As I listen to or view news reports and read newspaper articles, essays and books, I can often distinguish between those who are committed to respectful conversation from those with whom they disagree and those who will have none of that. From time to time, I will share some thoughts on what I hear and read. I welcome your comments on my musings.


A persistent problem with the political process is that many politicians focus on what they believe needs to be said and done to insure reelection sometime in the future, rather on what they should be saying and doing to govern well today. Recent developments on both sides of the aisle relative to the current contentious budget debate highlight that destructive tendency.

Relative to the “grand bargain” that President Obama is pushing for, that will include both significant cuts in expenditures and increases in revenues through tax reform, a recent publication suggests that “Democrats fear a ‘grand bargain’ will undercut the party’s ability in the 2012 campaigns to use Republicans’ support of deep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security against them” (Carl Hulse and Jackie Calmes, “Boehner and Obama Nearing Deal on Cuts and Taxes,” The New York Times Reprint, July 21, 2011).

The proposal launched by Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and now supported by Democrat leader Harry Reid, exemplifies the same problem. They propose giving President Obama authority to increase the debt limit in a very clever manner that enables members of Congress to then vote to express their disagreement, thereby placating their constituents who have the power to return them or not, to office some day in the future. 


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The airwaves are filled with charges and counter-charges as to which politicians are, or are not, providing leadership in attempting to resolve the impasse relative to the need to reduce the federal budget deficit. As we seek to sort through these contrasting voices, we do well to reflect on the nature of effective leadership. 

An effective leader is driven by a vision, a dream as to how bad things can become good and good things can become better. To be always satisfied with the status quo is to settle for being a manager and not a leader. Rather than saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” an effective leader says “whether it’s broke or not, let’s work to improve it.” 

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A good way to insure that a conversation will go nowhere is to insist that all your beliefs on the issue at hand are right and those of your conversation partner are all wrong. That could be appropriate, as when talking about issues for which there is irrefutable empirical evidence. But for most complex issues, it is seldom that any one person has a corner on the truth.

There are a number of Christians who believe that postmodernism has it “all wrong.” Since I don’t believe that to be the case, it was refreshing for me to recently read an analysis of postmodernism presented by Tim Muehlhoff and Todd Lewis in their book Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture (chapters 9 & 10). For each of the five “postmodern ideas” that they summarized, they followed with sections on “Areas of Agreement” and “Areas of Concern,” thereby acknowledging that although they didn’t agree with all the tenets of this variegated movement there are aspects of postmodern thought that fit well with the Christian faith. 

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I had originally envisioned all Conversation Circles being carried out locally, hosted by interested readers who want to model respectful conversation in their geographical settings. I still hope that happens frequently. But then a friend noted that in light of my purpose of facilitating forums for respectful conversation, there is no better place to model such conversation than on my own web site – an obvious great idea that had eluded me.

So, that feature has now been added to my web site. Instructions for initiating or joining an electronic Conversation Circle can be accessed at eCircles.

I hope that many readers will avail themselves of this new opportunity to initiate eCircles, and I encourage many other readers to join an eCircle of their choice.

I have just initiated an eCircle on The Elusive Search for Unity in the Christian Church. My keen interest in this topic flows from my belief that a prayer that Jesus offered to God has been unanswered; his prayer that all Christians “may be brought to complete unity” (John 17: 20-22). In that light, I am seeking conversation partners who are representative of a wide variety of Christian traditions, including persons who fit one or more of the following descriptions:

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The recent exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Netantahu and President Obama did not bode well for the possibility of renewing conversations toward the ultimate goal of a two-state solution in which a state of Israel lives in peace and security with a contiguous Palestinian state. 

But against all odds, I believe that conversation can be resumed if both sides will commit to two pre-conditions for conversation. I don’t mean pre-conditions as to what the results of the conversation should be. That is anathema to me because you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. Rather, I refer to two pre-conditions that, if not met up-front, will make it impossible to have a fruitful conversation.

The first pre-condition is that there needs to be general agreement as to the purpose of the conversation. Both Israelis and Palestinians need to agree that the ultimate goal is to create two states that can live in peace and security with one another. It does not appear that this pre-condition has been met.

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I view my Christian life as a “pilgrimage,” believing that as I walk, faithful to my present understanding of how I should live as a Christian, that very process of walking will lead to further insights as to how I should continue walking (Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk, p. 40).

