09/13/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

How God Makes Us Civil People

One word was all it took. In any other context, I might have skipped right over it. Yet in this context, it shone a spotlight on the potential of faith and spirituality to heal -- rather than deepen -- divides.

Recently, I read a profile of Rev. James Martin, well known to readers of this page as an eminent Jesuit priest, writer and thinker. Right in the middle of the piece, the author (Fran Rossi Szpylczyn) mentioned Martin's pleasant and easygoing personality.

"With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable," Szpylczyn wrote. "This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times."

Keeping. Not having a civil conversation, not enjoying a civil conversation, but keeping it civil. The word conjures up a sense of restraint, like a superhero wrestling mightily with a force that, if unleashed, could wreak havoc wherever it went. We hear keep used in this way all the time: Keep your temper. Keep your head about you. Keep the children from running amok.

Why should we have to keep conversation civil?

Alas, civility is not our first instinct -- at least not at this point in history. Our first instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger and debate. When people take issue with us, we simply speak louder, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To use Szpylczyn's metaphor, we wield verbal swords.

This sort of reaction is hardly new. We've learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.

This is where spirituality can make a difference. As a vital part of their practice, many of the world's faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns toward an ultimate concern -- which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking, toward others.

When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively responding, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all -- not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.

As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil, because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.

Perhaps this sounds preposterous. Given the history of religion, it probably should. How can faith traditions with such a long history of incivility -- to put it mildly -- create civil people? In one sense, any answer to this question will sound glib, when juxtaposed with the horror of religious fanaticism throughout the ages. The plain fact is, people have committed unspeakable acts in the name of religion, and that history will never go away.

All I can do is point to another plain fact: for the same long history, others have found their way to divine compassion, peacemaking and other-centeredness, and the journey has transformed them from the inside out. For every Grand Inquisitor, there is a St. Francis of Assisi. For every Osama bin Laden, there is a Mother Teresa. Anything in the universe that humans touch will be ever thus: strands of good, evil and everything in between. The good news is that, as a steady drumbeat throughout the ages -- through all the messes that we humans make of things -- the lives of holy people from many faith traditions bear a message of hope: the hope of a loving God who truly can reorient us to become people of compassion.

And how much change can this reorientation in us make in other people? As it is written, "A soft answer turns away wrath" (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations. This is what can happen when we stop keeping civil and compassionate and peaceful and start becoming those things.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared at The Dialogue Venture.