Contestation

Dialogue and deliberation are sometimes publicly perceived as soft (and dangerous) attempts to insist on civility at the expense of truth - or even the allowance of relativism. Those who experience these practices, however, often find a sharper and more transparent exploration and “contestation” of truth than otherwise possible.

This term of contestation was first used in Peter Berger’s 1978 book The Heretical Imperative, where he called for a new kind of conversation to take place in the growing pluralism of America - especially in relation to religious faith. In that context, he proposed moving beyond disinterested scholarship or the “missionizing” of adherents of one sect to another alone - raising critique about “the sort of dialogue that could be described as reciprocal anti-defamation.”

By contrast, contestation means according to Berger, an “open-ended encounter” with another’s “possibilities on the level of their truth claims.”  In other words, “one seriously engages another religion [or philosophy]....open, at least hypothetically, to the proposition that this other religion [or philosophy] is true.” Berger adds, “Put differently again, to enter into interreligious contestation is to be prepared to change one's own view of reality. Anything short of this, however valuable it may be (for scholarship, say, or for joint sociopolitical concerns, or just for an enlargement of cultural horizons), is less than the contestation called for by the present situation" (p. 151-152).

The existence of this kind of openness can make the difference between whether dialogue feels for some like merely an exchange of pleasantries versus a productive and mutual search for more understanding and insight.   

In contrast to the heady attempt at persuasion in debate, contestation aims to change the heart as well as the mind  With the goal of moving the heart, contestation is ideal for disagreements over beliefs and values that cannot be adequately proven by rational evidence.  As Pascal said, ‘the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.’  This form of engagement relies on open mutual vulnerability (like dialogue) and is often overlooked or ignored in secular or academic environments where parties seek practical finality through deliberative consensus or through voting after debate.  But where the human heart cannot be coerced or compromised, persuasion occurs mainly as truth claimants explain their different convictions through their exemplary lives., This openness to mutual influence admits that persuasivecontestation is never-ending. It does not resolve ideological conflicts, but sustains them as active drivers for social creativity and change.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

-How open are YOU to the possible truthfulness of views on the OTHER side of the philosophical, political or religious fence?  

-In conversation with those on the OTHER side, what would you describe as your intentions or goals?  

-Does dialogue require us to let go of a desire to persuade or convince or proselyte?

Conversation Catalysts: 

Peter L. Berger 1978 The Heretical Imperative, Sunday, September 30, 2012 The Coming Contestation of Religions

Chantal Mouffe, Agonistic Pluralism

Contributors: 

Charles Randall Paul, Jacob Hess

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