A corollary of this dynamic view of living is that my beliefs, including that one, are also on pilgrimage. That somewhat scary thought came home to me during my recent reading of a marvelous book by Charles Mathewes titled A Theology of Public Life. Starting with an “Augustinian theology [that] sees love as the fundamental theological, ontological and psychological truth about reality” (p. 261), Mathewes presents a profound and demanding exposition (not casual beach reading) of a “theology of engagement” and a “liturgy of citizenship” that draws out the implications of faith, hope and love for our engagement with others in public life. 

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I don’t know Larry personally. He is one of many thousands living in American cities that once were the pride of the manufacturing world, but have recently been decimated by the outsourcing of jobs, leaving him jobless and his city littered with abandoned plants.

It is all too easy for academics, sitting around a seminar table discussing the pros and cons of globalization, or for politicians, debating the merits of a proposed trade agreement, to ignore the pain that Larry feels, and, therefore, not factor such a realization into their deliberations. So, although I don’t know Larry, let me imaginatively attempt to speak on his behalf.


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When is a conversation “genuine?” Michael King suggests that it is when there is “a mutual quest for treasure in our own and the other’s viewpoint.” 

Elaborating, King suggests that this entails making two key moves: “the first move is to make as clear as I can why I hold this position … and why you may find in it treasure to value in your own quest for truth. The second move is to see the value in the other’s view … and to grow in my own understandings by incorporating as much of the other’s perspective as I can without losing the integrity of my own convictions” (Mutual Treasure, P. 153). 

This ideal for public discourse establishes a very high standard. When I am about to engage someone with whom I have major disagreements, I do not always do so with the attitude that I am going to “actively seek for treasure” in what he or she believes. I have a lot of company. Is this lofty goal attainable?


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No sooner was my web site launched than three friends sent me links to publications that are supportive of my “respectful conversation” mission. Their responses inspired me to add a Clearing House page to my web site.

On this new page, I will be posting annotated citations and links for written and electronic publications that readers alert me to that are particularly supportive of the purposes of my Respectful Conversation Mission, as a rich complement to the resources I already provide in my Bibliography page and the results of my own work. 


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Now that both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama have unveiled their respective plans for our national budget, at least in broad outline form, the airwaves will be filled with talk of “good ideas” and “bad ideas.”

My experience suggests that if I wish to engage someone who disagrees with me on a given issue, the surest way to insure that our conversation ends abruptly is for me to hold tenaciously to the questionable proposition that all my ideas are good and all his ideas are bad. I have always tried to present a strong rationale for what I considered to be my good ideas. But, as I have listened respectfully to the ideas of someone who disagrees with me, I often found that some of my initial ideas were bad in comparison to some of his good ideas. And in the best of conversations, my partner also made adjustments in his initial views about good ideas and bad ideas.

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We have traversed the foothills, but the climb of the Himalayas now begins, to paraphrase one TV pundit’s reflections on the recent budget deal that prevented a government shutdown.

That arduous climb appears to start with one element of common ground – Any attempt to bring about long-term budget deficit reduction will require that politicians on both sides of the aisle address the big ticket items of entitlements, tax structure and military spending. But how does one proceed beyond this modest point of agreement? To date, only a representative of one side of the aisle, Republican Paul Ryan, has put forth a comprehensive proposal that addresses the contentious particulars.


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I am delighted that shortly after I launched my web site, two friends, one in Minneapolis and one in a suburb of Chicago, responded with possible interest in establishing local Conversation Circles (two down, many more to go).

This initial expression of interest prompts me to say more about what I have in mind, especially since one of the major purposes of my web site is to foster the establishment of numerous Conversation Circles. 

At first, I envisioned asking interested persons to formally “register” their Circles on my web site, and then “require” them to report on the logistics and results of their Circles. But I soon came to my senses. Busy people don’t need one more thing to do. Establishing such formal expectations might prove to be disincentives for participation.

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It is generally agreed that the tax cut legislation of December 2010 reflected compromises on both sides of the political aisle. Were such compromises warranted? 

It depends on your view of the political process. There are those who hold to unyielding fixed positions and will not entertain the possibility of making “mutual concessions” (the dictionary definition of “compromise”). Politics is viewed as an all or nothing enterprise. If that is your view of politics, then compromise is a bad idea. 

But there is an alternative view of politics for which compromise is a good idea. That view was captured by President Obama in his comments after the December 2010 tax cut legislation: “compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.” The key word here is “yielding.”


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