We have lost the art of having deep conversations. It’s not that we are shallow, or that we don’t want to talk about the big questions life poses. Today, it’s dangerous to talk about what really matters. A single word or symbol can be raised like a flag a person stakes on his property to say who he is and what he stands for, and also who he is not and what he opposes.
But the deep conversations are the good ones. They enrich our lives because they make us question what we believe and lead us to reaffirm or adjust our convictions, and also because they help us to understand other people and their convictions better. If we want to start having deeper conversations, we should take a closer look at St. John Henry Newman’s life and thought, specifically his homily “New Works of the Gospel.” In this homily, Newman brings greater clarity to a topic as old as the Church: faith and works. In examining it, Newman teaches us two attributes of a good dialogue partner.
Respect your Interlocutor
This is a sermon, not a conversation, but a good persuasive piece of writing is a conversation between sources. As an expert homilist, Newman knew that it was his job to use his text as a meeting between different parts of Scripture and doctors or fathers of the Church who could “speak to one another” in order to understand the meaning of a particular topic. Newman even gives voice to himself, or the person on the street trying to wrestle with the apparent contradictions or difficulties in Scripture. Citing passages that seem to indicate salvation is of faith and others showing it is of works, Newman says, “Now it may be asked, Is there not some contrariety in these statements? … If the new Covenant be of works too, how is the Gospel other than the Law? how can it justly be called new?” In all of Newman’s works it would be hard to find a single instance where he dismisses someone for their questions. His respect for others as human beings made in the image of God led his whole approach to conversing with them.
Understand the Argument
Respecting the person we are in dialogue with means respecting their argument. This doesn’t mean we need to agree with it or even consider it equal to our argument. But it does mean that we need to take the time to understand it from the inside. All too often, we either allow ourselves to be lazy or we assign our dialogue partner a label and organize his thoughts under this label. For example, “He’s a liberal, so he must be anti-family.”
Not so with Newman. He does the hard work of examining the text. He concludes that both faith and works are necessary and gives the listener a metaphor to understand this better: “Now there can be no doubt at all that salvation is by faith, and that its being by faith is one of those special circumstances which make the Gospel a new covenant; but still it may be by works also; for, to use a familiar illustration, obedience is the road to heaven, and faith the gate. Those who attempt to be saved simply without works, are like persons who should attempt to travel to a place, not along the road, but across the fields. If we wish to get to our journey’s end, we shall keep to the road.”
This effort to examine differing ideas necessarily involves the work of attention. The famous psychologist M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, recounts his personal experience with the immense effort that attention requires: “Not very long ago I attended a lecture by a famous man on an aspect of the relationship between psychology and religion in which I have long been interested. Because of my interest I had a certain amount of expertise in the subject and immediately recognized the lecturer to be a great sage indeed. I also sensed love in the tremendous effort that he was exerting to communicate with all manner of examples, highly abstract concepts that were difficult for us, his audience, to comprehend. I therefore listened to him with all the intentness of which I was capable. Throughout the hour and a half he talked sweat was literally dripping down my face in the air-conditioned auditorium. By the time he was finished I had a throbbing headache, the muscles in my neck were rigid from my effort at concentration, and I felt completely drained and exhausted.” Peck goes on to say that this work of attention is a form of love. “I loved him because I perceived him to be a person of great value worth listening to, and I loved myself because I was willing to work on behalf of my growth.”
Seeking the truth with an attentive and diligent eye, Newman is not only able to understand where one might be confused about the relationship between faith and works, he works hard to communicate clearly to eliminate confusion. He says, “The way of salvation is by works, as under the Law, but it is by ‘works which spring out of faith,’ and which come of ‘the inspiration of the Spirit.’ It is because works are living and spiritual, from the heart, and by faith, that the Gospel is a new covenant.” In other words, while the new covenant is by grace and brings a salvation we cannot earn, the works that we do under this covenant are not a striving for salvation, but flow naturally from a converted heart. We should not pit faith and works against each other; instead, we should strive to live out the freedom Christ has purchased for us.
Our world is full of men and women who are confused and lonely. They are longing for the healing that deep conversations can bring, conversations that touch the topics that are of eternal significance. Today, we can ask our Lord, through the intercession of St. Newman, for the courage to go deeper with family and friends. When we do, let’s imitate this great saint in the care and attention we bring to our conversation and the ideas we discuss.