Mastery or dialogue?


The opening words of Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the watchtower’ have been going through my head: There must be some way out of here.


There must be some way out of the injustices and oppression that the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to right. There must be some way out of humankind’s casual misuse of the planet as nature drowns in a sea of plastic and the weather grows ever more extreme. How do we ever move away from the scandal of poverty and inequality - for all our technological advances the gulf between have’s and have nots persists. There must be some way out of fake news and the love of power for its own sake. There must be some way out of greed and violence. There must be some way out of here…


And then I reflect, if we are going to find our way out we better understand how we got here in the first place. If we go on taking the same paths we will only go deeper into the mire.


Recently the BBC began a radio series called Rethink – the aim being to invite different views not so much on how the world will be changed as we emerge from Coronavirus as how it should change. I sense it was significant that the first voice to be heard was that not of an economist or a politician but a spiritual figure – Pope Francis – as if there was an understanding that money wasn’t the answer here, nor new policy initiatives – the problem goes deeper. It’s about what is at work in our individual and collective spirits – the level of soul. We can’t do window dressing and hope that this will be enough. We have to look at what’s driving us.



Over these months more and more people have been turning to spiritual resources in search of an answer. There is a wariness for many about organized religion, but in the safety of the internet people have been searching for meaning and direction, personally and within our common life. In 2015 Pope Francis wrote an encyclical letter Laudato si, exploring the root causes of the Climate emergency, the destruction of natural habitats and the impacts on the poor and vulnerable. The recurring mistake humankind makes in tackling issues – he suggested – is that we don’t see the connections – the source of the harms we inflict through our lack of respectful relationship with one another and with Creation. We attempt to use power[technological innovations, physical force, financial muscle] to overcome successive crises that come up whilst failing to see that it is the very misuse of power that does the damage. 



The use of muscle is something Churches themselves haven’t been immune from.


I remember in my early 20’s going to to St. Peter’s in Rome at the heart of the Vatican – and not liking it. My travelling companion – in no way religious – loved it. And I – a good Catholic - couldn’t wait to get out. The vast building seemed in itself to be an assertion of dominance. High, overbearing statues, gold leaf, mighty pulpits expressed unwavering certainties. Here was a place for truth to be asserted not listened to. Perhaps I am reading too much as I look back. The emotional reaction was real – the sense I had then that I wasn’t comfortable here and my doubt that God would feel comfortable here either.  My sense is that Pope Francis has been trying to get out of the Vatican too – if not physically then as a vision of what God is like, or how Church expresses itself or more fundamentally as expression of how humankind are to be in their relationships with one another.


The opening line of Laudato si reveals a very different tone:
‘I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’


It’s the opening line of a letter. It’s also a man of power laying down his power, forsaking his boundaries, venturing out from his own house not only to teach but to learn; desiring not to enforce his will but to cooperate. Because this humility – he understands - is also the way of God.



There must be some way out of here. How did we get here in the first place? We tend to think about conversion in a religious sense as a personal movement of change in response to God – a turning away from sin and towards the good. The Rethink question – not so much how will the world will change as we emerge from Coronavirus but how the world should change – touches into a more expansive vision of conversion – a turning away from mastery / dominance as the defining principle of our common life and a turning to relationships founded on humility, reverence for the other – the way of dialogue – the shape of God’s way of relating.



In the way of mastery we are looking for control. We are at the centre of our universe, and everyone and everything exists to meet our needs. We are acquisitive and possessive – insistent on claiming what is ours. Though this attitude has an outward appearance of strength – and a tendency towards violence – what feeds and drives it is fear. We are on the defensive, against those others who might challenge our supremacy. We like to build walls to shut out those not of our tribe – anyone who might challenge our way of thinking and perceiving. The way we communicate is by monologue. We tell people what is right – that is – what we think.



In the way of reverence, we honour the other. We recognise our interdependence. We understand that we can only thrive by co-operation. Rather than hold what we have against the other we express our common life by giving and receiving, according to what each one needs. The principle at the heart of our shared existence is love rather than fear. Rather than build walls we welcome the other in and go out of our own house to be welcomed by them. The way we communicate is by dialogue. Dialogue rests on openness, the willingness to listen to and learn from the other, an open mind rather than a closed mind. Dialogue is vulnerable and yet transformative. At the heart of dialogue is humility – we are stepping away from the royal throne and taking our place with everyone else as both servant and guest.



Perhaps this all seems rather abstract faced as we are with very concrete issues that need addressing. But then dialogue is an activity – not just a theory. The open hand of dialogue has work to do. If we address the issues of our day through mastery and monologue we only make more victims. Dialogue is not just talk – it is a willingness to listen, to look and be moved to respond.


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