An Impressive Body of Literature has risen out of the dialogue between Roman and non-Roman Catholic churches. The very productiveness of this interest warns us not to make a fad of dialogue. Fads in the world of religion are never helpful to anyone. Perhaps the only way to resist the fad tendency is to keep on reflecting about the basic meaning of the dialogue. Merely to keep conversations alive is no guarantee of genuine communication. Personal contact between two people in dispute can provide a moment of real communication; whether it docs or not depends on the kind of contact they have. With what attitude and in what temper is contact made? Is it a conversation with someone from the lofty pedestal of superior knowledge? Is it only a continuation of the strife, a reciprocal judgment of each other, the only difference being that judgment is hurled face to face? Or is there a genuine openness to the possibility of learning something from the other? Is contact made with the understanding that the “other” can possibly correct us? As long as the parties are convinced that they have nothing to learn, nothing to be corrected, and nothing to discover, the dialogue is doomed.

The possibility of the latter kind of dialogue is always present in ecumenical contacts. This fact has significance in the contact between Rome and the Reformation churches during the recent past. The present Vatican Council and all that figures in it as far as the Roman church is concerned makes the nature of the dialogue between Rome and the others of great importance. The word “dialogue” was used a great deal by the Pope in his encyclical Suam Ecclesiam, and with it he demonstrated without doubt a readiness for contact and conversation.

But this is far from decisive for the nature of the dialogue. Contact and conversation are important. They reveal a better condition than that in which several monologues go on at the same time. But the question is, What is the background of the readiness to make contacts? There are many ways of talking. Superficial and trivial talk follow along in the train of conversations in depth that thrust through to the existential questions of life. The dialogue that Pope Paul seems to want embraces a broad field of subjects, and these of quite varied nature. Within this wide framework, there must be room for a dialogue between the church of Rome and others. So the Pope seems to reason.

Hereby comes the complication. For the dialogue has far more relevance than a conversation in which the parties are personally open and friendly toward each other. As important as the personal bearing is, the deeper issue is one of the Gospel, of its testing us even while it is being threatened and overshadowed by our opinions. The Gospel is what underscores the seriousness of the dialogue. For the dialogue between churches is a dialogue about the Gospel and its claims upon the churches. This is the reason that many people are still wary of dialogues. They fear that the power and the truth of the Gospel will somehow come out on the short end of a hearty and friendly conversation. A dialogue between people eager to make the conversation a success can lead to a relativizing of the absolute claims of the Gospel.

Is it possible to maintain a strong conviction about the uncompromising nature of the Gospel’s authority and at the same time to be conscious that we understand the Gospel only in part and have to be open to correction by others? This is the tension peculiar to dialogue. The tension is manifest in the Roman church as well as in our own. With us, as with them, readiness for dialogue does not mean shiftiness as to truth. The enormous divisions of the Church testify that there has been little openness to the possibility that “we” or “they” can stand correction. Pope Paul offers a clear example of a man who stands firm in his own convictions and yet is ready for dialogue.

But is such a combination of conviction and openness really possible? Is it in fact only a matter of personal congeniality without any genuine possibilities in it for greater church unity? The question warns us against an uncritical and faddish use of dialogue. For the Reformation churches the same issue is real. They do not have the dogma of infallibility that looms so large as a shadow over dialogues with Rome. But they do live out of strong convictions and insist that their life is based on firm foundations of churchly confession.

No matter how important and necessary dialogue is, it will have lasting meaning only as the Gospel remains a living power in and over us. For the Gospel is the only bridge between conviction and readiness for dialogue. With the Gospel, people can enter dialogue and make it more than conflict.

The dialogue that is controlled by mutual submission to the Gospel can introduce us to mutual problems that we face in a deep measure of unity and fellowship. Indeed, precisely at the point that the dialogue is genuine communication, it becomes more disturbing, more responsible, and more critical. For where dialogue is real, where it happens under a common trust in the Gospel, there corrections and reproofs are made by the Gospel, and no one escapes. Traditions are open to criticism when the Gospel is allowed to speak. And when a participant in a dialogue feels his tradition touched by the Gospel, he is in crisis.

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The apparent openness to dialogue manifest in the new encyclical has given birth to conflicting comments. It has been proclaimed as a sign of new times. It has been sloughed off as empty and disappointing (especially on the basis of the Pope’s statement that the absolute primacy of the papacy is beyond discussion). The varied reactions to the letter give new occasion for us to ask how dialogue can be carried on creatively when the participants have unmovable convictions that are beforehand set beyond discussion. This is the question that keeps our hands full at the moment But we must be busy with this question. For we want to avoid the Scylla of making dialogue a fad and the Charybdis of entrenching ourselves in our own isolation. Either way, we make dialogue pointless. What we want is only a dialogue that the Gospel controls and makes truly significant.

This fortnightly review is contributed in sequence by J. D. Douglas, British editorial director, Christianity Today; Philip E. Hughes, editor, The Churchman, London; Harold B. Kuhn, professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky; G. C. Berkouwer, professor of dogmatics, Free University of Amsterdam; and Addison H. Leitch, professor of philosophy and religion, Tarkio College, Tarkio, Missouri.—Ed.

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