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Of Conversation

Sharing truth in love

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest understanding of the word ‘conversation’ comes from its Latin root where it implies a place of habitation, a home where those ‘in conversation’ share a common life. While it also records a whole raft of different meanings and usage (ranging in intimacy from the small talk of acquaintances to the delights of sexual congress) the thread of domesticity remains. According to the writers of the dictionary the transference of meaning from ‘living with’ to ‘talking with’, which occurred in both French and English, is a relatively recent interpretation.

The term implies, therefore, a way of communicating which is both meaningful and homely. This is what we might expect, for it is only when we feel safe and ‘at home’ that we begin to disclose our real thoughts and feelings

A conversation may be helpfully described as:

  • a verbal exploration of ideas, beliefs, values and meanings.
  • a meeting of hearts and minds where personal truth is shared and exchanged.
  • a place of safety where what is considered important has the opportunity to be spoken without fear of judgement, ridicule or recrimination.
  • an occasion of loving attention where whatever is said is received, reverenced and acknowledged.
  • a forum in which what is strongly believed may be gently challenged without fear or regret.
  • a place of risk and tentative personal disclosure.
  • an illuminated landscape where hopes and dreams are allowed to play.
  • an interpersonal journey undertaken by friends who are prepared to be changed by what they may subsequently discover.
  • what the educational philosopher Michael Oakeshott called, “an unrehearsed intellectual (and emotional) adventure”.

Because of the type of group we are considering, I take comfort in the fact that the word ‘conversation’ always seems to have had a spiritual dimension. Several writers are quoted in the dictionary as using the term to describe inward communion with God. One memorable translation from a letter of St. Paul, for example, proclaims that, “our conversation (i.e. our true home) is in heaven” (Phil 3 vs. 20)

If all this seems somewhat idealistic we should not feel alarmed. In the reclaiming of this word, we are holding up a vision of the kind of interpersonal encounter that people can walk away from feeling understood, accepted and affirmed. Though its full expression may be some way ahead of us, it is something towards which we can work.

Compare all this to the original meaning of the word ‘discussion’. While it is often used synonomously with conversation, it comes from a very different root – the Latin word ‘discutere’ which literally means to ‘dash to pieces’. A discussion, then, is not the coming together of those seeking understanding and communion, it is the clash of adversaries who wish to judge or examine an issue by argument.

In groups gathered to explore such sensitive issues as life experience and personal faith what we need to preserve is not a discussion, but a conversation. Together, in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect we can speak about the spiritual dimension to human experience. We won’t always see eye to eye, but we should be able to disagree gracefully.

Mark Davis
‘Breathing Spaces’