In his slim, but significant volume, Self-Talk, the French anthropologist John Lembo, wrote: “Every waking moment we talk to ourselves about the things we experience. Our self-talk, the thoughts we communicate to ourselves, in turn control the way we feel and act.”
Despite quite clear instructions of R-16, passed by last year’s General Synod, calling for a dialogue involving all RCA assemblies, the upcoming General Synod is about to engage in an exercise of self-talk.
On the RCA website, we read:
General Synod 2008 will continue the conversation on what it means for the RCA to be missional.
Delegates will hear from Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; listen to a panel discussion on the topic; and convene in issue advisory groups to talk about what it means to be missional and Reformed.
Let’s be clear that this may be “conversation,” but it is not “dialogue.” And it is certainly not a part of the all-inclusive dialogue called for in R-16.
The plain intent of R-16 was that the national level of the Church should seriously and thoroughly engage in a 3-year dialogue with persons/assemblies outside of itself. This instruction arose because the Missional Structures Task Force had insufficiently engaged the grass-roots of the RCA as it deliberated what it meant for the Church to be both missional and Reformed. As a result, the Task Force came up with a laundry list of recommendations which were uniformly voted down at Synod. The MSTF had engaged in self-talk, not dialogue.
Dialogue does not come to the roundtable withset definitions; it comes to the roundtable to seek definitions. Ruell Howe (The Miracle of Dialogue) instructed that dialogue was primarily an exercise in listening—and not simply to one another—but listening for the “third voice” at the table—the voice of insight cultivated by the dialogue process. Dialogue carries no fear of persons with differing definitions coming together; it expects that to be the norm, but it believes that all definitions [or “stories”] are partial realities at best. Dialogue is that listening-responding dynamic which pieces together the partial views into a larger reality. Reformed folk will see in this process an echo of the Spirit at work through our assemblies. By virtue of grace, the whole comes to exceed the sum of its parts.
Dialogue may break out at GS 2008, but it will have to work hard to emerge. As outlined, there is a lecture or two to set definitions, followed by a panel discussion, followed by issue advisory groups of delegates. Each group will have a convener and an agenda, perhaps some questions to answer. That data will be recorded and sent back to a gathering of conveners to be collated and several conveners will be chosen to meld it all into a report back to Synod. Sorry to say, but the result will be as processed as Pringles.
If dialogue is to have any chance, delegates will have to set their own agendas in their groups—it’s happened before—you go to a convention and an assembly breaks out. Maybe groups can generate their “Top Ten” lists of what it means to be “missional/Reformed/both”. Maybe they can generate lists of persons in their classis that the R-16 working group should visit for real-time dialogue about being missional and Reformed. Whatever they do, the result needs to be open-ended: a variety of definitions, many places to go, see, taste, experience. But if what emerges from GS 2008 is a set of tidy dictionary definitions, then Synod will have engaged in self-talk that can’t help but control and pre-determine the remainder of the R-16 process. It will be all over before it has begun.