I was recently in a group conversation in which some emotionally sensitive issues were being raised. At a couple of moments during the conversation, a speaker made a polite comment citing or paraphrasing sacred writings without reference to the issue under discussion. The outcome was that the conversation stalled, then moved slowly to another place without resolution. I realized this left me with significant unease. What was being said here? Did the speaker have a particular understanding of the cited material that they expected everyone else would have? Did it mean support or criticism of what had been said by others? In any case, it had the effect of closing down further exploration of the topic, as listeners could only nod in acquiescence, perhaps disinclined to challenge the speakers meaning. Afterall, might not a challenge imply a challenge to the validity of the sacred words. In any case, a challenge might draw the conversation further from its purpose.
Indeed, it may be the purpose of a speaker, on feeling uncomfortable with the subject matter, to raise the Word of God as a shield, stalling the advance of a potentially conflictional exploration. The danger is that the shield doesn’t eliminate the subject. Although halted, the shield becomes a dam, behind which the topic’s waters accumulate, building pressure and creating distracting discomfort among the conversationalists.
Yet, surely the Word of God, the sacred scriptures, are invaluable in serious discussion of any kind. In fact, Baha’u’llah recommends, for utterance to be highly effective, it must be endowed with penetrating power and moderation. Interestingly, Baha’u’llah goes on to describe ‘penetrating power’, not as something particularly charismatic, but related to a pure spirit and a stainless heart. Yet His definition of moderation goes to the heart of this theme, as “blending utterance with tokens of divine wisdom (from) sacred Books and tablets”. This idea of blending would mean that the speaker, perhaps, introduces their contribution to the conversation by a composition that fundamentally asks the participants to look at one or more of the concepts under discussion, then suggesting a way of looking at that issue derived from Baha’u’llah’s teachings and including some relevant ‘tokens’ of His advice.
In this way, the application of citation from Baha’u’llah becomes part of the specific conversation. By considered construction of the utterance, one can avoid telling another they are wrong. Such construction becomes more natural if we enter any conversation with an attitude of wanting to build a relationship with the others and learn from them. Abdu’l-Baha’s advice is to, “look upon others with respect … speak as investigating the truth, saying, “Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found… speak with th eutmost kindliness, lowliness and humility for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls.”
It seems that Baha’u’llah is also advising to learn how to do this in a way to enhance the interest and engagement of the hearer. The hearer could be anyone, seeker or lifelong believer. The method we are trying to learn, then, applies in all our interactions.
There are a few criteria we could evaluate our conversations against:
- Did the participants engage comfortably in the conversation?;
- Did the conversation attempt to work through barriers or conflictual elements?;
- Did the conversational path resolve, divert, or cease?;
- Did it allow pickup at a later date?
Of course sometimes it is not our participation but the utterance of another that become a conversation stopper. And it is certainly better that the conversation stops, than it should enter a disputation. Or, as Baha’u’llah advises, “If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.