“What’s a Human For?” - by Stephen H. Phelps

Stephen H. Phelps ’73 B.A., ’86 M.Div.

Early this year, six adults were interviewed by PBS NewsHour, which had first gathered the group prior to the 2016 presidential election. One wore the hijab, one was African American, two expressed satisfaction with President Trump, four did not, three in the group were women, three were men.

Anchor Judy Woodruff asked what had changed for them in the interval. Every question generated feelings so sharply divergent it was a relief the responders did not stab each other with their eyes; they looked only at the anchor. At the end they agreed on one thing: We are more divided now than in 2016.

A Forked Road

Uncivil behavior, when it becomes common, imperils a society. This is a natural law. Our associations depend on basic ideas about their purposes. For members who refuse to work at reconciling, the road forks. In one direction, cynicism and withdrawal; in the other, deceit and violence to maximize power and control. Between these poles of despair and violence, only one practice can sustain a society while its members – enough of them, at least – rework and reform their ideas of what binds them: They must have difficult conversations. The same holds for a club or a church or a nation or a great civilization.

Only difficult conversations can open the door to a workable future for a society increasingly inured to lies and violence. But it is hard to find that door. Deep conversations are unusual. They never just happen. The self’s inertia keeps talk light or level or, if necessary, defensive. If no party to a conversation takes the risk to guide it down through unlit, unknown corridors, no door opens.

When someone intends to find the door, a few conditions are necessary to fruitful dialogue. First, a person must desire to learn from the other. A desire to opine or persuade cannot sustain the needed connection. Second, the desire to learn from another must itself be the fruit of the flower of humility, whose fragrance spreads from the awareness that one’s own view cannot comprise the whole view. In a difficult conversation, a person who intends to learn from another must hold steadfastly in mind why she’s there. Others may come with a mind to argue a position, but the learner commits himself to learn from the other regardless why others are there.

A Spiritual Quest

When one intends to learn from others but is uncertain of their aims, the obstacles to meaningful conversation loom like the forces that Frodo and friends face in Tolkien’s tales of spiritual conflict. Indeed, for the one who intends to persevere, it is helpful to see the difficult conversation as a spiritual undertaking.

The word spiritual is used in myriad ways, but all have in common an orientation to the whole. Martin Buber called this spiritual orientation the “I/Thou” relation. The coherence and co-existence of the other stand forward. Even if her views seem uninformed, harmful, or unjust, the desire to honor the relation, to learn, is undiminished.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores a large body of psychological research that supports the conclusion that reasoning is not the tool that cuts the path by which we arrive at our values.1 The origins of these values lie deep in experience and even in inherited disposition. We use reason(s) only to make our values persuasive. This is why “the facts” do not change minds. Difficult conversations are difficult precisely because the values held are held out of reason’s reach. If the dialogue does not press beneath the surface of opinions, heat is generated, not light.

The Deepest Question

Commitment to a difficult conversation requires a format beyond a mere exchange of views. Filing opinions fails the test. It is not enough to give people a place to pound out their old thoughts and an excuse to hear nothing when opponents start in on the same.

To stay oriented to the sharp difference in the room, the format needs to turn participants toward the whole person – to the listener’s whole self, and to the speaker’s. Telling the story of how they came to be and to see can ground the conversation in its spiritual function.

Inviting a difficult conversation, we have to risk grasping how vastly our values can differ, and how strong are the feelings that attend them. A key question undergirds these efforts: What’s a human for?

When we ask about a tool, “What’s it for?”, somebody knows the answer. When the same is asked about a human, the question hangs heavy. Some think some people are good for nothing, or merely objects to use. Some think they, with their profits, are for themselves alone.

Into the Light

Everything spoken and unspoken in a difficult conversation implies answers to what a human is for. Some answers are laments, some are pleas. Is anyone good for nothing? Are we for ourselves and our kin alone? Are we for the Other? A society’s ethics are woven from our basic ideas about this question. A person who is open to learn from the Other, how she came to be, orients to the widest perspective imaginable. The conversation partners move down a darkened passageway together to a door and into light.

Buber experienced just this in 1914 when he and various counterparts from several European  countries gathered in hopes of genuine dialogue in the face of an impending world war. As he described it:

The conversations were marked by that unreserve, whose substance and fruitfulness I have scarcely ever experienced so strongly. It had such an effect on all who took part that the fictitious fell away and every word was an actuality. Then as we discussed the composition of the larger circle from which public initiative should proceed … one of us, a man of passionate concentration and judicial power of love, raised the consideration that too many Jews had been nominated, so that several countries would be represented in unseemly proportion by their Jews. … I protested against the protest. I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. “In a way that remains inaccessible to you” – so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. “It is gone,” he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood. The discussion of the situation between Jews and Christians had been transformed into a bond between the Christian and the Jew. In this transformation, dialogue was fulfilled. Opinions were gone, in a bodily way the factual took place.2

How odd to be called to the Other. How glad you are that scales fall from your eyes. What peculiar joy to feel drawn upward to the One while being taken down in humility to see the Other as you have not seen. Whoever would be great among you – you recall – must become a servant of all. What’s a human for?

In his writings and sermons, the Rev. Stephen H. Phelps ’73 B.A., ’86 M.Div. focuses on practices of inner development and social transformation toward a just economy. From 2011-14, he was interim senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City. See his blog at stephenhphelps.com.


  1. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012).
  2. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Routledge Classics, 2002), pp. 6-7. The book was first published in 1947.