An Invitation to The Great Conversation

By Cathleen Falsani 1-05-2012

In 1943, in the throes of World War II and one of the most fraught times in contemporary human history, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper explaining, as he understood them, the five basic, motivating needs common to all of humankind.

They are:

  • Physiological  (air, food, water, sleep, etc.)
  • Safety
  • Love/Belonging
  • Esteem (confidence, achievement, respect of others and respect by others)
  • Self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts)

While Maslow’s theories are humanistic, they have a connection to religion and spiritual life in what he called “peak experiences,” and what the religious world might call epiphanies — moments of clarity or ecstasy when the enormity of the wonder of the physical world, harmony with others and relationship with the transcendent, with God, are felt in powerful, transformational ways.

Maslow argued that those who are the healthiest — the most “self-actualized” — had peak experiences more frequently than those who were not.

I’ve always found it compelling that Maslow developed his theories in a time of war, division and insecurity. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, Maslow looked at the world — battles raging in Europe and the Pacific, the full scope of the Holocaust and its horrors coming to light — and saw them not as struggles to be fought against but problems to be solved.

He sought positive solutions — through greater understanding of humankind on its most basic and universal level — to bring about peace and, in a sense, justice.

At the dawning of 2012, we find ourselves in nervous, troubling times not unlike 1943. Wars and rumors of wars. Seemingly unbridgeable divisions at home and abroad. Natural disasters, some of them of our own making, some not.

Economic insecurity on a massive scale. Political acrimony and ideological polarization. Slavery still exists, AIDS remains a pandemic, humans are still trafficked, and children and the most vulnerable continue to be exploited.

Surely, these are troubled times.

But, taking a cue from Maslow, how do we solve our problems and not just survive them?

And how do we, as people of faith, help bring about the solutions?

As I look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I would humbly suggest that there is something missing that may be the key for us today. We humans — all of us — need, in a fundamental and profound sense, to be heard.

We need to be heard, and not just listened to; we yearn to be understood, to be known.

At Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the moment when God reached God’s hands into human history and said, “Here I am with you. Let’s take a walk and get to know each other better.”

A California vicar I know likes to describe the life of faith — the Church — as “The Great Conversation.” It is a conversation to which we all (and what part of alldon’t you understand?) are invited. When followers of Christ share their faith with others, they are inviting them to join the sacred conversation.

This is evangelicalism in its truest sense. This is what we are called to do. By the One, by Emmanuel, “God with us.”

My dear friend, (and most recently my boss), Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, said recently that the 2012 presidential election is expected to be the most mean-spirited and vitriolic we’ve ever seen.

That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it must be that way.

We can solve that problem one conversation at a time.

A conversation is an exchange of ideas between people. It’s not shouting our opinions or beliefs at one another. A conversation requires listening, hearing and being heard. It does not require agreement with or even affinity for the other parties in the dialogue.

But in order for conversation to take place, civility must be its guiding principle. Civility is more than superficial politesse. It does not mean saying, “excuse me” or “thank you” and then driving a metaphorical knife into the other person’s back as soon as they are out of earshot.

Not only is civility necessary and right, it is also the loving thing to do. (Jesus did say his followers would be known by their love, not by the soundness of their arguments or their witty repartee.)

Civility means listening respectfully, hearing honestly and genuinely, and creating a safe space where all may trust that they genuinely are being heard.

For Christians, it means recognizing that conversations are sacred encounters and that God is literally present in them. This is the “Go-Between God” that John V. Taylor describes in his beautiful 1967 book, The Go-Between God, God in the Holy Spirit who helps us make connections with others we’d never make on our own. This is the God who is as powerfully present between people as in them.

In this New Year, may we Christians, together with all people of good faith, work to find a solution to the discord that currently reigns in our society and not simply mourn its presence.

In this season of Epiphany, may we honor the Go-Between God by creating a safe space for all people to join the Great Conversation.

Vene, Sancte Spiritus.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of Social Media for Sojourners. She is the author of four books, including her latest, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber," Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl

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