Dialogue as a Way of Preaching: Its Roots in the Intellectual Tradition of the Order


Two groups of our Dominican Family, the Justice, Peace, and Care of Creation Group of Asia-Pacific (JPCC) and the Journées Romaines Dominicaines (JRD), have chosen to come together in Surabaya and to address a subject that has significance and urgency for all of us today, dialogue as a way of preaching. Of course, every act of preaching is by nature dialogical.  Because the Word of God that we proclaim is an expression of the Word that we have heard, reflected upon, and questioned, our preaching cannot be understood apart from the One whom we encounter in our prayer and in our study, the One who speaks to us and to whom we speak. Yet our preaching is dialogical in another way. It calls for a community of believers, to whom we speakand to whom we listen. The power of this Word, its efficacy, and even its graced character, depends upon how carefully we have heard those to whom we preach and  how fully we have entered into the reality of their lives.  Our preaching then is dialogical in its source, and it is dialogical in its effect. For an Order of Preachers it is easy to see why dialogue is important to us, and why it has been so emphasized in the intellectual tradition of the Order.

We see this in the brothers who have gone before us and who questioned, probed, and looked for the truth wherever they might find it. We call to mind first our father, St. Dominic, and the example that he gave to us in his encounter with the Cathar innkeeper. We can imagine these two men with their cups of wine sitting across from each other, talking together, arguing points, but also listening, always taking the other seriously. As a result of this effort to understand, not simply the ideas of the innkeeper, but also his motives, his concerns, his hopes, and his fears, St. Dominic was able to lead him to a deeper grasp of the truth. As much as this all-night meeting changed the life of the innkeeper, I cannot help but think that it profoundly affected St. Dominic as well.  St. Dominic learned from the other and deepened his own understanding through the dialogue, even as he helped the innkeeper come to a fuller appreciation of the God in whom they both believed.

In art, our brothers St. Thomas Aquinas is often shown with the books of his Muslim opponents, and at timeseven Averroes or Avicenna themselves, lying vanquished at his feet. These images are the product of fertile but misguided imaginations. Our brothers Athanasius Weisheipl and Jean-Pierre Torrellgive us a more accurate depiction of St. Thomas at study. They make clear that the Angelic Doctor frequently consulted the two great Arabic authorities on Aristotle and kept their works close by him on his desk.  Instead of dismissing their ideas with contempt, he examined themwith the deepest respect, in an effort to understand the truth more perfectly. We know from Marie-Dominique Chenu how St. Thomas pondered the auctoritates that had had come down to him, the books of the Bible, the works of the Fathers, and of course the texts of the scientists and philosophers of his time.  He could see that these auctoritates did not always agree with one another, in fact at times they appeared to contradict one another. Through his skill in the new science of dialectic, he allowed the authorities from the past to speak to one another and to him. By making the necessary distinctions and shading the different positions with the proper nuance, he learned how to reconcile the key statements of the faith and to probe more deeply in an effort to grasp their underlying unity.  Through the practice of the scholasticdisputatio, so much a part of the teaching of a medieval Magister in Sacred Theology,  St. Thomas was able to share with his students a philosophical and theological synthesis that offered a more complete vision of reality than that provided by any one of the individual auctoritatesstanding alone.

What Aquinas did at Paris, Naples, and Rome, our brother Francisco de Vitoria did three centuries later at Salamanca.  The suffering of the native peoples in the Americas that was reported by brothers like Pedro de Cordoba, Antonio de Monstesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas provided an extraordinary opportunity for Vitoria to make a vital contribution to a unique and complex pastoral situation, even as our brothers in the New World helped Vitoria come to a fullerappreciation of the Incarnation and its meaning forall human beings.In the letters that he received and in the kind of theological reflection that took place between the missionary brothers of America and the professors at the University of Salamanca, Vitoria and his colleagues became aware ofnew realities that did not easily fit within the established categories of classical European theology.What emerged was a broader perspective and an enriched understanding of God, the Church, the nature of human society, and the rights and obligations that belong to each of us. Again and again in our intellectual tradition, whether it is with an Albert the Great, a Catherine of Siena, a Meister Eckhart, a Marie-Joseph LaGrange, or an Yves Congar, we see this same quest for truth through the long and sometimes painful process of being intellectual vulnerable to the new idea, to the new concept, to the new reality that we have encountered.

Although dialogue invites us to listen, to learn, and to reflect carefully upon all that we have heard, our intellectual tradition reminds us that we also have something to bring to the dialogue and something to offer as a result of our efforts to engage the other.  For a Dominican, dialogue can never be understood as a passive activity. It is not simply an academic exercise, or an activity that we undertake as part of our professional development or evenfor our personal enrichment.  Always we enter into the conversation as part of ourpursuit of Veritas.We engage in dialogue so that we may understand, and we seek to understand so that we may serve the mission of the Order, which is preaching and the salvation of souls.  We enter this dialogue with the other because we are confident that with the assistance of divine grace,we can attain the Truthand can help the other to do so as well.  Our intellectual tradition reminds us that the world as infinitely intelligible and that it is infinitely accessible to us because we are made by God with the capacity to know and to understand. No human situation, no intellectual position is beyond our penetration.The truth that another possesses can be known and loved, just as the truth that we present can be known and loved. Whether it is in our dialogue with other religions, or other Christian churches, or with secular and atheist societies, we have something to learn and something to teach, always in our common search for Veritas, who for Christians is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fr. Michael Mascari, O.P.


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