyranny, as we have witnessed globally for a good part of the 20th century in the many effigies of the Orwellian state, where some are created more “equal” than others. If we do not learn from history, we will repeat it. Our future, our choice.