A Catholic bishop and an atheist engaged in a warm public conversation when Dave Rubin invited Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron for a sit-down on The Rubin Report not long ago. Their hour-long conversation is available in two segments on YouTube (Belief, Faith and the Church Sex Scandal and Abortion, Gay Marriage and Porn). It’s one of the most refreshing interactions between two people of starkly differing worldviews I’ve ever seen.
Their conversation (typical of Rubin’s interview style of engagement rather than all-out combat) renewed my hope that even in this painfully divisive time, it is possible for people of goodwill to converse genuinely, respectfully and openly. If a dedicated, public man of God and a talk show host self described as gay and atheistic can converse honestly yet without animosity about the issues of the day, maybe the rest of us can give it a try.
Watching their interaction, I was reminded of a twentieth century model for dialog in a divisive time: the friendship between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton, a passionate Catholic convert, a playful, wide-ranging thinker and prolific writer, carried on a serious yet amiable conversation with the Nietzschean playwright Shaw in print and public debate over several decades. They never glossed over their differences, but after an intense clash of ideas in a public forum were still able to go out for a drink and enjoy each other’s company.
“He is something of a pagan,” Chesterton once remarked of Shaw, “and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.”
If there’s a blessing hidden in last year’s bitter, brutal political season, a blessing hidden in the profanity-laced public protests, dismissive diatribes and violent riots we’ve seen in the new year, perhaps it will be hunger for more conversations of this open, welcoming nature. Perhaps more people of courage and goodwill will emerge from the protected zones of the like-minded and meet on “uncommon ground.”
In his “Direct Message” just prior to the inauguration last month, Rubin shared his belief that the current climate offers (in the space between the extremes of Michael Moore and the memes of Pepe the Frog) some “incredibly fertile ground for those of us who want to make this country sane again.” He continued:
Every time we forgo real debate and silence our opponents, we spawn a new set of people who will come in with easy answers. This is the space in which the true bigots and actual authoritarians will flourish.
During the overheated presidential debates of last summer, I found myself sadly humming the Dave Matthews tune, “The Space Between” while washing the dishes. One day it occurred to me that the song’s words, though written in a different context, expressed my longing for a renewal of civility.
I’m fascinated that Rubin and others are using the same phrase. Many of us are longing to speak our minds and our hearts freely and in friendship with those who disagree with us. Applying Matthews’ words in this new context, we’re pleading:
The space between the bullets in our firefight/Is where you’ll find me waiting for you.
Last week a friend and longtime colleague broached the subject of the current climate with me by joking, “is it safe?” when she sat down in my office to chat about some of the rancor she’s experienced from family members who voted differently that she did. I’m deeply grateful for her humble courage in initiating the conversation.
We acknowledged feeling strangled by the angry attitudes abounding in our public discourse and recognized that it’s easier to remain silent about things we care deeply about than to risk animosity and judgment by attempting a conversation. We felt safe enough with each other to persevere, however, and our friendship is richer for it.
Barron and Rubin, perhaps not friends just yet, have shown me that genuine dialog is possible even now. If their conversation on The Rubin Report is any indication, “the space between” may yield more than any of us could have ever anticipated.
Reads and Other Seeds
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like For a Time of Transition: Three Versions of the Litany of Humility in Song.
Bishop Barron comments on his interview with Dave Rubin here: Dave Rubin, the Pelvic Issues, and Larry David.
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