By Michael Whitnah
“I was today years old when I learned…” is a cheeky axiom in today’s world of TikTok/Instagram Reels, etc. This saying signals a paradigm shift, miniscule or momentous, often absurd; an epiphany of some kind that changes the way you see the world.
I was today years old when I learned that the etymology of the word dialogue is dia + logos. And dia does not mean “two.” It means “through.” Certainly, its modern usage, especially as a technical literary term, has been narrowed to refer to bilateral correspondence. But there is a profound, deeply theological difference between that quantitative definition and a truer, qualitative definition. Based on its etymology, dialogue is not so much two parties talking as it is a way of communicating with certain qualities or characteristics. Indeed, we could even say that the gospel is dialogue, for this is how God acts. Dia Logos.
I recently attended the National Workshop on Christian Unity, an ecumenical gathering that germinated in the wake of Vatican II. In a panel discussion on the future of ecumenism, the Orthodox speaker referenced the 2020 publication For the Life of the World, a comprehensive encyclical that lays out an Orthodox social ethic. He began his remarks by sharing this insight about the nature of dialogue. Authentic dialogue is “essentially and primordially a reflection of the relationship between God and humanity,” which occurs through the Logos, Jesus Christ (§54). We can think of John 1 as an extended description of God’s dialogue. The Word by whom all things were made; the Word who is also the light shining in the darkness; the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Authentic inter-human dialogue is a reflection of God’s dialogue. Or, to say it another way, we dialogue because he first dialogued with us.
This sustaining, incarnated relationship between God and humanity, through the Logos, gives warrant to our ecumenical, and even interreligious, relationships. We enter into ecumenical dialogue asking the question: How is the Logos, by whom, in whom, and for whom all things have come into being, present in our different communities and traditions? How may the “eyes of our hearts be enlightened” (Eph 1.18) to see him more clearly at work in each other’s lives?
This approach to dialogue acknowledges the universality of the Logos, the one who “holds all things together” (Col. 1.17). However, I don’t think this understanding necessarily sets us down the path of universalism. It also gives parameters — or really, a single parameter. Dia Logos is limiting. “Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them,” Jesus says. We set out seeking Jesus Christ, and this intentionality matters.
Not all conversation is dialogue. Not all conversation acknowledges Jesus Christ, the Word, as both its source and its end. Not all conversation, bilateral or multilateral, is rooted in the Word. I felt this deeply at the National Workshop on Christian Unity. Many of the conversations seemed indistinguishable from any moderately progressive, community organizing nonprofit. And, most of the calls for direct action, advocacy, and activism assumed homogeneity within the room on every social issue. That’s not to say that the content of issues being discussed was unimportant. Rather, these conversations seemed flat.
One example stuck out to me. When panelists were asked to define the word justice, they said things like “Justice is amplifying marginalized voices” and “Justice is love in action” (paraphrasing Cornel West). Of course, these are fine things to say. But there was no direct discussion of מִשְׁפָט (mishpat), this Hebrew word full of rich, complicated, multifaceted meaning, which occurs 421 times in the Bible. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I do know that mishpat is a feature, not an anomaly, of God’s Word for his people. Are our definitions of justice truly formed by and accountable to God’s Word? In a room full of Christians, why would we start anywhere else? Conversation that isn’t deeply rooted in the Word misses an opportunity to bear fruit.
But there were other conversations too. Especially, there were opportunities for small group or table discussions in which Scripture was a conversation partner, even a canon against which our ideas were measured. During one such conversation, we talked about different biblical narratives in which God aligns with the causes of the suffering or the oppressed. As people shared texts that spoke to them, from the Passion of our Lord to Ruth’s journey and everywhere in between, the energy between us built. I found this conversation incredibly fruitful, alive, full of purpose and direction. This was dialogue. This was a multilateral conversation with diverse people who hold incredibly diverse perspectives, but it was rooted in the Word of God.
St. Chrysostom’s prayer from the Daily Office reminds God: “Thou hast promised through thy well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name thou wilt be in the midst of them.” And Chrysostom speaks to us as well. We cannot truly recognize how the Logos is present in the world around us apart from a commitment to receiving the Logos through our study of Scripture.
The primordial relationship between God and humanity is itself dia Logos, through the Word. This is the foundation not only of ecumenical relationships, but properly understood, it seems to me that all of the Church’s ministry can be thought of as dialogue. It is through Christ, through the Word, that we understood who we are, what our work is, and where we are going.
The Rev. Michael Whitnah is a disciple of Jesus, husband, father, and serves as Associate Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro, TN.