Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

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Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

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On Cairns and Callings

Rock cairns are wonderful metaphors for vocation, and especially vocational discernment. The rock at the top of the cairn is rectangular in shape. It lines up with the opening beneath it. That rock and that opening point from one cairn to the next. At any given point in time all you can see is the cairn behind you and the cairn in front of you. There is no clear path to follow. But, if you trust the cairns (and the people who placed them there) you can safely get to the top of the mountain from which there is an amazing view.  

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Vocation Virtually: Telling Your Story

Part 5 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, and story.

A fifth metaphor of vocation is story, which underscores the sense that everyone has a story to tell. There is a narrative arc to each life, and that story has a beginning, middle, and end. This dimension of vocation invites students to author their own stories and, in the telling, claim agency. “In the beginning, I/we….” or “Once upon a time, I/we….”  

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Vocation Virtually: The Importance of People

Part 4 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, story, and people.

A fourth metaphor for vocation is people. Vocations are crowded, populated with individuals and communities that clarify our callings. This can happen negatively. “I never want to be like that!” More often, it happens positively. “I admire this person or those people.” Understanding this metaphor positively cultivates the sense that “If you’re with me, I can be my best self.”

The metaphor of people or relationships brings attention to the complex relationship between individual and community. What communities do I claim? And what communities claim me? I belong to my wild and crazy family, even if I didn’t choose them and they didn’t choose me. I belong differently to my university, my professional colleagues, my church community, the people in my neighborhood, my friends and fellow travelers. Again, I chose some of these people; others chose me. In a friendship or marriage, two people continue to choose each other day after day. Each of these relationships marks its members with certain values and certain practices or rituals of belonging. 

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To “Know Thyself” You Must “Know Thine History”

Many people today are invoking history—sometimes erroneously, sometimes prophetically—in arguments about our future. Historic elections, historic unrest, calls to honor this history or rewrite that one. We are reminded daily that we are literally making history every day. Perhaps more than ever fostering our students’ understanding of themselves as a part of history is crucial to our efforts to prepare them to pursue a fulfilled life.

When I ask my students to write a religious autobiography, contextualizing their personal story in US religious history, they struggle to recognize a context beyond their immediate family because they have not been taught to think of themselves as embedded in history. If students do not learn to understand themselves as not only a product of history, but potential makers of history, we have neither prepared them to fully understand who they are nor to authentically understand or make for themselves a place in this world.

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