The Problem of Commonality: One of the problems (and one of the joys!) of informal conversation is that while it is often directed toward a topic, the backgrounds of the participants often diverge so widely that it makes progress on any issue possible.
For instance, if two individuals are attempting to understand what it means that God exists, they must approach the question from a common perspective. If one is an atheist, he must suspend his disbelief and simply ask, “If God exists, what does it mean that ‘God exists?'” Otherwise, the question becomes a non-starter, as the discussion would quickly head back to the presuppositions about whether God actually does exist.
The Text as a Shared Reality: In order to overcome this problem, many discussion groups don’t merely pick a topic and go–they have the class or group read a text. While the text will certainly raise issues to think about, it is alsoan object of inquiry itself, and in this case, an object of inquiry that participants have in common. In the above example, if participants had read Aquinas’ “Five Ways,” then they could discuss the question “What does Aquinas mean by ‘God exists?'” without any reference to their own philosophical presuppositions. While certainly possible for them to have that sort of conversation above, the shared reality of the text gives them an object of inquiry that is clearly outside of both of their minds, thus reducing the possibility that the conversation will be reduced to a power struggle.
In other words, while friends may not have all things in common, it is helpful if they have a few. When many people will look at the same document, that similarity of interest helps establish friendly relationships within the group.
The Text as a Common Object of Love: In other words, the text forms a kind of transcendental basis for discussion. The more individuals seek to understand the meaning of the text, the more they will be drawn to work together to find it. It is an object of love that each individual has in common, and as such is the basis for human relations. Humans, for instance, form groups when they are drawn to common objects of love. We engage in politics in America because we love America. The more we love America, the more we are interested in its welfare and in the political process. Clubs, friendships, and any form of human congregation almost universally occurs when individuals have similar interests.
In acting as a shared reality for the group or class, the text enjoys a position of prominence within the discussion group. It’s voice is the arbiter of any disagreement about the text (though not about reality)–it is the first object of inquiry and final judge of accuracy. I should point out that the point stands regardless of the text. Though we might come to ultimately reject the meaning of the text as false, during the conversation it is best to suspend judgement until participants first understand it.
The Other-ness of the Text: If the text is to be valued appropriately, it is important to acknowledge that it speaks with a voice that is alien to the group. The substance of the conversation is not our opinions–it is the author’s voice in the text, and it is his voice we gather to hear. The text is other–it is not us.
But as “other,” our failures to seek understanding of it will only be replicated in the “others” around us. If the text is not given its rightful place as the final arbiter, then the community can only erode. “Seek first the text, and all else shall be added unto it.” Communities replace the reality of the text with their own voices at their own peril. This, of course, does not entail that the text is true. But as the object under consideration, as that which is being pursued, it is (at that moment) the foundation for the communal relations.
Conclusion: These hypotheses, no doubt, raise serious questions for educators. First, what type of texts should be used in classrooms? Secondly, should any texts not be used in classrooms? Specifically for Christian educators, what is the role of the Bible in classrooms? While these questions are outside the scope of this particular post, I will address them in the second half of the series.
For now, it is enough to point out that for a discussion, a common meeting ground is essential. Whether the text is a movie, music, an experience or a book, great conversations depend upon the common exploration of a shared reality.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.