Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Lively Exchange of Ideas

-in the center of my nearby town-

Several years ago I had an opportunity to visit Greece, and I spent a few days in the wondrous city of Athens.  There was something very special about being in that city.  I realized just how much I, as a Westerner, had been influenced by the ideas that emerged out of that ancient Greek culture.

In Athens, one place was particularly poignant for me - a large "green space" in the center of the city, the ancient "agora," the "marketplace." 

On any given day, throughout many centuries before Christ, that marketplace served as a public forum for a lively exchange of ideas. Great scholars along with common farmers would gather together in various corners of the agora and engage in dialogue with one another. They would talk about their convictions and share their various philosophies of the meaning of life and love. They would share their beliefs about the gods and talk about the nature of religion. They would discuss politics, science, mathematics. No topic was off limits. 

I remember standing in that ancient agora in Athens. My imagination went wild. After all, Aristotle had once stood right where I was standing, sharing his convictions, discussing his newly emerging philosophy -  so had Plato and so had Socrates. 

In later years, Saint Paul had stood there sharing his new-found beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth with those who gathered around him for a dialogue in that public square.

 It was from these lively exchanges of ideas that democracy emerged - many of the principles of mathematics and science still held today also emerged from those exchanges in that place, and the very system of Western theological thought (based on Aristotelian philosophy) emerged from what went on in that marketplace dialogue.  

As I stood in the ancient agora I could almost hear the excited sounds of the vibrant pursuit of knowledge that must have filled that ancient city marketplace back then. I imagined people sharing their thoughts and perhaps becoming stronger in their own convictions as a result of the dialogue, or perhaps changing their ideas or modifying their thinking because of what they learned form one another. 

At one point in my life I used to think that the internet might be able to serve as today's modern-day "agora." Imagine what might emerge as people from all over the world would gather together in cyberspace and dialogue with one another. People with all sorts of convictions and ideas, scholars, and scientists, theologians and philosophers along with college freshman and factory workers, all meeting in discussion rooms like the kind you find on Google+ and engaging in a lively exchange of ideas. Imagine what might emerge? 

But from my experience (especially since writing this blog and posting it online every day) this is rarely the kind of conversation that happens in cyberspace. Instead I have found that the internet is often a place of dogmatic thinking where like-minded people talk to one another making very little space for the exchange of different ideas -especially when it comes to the hot button topic of "religion."

I sort of expected to find a certain rigidity in fundamentalist types of religious believers who enter the online "marketplace" in order to promote their own particular brand of believing.  However, I actually didn't expect to find some pretty dogmatic Buddhists who insist that their brand of Buddhism is the only way to see the world (the very idea of a dogmatic Buddhist seems odd to me).

Perhaps my most interesting observation is the rigidity, dogmatism and unwillingness to dialogue that  I often find among those who define themselves as scholars, thinkers, philosophers and scientists. Many of these folks label themselves as "atheists" and so the very mention of the word "religion" will send them into a tailspin, immediately closing any doors to conversation.

As I sit in my garden for my morning refection, the thought comes to me that what goes on in cyberspace is a mirror of what goes on in everyday life in the everyday world- a world far more prone to dogmatism than dialogue, where like-minded people bond together and "circle the wagons" to guard against outsiders, foreigners and the convictions of different others.

The ancient Greeks had it right- the pursuit of truth and knowledge is a community affair, demanding a lively exchange of ideas.

Imagine what might emerge if we would all be willing to enter the "agora" once again? 


  1. This is a brilliant article. Why is it impossible to talk to someone without feeling his or hers agenda behind it. I mean, whatever you believe to know is not the end of knowledge, but rather a great point to start an interesting discussion. I always liked to listen to strange people say something, because they usually had a point to make. But as you said, it's so dogmatic. People have no idea who they are, and when they find an identity, then they stick to it like crusaders. Even if you are a Buddhist vegan with a 'healthy and tolerant view' on life, you can have the same old energy behind it - really strange. As I said - the discussion turns into an 'agora' when you have an at least basic understanding of who you actually are. Those ancient thinkers knew, they were not their body and not their credentials.
    Again Paul - excellent article. It's always a pleasure to read your 'thoughts'.

    1. Alen, as always I almost grateful for your comments and your encouragement.