As friends and fellow citizens of earth, we dialogue. If our talk involves examination or exploration, we discuss. Sometimes, in the verbal intercourse, we disagree. Periodically, we debate. If the parties conversing offer authority or analysis, we might discourse. Occasionally, we discern. Eventually, we make some sort of decision or determination.
Earlier this year, I was in a conversation with our bishop and another diocesan official in which the bishop and I expressed disagreeing perspectives to one another. The other person thought our exchange got too heated and said: “I feel uncomfortable in this conversation and don’t think we should continue,” to which the bishop replied (I paraphrase): “This is how we work through differing viewpoints. We respect each other and value one another’s experience and frame of reference. We may see things differently, but we want the same ultimate end. So, we discuss and debate, asking God to help us see more like He sees.”
To me, this is how we ought to operate if our society and church are going to advance as God’s people. When we have disagreements, it is crucial that we discuss them before decisions get made. As a priest, I believe that the most important step in the dialogue process is discerning, i.e., asking the Holy Spirit to guide us to see more clearly so that our direction and our decision reflect the will of God. Discerning is more than asking, “What would Jesus do?” It involves prayer and an authentic desire to offer our perspective to the Lord so that it can be handed back to us in an enlightened way, as if sprinkled with gifts of the Holy Spirit: divine wisdom, knowledge, understanding, holiness or piety, right judgment or good counsel, courageous fortitude to get through to the other side of the issue or challenge, and humble awe that comes from being in God’s presence. Discernment implies an examination of the heart as well as the head, an acceptance of our feelings as well as our thoughts, and the feelings of others so that we contemplate the common good. Discernment is essentially a process for determining God’s desire in the circumstance we are discussing.
Christian spiritual discernment involves various steps (including consulting a mentor or spiritual guide) that make it difficult to discern during an intense discussion, even if the parties involved are willing to openly pray together for divine assistance. Nevertheless, there are ways that we can inculcate discernment into dialogue, much as we might bring empathy, compassion, or sacred insight to a situation in which someone has been diminished. Before the general election last month, our bishop, like many others, wrote to his diocese offering his flock guidance in voting. Many people got upset with him for doing so; and a percentage of those that did communicated to him their disagreement over his intrusion upon their voting decision. Though he did not tell anyone who to vote for, many read into it that he did. Rather, he asked us to vote with a well-informed conscience. Many, if not all, who communicated with him in objection to his letter, received a personal response from him that was thoughtful, compassionate, and kind. Fortunately for our diocese, that is the sort of person he is. Realizing that we will disagree sometimes about important matters, he willingly wants to work through disagreements to reach a better place because we all have the same goal of ushering in a better society. I suspect he does this because he values the experiences of those who see things differently and genuinely wants to understand opposing standpoints from a godly perspective.
This is a noble approach for all of us to take into dialogue, discussion, debate, differences, and disagreements. Whether voting or seeking understanding about a difficult decision or controversial issue we, church officials, sometimes instruct people to “think with the church.” Though it’s not bad advice, we must concede that the church is sometimes errant in her thinking. When debating a matter at hand, we will be most fruitful in discovering God’s design for us, or arriving at sacred insight, through discernment. Rather than thinking with the church, we should strive to “think with God”—or at least let God influence our thinking.