Communicative Encounter, Dialogue and the Rhetorical Demand of Jesus

The task of this article is to offer a brief reflection on the importance of communication in a faith community characterized by difference, such as race, nationality, ideas, and age. The insights I share here are largely drawn from my mentor and renowned philosopher of communication Ronald C. Arnett. He is the author/co-author of eleven books and co-editor of four books. He is the author of over twenty peer reviewed journals and the current editor of the Journal of Communication and Religion. In this reflection, I present the African Catholic Chaplaincy Finland (ACCF) as an exemplar of a world characterized by difference and tasked with the responsibility of responding to Jesus’s rhetorical demand in an age of narrative and virtue contention. The ACCF is made up of Catholic faithful from different countries across the continent of Africa. They worship together and undertake various activities as a group. I borrow the term “communicative encounter” from Arnett to suggest that when we exchange content, something more than information exchange occurs; we are at the same time invited into a revelatory moment of the wonder of the unexpected. Communicative encounters happen between and among us frequently, whether we notice them or not. An example of such an encounter is what led to this piece.

It is interesting to note that the very idea of this article was born out of a “revelatory moment of the wonder of the unexpected.” Rev. Fr. Leonard Wobilla Shwei, chaplain of the ACCF, and I met only briefly during his visit to the United States of America. An encounter from which emerged both the realism and caution about human relationship. Fr. Shwei was a lively guest to our religious community. He shared stories about his ministry in Finland. It was obvious that Fr. Shwei finds great joy in working with the African Catholic faithful in Finland and the community is dear to his heart. I learned quite a bit about Finland and the ACCF during this encounter without having to travel to Finland. What I never saw coming was that I would be sitting with my laptop at this moment trying to put a few thoughts together to be shared with this group that I came to know about, thanks to the information that Fr. Shwei shared with me. The idea just emerged out of this encounter and neither of us expected it to happen from the moment of our first encounter. In order to understand further how communicative encounters, shape our lives and relationships, it is important to understand dialogue and know what constitute the coordinates of dialogue.

 In his writings, Arnett outlines the two coordinates of dialogic communication as content and ground. These coordinates make communication or the conversation of ideas possible. While content is the actual ideas or information that is exchanged, ground refers to background forces that drive the conversation. These forces could be our culture, historical background, nationality, family life etc. This understanding of dialogue presupposes that conversation begins long before an immediate communicative encounter. Each communicator, therefore, comes to the table of conversation with a narrative ground that houses values and positions that matter. In the previous example of my encounter with Fr. Shwei, it means then that I was encountering not just him but also everything that matters to him, including the story of ACCF. In like manner, each member of the ACCF comes to the group from a narrative ground that must be acknowledged and respected. Dialogue does not just begin from our immediate conversation but rather with the acknowledgement of content that is of significance to each one of us. Hence, communicative encounter or dialogic communication is not about more talk, but fundamentally about more content. That is, knowing what values and positions are important to each person and why. I will outline this perspective with what I call the rhetorical demand of Jesus.

In the gospel of John, Jesus prayed for his disciples “that they may all be one”. He continued thus: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21). Jesus knows about our diversity. He knows that our differences can be both a blessing and a challenge for the ministry He has entrusted to us. And His desire is that, we may have the ability to acknowledge and respect our differences and not let them be a source of distraction. The second part of the prayer makes this clear. Jesus talks about the relationship between Him and the Father. And He wants us to be like them and also share in this relationship. This raises the obvious question, what is the background narrative ground of this relationship that Jesus demands of us? The answer to this question lies in the force that drove the entire mission and teaching of Jesus. That is LOVE. The gospel of John states this clearly: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16). And when Jesus was confronted with the question about the greatest of all the commandments, He answered: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love is what binds Jesus and the Father. And He wants the same love to bind us as we continue the mission he has entrusted to us. When we allow this love to bring us together, we are able to share our talents and gifts with one another and God surprises us by multiplying the benefits of that encounter in a manner that we never imagined.

Fundamental values are seldom discussed, yet they are constantly enacted in practice. Jesus demonstrated this by His death on the cross. We tend to trust the narrative ground or environment we come from. Communicative encounter permits us to engage in conversation about ideas with persons who do not share the same ideas as us. It is a continuous encounter that is accompanied by hope and disappointment in our everyday existence. The interplay of hope and disappointment is what keeps conversations from solidifying into convictions. We contribute to a multiplicity of perspectives only when we bring our standpoint into the communication mix. This historical moment reminds us of the necessity of communication. In an environment such as the ACCF, we can contribute to the growth and development of the community by sharing our standpoint with the other members. At the same time, we must be willing and open to learning from the multiplicity of perspectives that other members bring to the table of conversation.

This reflective essay does not prescribe modes of communication or best practices. Instead, it draws our attention to the nature of human communication and our role in it. Knowing this will help us appreciate the revelatory moment of wonder that emerges from the dialogic ground of communicative encounter. The Christian commitment to the revelatory manifests itself in the ACCF, a place where Jesus demands that they may be one, moving it from the gathering of just random people to a home.                Lazarus Langbiir

                                                          Duquesne University