Thanks for Ken Trainor's column ("The miracle of dialogue creates a greater good," June 15) and for Greg Black's letter ("Rights to life, choice, shouldn't be held equal," June 15), both of which managed to capture some of the social and moral complexity of our culture.
More and more of Mr. Trainor's columns are doing that, and we also appreciate WEDNESDAY JOURNAL's ongoing willingness to run countering letters. That's a great form of back-and-forth dialogue. More dialogue, not less, is good.
The column and letter remind us of pioneering theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr. In several of his many books?#34;especially "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics" (1932)?#34;he talked realistically of the dilemma in American culture of us having to live in contradiction, of having to choose often between two evils.
The discussion last year during the presidential election campaign, for example, was frequently about the electorate being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils. "Who's worse?" we asked?#34;-President George Bush or Senator John Kerry. There was plenty of local and national conversation and debate about Americans having to choose the lesser moral and political evil.
It was Niebuhr in the 1930s and afterwards who did much to help America understand?#34;really understand?#34;why and how living in contradiction is inevitable, sometimes tragically so. There's no such thing, he said, as a utopian society with perfect answers. We are an imperfect lot. Humanity is inherently flawed, sometimes in sad and regrettable ways, he said. More often than not we have to make choices that are less than ideal, because the choices are made by real human beings seemingly living in the American amalgam of paradox and ambiguous circumstances.
Moral absolutes can't work, Niebuhr said, and really never have. They are forms of extremism. Extremist arguments push people away, frighten them sometimes, resolve nothing typically.
As both Trainor's column and Black's letter suggest, dialogue is one way to engage?#34;not necessarily resolve?#34;our having to live in the ambiguity inevitable when exercising the sacred right to freedom of choice and the sacred right to life. Some believe an individual's freedom of choice concerning abortion trumps any other right. Some believe that choosing the right to life by rejecting abortion is the greater communitarian good.
Which to choose? Do we have to choose? Is it possible somehow to find a balance between individual needs and community needs? If we actually find the balance, does that mean we therefore must live in a certain amount of irreconcilable conflict and tension with each other? What does living in tension mean when it comes to engaging our neighbors in civility and goodwill and mutual respect? What is required of us?
Dialogue has a distinguished tradition. It is one way for citizens to listen to one another. Dialogue is one revered means, among other forms of communion, of renewing appreciation for the ways people share similar moral and social experiences in common.
Yet dialogue is clearly not the same as confrontation, says Rabbi Ruth Malah, an old friend, in introducing her congregation to a national reader's theatre presentation artistically promoting acceptance of differences. Her introduction stressed acceptance of, and reconciliation with, persons of different practices and creeds.
"The object of dialogue," she said, "is that one side should come closer to the other side and should understand it better. The purpose of dialogue is mutual understanding and enrichment, not persuasion to a specific set of beliefs."
Some 40 years ago, from 1963-65, the Second Vatican Council, to which many secular humanists as well as hundreds of moral leaders of all faiths were invited from around the globe, stressed dialogue as substantially different from contention and controversy, in which participants try to defend their own sides while proving the other side in error.
"Dialogue should be initiated with courage and sincerity, always in a spirit of trust and reverence for all persons, in order to achieve greater understanding of differing viewpoints and improved human relationships," summarized the Council in the document, "On the Nature and Conditions of Dialogue."
We're reminded that after the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr joked to friends that he should have named the book, "Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society."
As a result of that one book, more than several hundred books in different humanistic fields (politics, sociology, theology, education, etc.) have been published, many of them becoming best sellers. They variously explore how to live realistically in complexity and contradiction.
Trainor's column and Black's letter are manifestation of the continuation of that realistic sense of dialogue.
Jim Boushay and Rickey Sain