I’ve been reading Speaking into the Air by John Durham Peters, as it is assigned for my class this week. It’s interesting on a number of levels. Peters traces the history of the idea of communication, beginning (as many do) with Plato and Jesus. He challenges the assumption that dialogue is superior to dissemination, and suggests that both have advantages. He uses Plato’s Socrates in the Phaedrus as the advocate of dialogue. Socrates suggests that the ultimate love is the love of two souls connecting in dialogue (this is where we get the term Platonic love from). He is suspicious of writing, then, as a type of communication without a specific lover in mind – promiscuity of the soul.
Jesus, particularly in the parable of the sower, presents a different image of loving communication. Jesus message is nonspecific – he intentionally broadcasts it far and wide, and leaves the responsibility of interpretation to the listener, if he has ears to hear. God’s communication puts the responsibility of understanding on the receiver rather than the sender. As I thought about this standpoint, I realized this is not the only part of the bible where God seems disinterested in playing by the rules of dialogue. Jesus often answers questions in obscure ways, such as parables or bizarre turns. In the old testament, too, when God responds to human questions, the response is not what we expect. In Job and Habakkuk, for two salient examples, God responds, but does not answer their questions.
What are we to make of a God who does not engage in dialogue? How are we to understand a relationship with a God who does not create relationships in this primary mode? Peters seems to believe that dialogue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that the indifferent dissemination of grace is a great blessing. Perhaps. And perhaps a God whose logic goes beyond tit-for-tat is indeed required, when we cannot meet expectations. After all, the great joy of grace is that God gives when it is not deserved - God responds to us in a way that is entirely unexpected and over-abundant. The God of excess shows this part of divine nature even in the non-specific manner of communication. I am also reminded of Socrates’ own example of dialogue, which is perhaps more manipulative than a message disseminated. I have long been frustrated by God’s dodginess in the biblical text, but also inspired to wonder. It is unfair to characterize God as unwilling to interact entirely; after all, God emptied himself and became human, embodied, to show us love in a concrete and personal way. But even that embodied God confuses our social rules and rarely responds directly. How are we to understand the mysterious ways our God communicates?