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.


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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