I remember having a discussion around faith matters years ago with an intelligent person. I met him at an event I was attending with a few friends. On one particular evening, we all decided to have dinner together. Just from the incidental conversations we had before this meal, I knew that he and I did not see eye to eye on many issues.
After the meal finished, the three others got up to use the restroom while he and I sat talking across the table. We entered into a contentious theological issue, and it soon felt as though someone had turned up the temperature in the room. His face became red, and I am sure mine was too.
Eventually he looked at me and said, “Oh I understand now. You are a foundationalist!” If I weren’t so caught up in the emotion of the conversation at the time, I would have asked him what a foundationalist is.
He quickly moved on to his next accusation, clothed in the form of a question: “Tell me, where did you study?” When I mentioned the two universities at which I had done post-graduate education, he dropped his case against me. In hindsight, I am convinced that he was looking to categorize me, but he couldn’t do it because the universities I mentioned simply would not fit the anticipated boxes to be ticked.
As I think back to that intense conversation, I wonder how I could have navigated that situation better and how the Christian faith might inform my frame of mind.
Many of us have been in conversations like this in which we stop listening to the person with whom we are speaking. Lyell Asher, English professor at Lewis and Clark College, proposes a meaningful antidote to this challenge in his American Scholar article. He makes the point that instead of listening for what others might say, we need to recover the art of listening to others. If you have ever been on the receiving end of the listening for conversation, you know what this feels like.
When we simply listen for what another person is saying, we reduce that person down to a stereotype that we already have in our mind. This kind of listening is not really listening. It is merely argument formulation masquerading as listening.
When we listen to others, it is as if the posture and disposition of the conversation becomes open-handed. Listening to another person implicitly says, “I want to learn from you even if I don’t agree with you.” As Christians who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, this strikes me as exactly the sort of thing we are called to do.
Recovering the Art of Critical Thinking
After watching a certain protest in the news recently, I could not help but think that this listening dynamic or lack thereof is contributing profoundly to the great disconnect and anger in many of the cultural conversations today. Just think of the many protests we hear of on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Regardless of who is right and who is wrong in each particular case, much of the disillusionment and confusion stems from our inability to understand each other. In politics, higher education, and increasingly in sport, the “us versus them” mentality haunts us. Issues that might have once been talked about are simply no-go areas in classrooms, locker rooms, and restaurants. The issues are complex, no doubt, but I wonder if one step in the right direction through this volatile terrain might be recovering the art of critical thinking?
In the foreword for Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, there are two portraits of the future painted for the reader. One comes from George Orwell’s 1984 and the other is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The author outlines Orwell’s and Huxley’s views of the future and how they both shared concerns with how the truth would be handled.
As he looked into the future, Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley’s concern was that the truth would be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” Postman’s book, penned in 1985, sides with Huxley’s view of the future, and as I read it, I could not help but feel that we have arrived in the moment foretold by Huxley.
Day after day in our 24/7, always-on news cycle, we are bombarded with images, stories, and statements that show the outworking of what Huxley feared. Truth, it seems, is drowning in a sea of irrelevance. Huxley believed truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance through the deluge of information we would be inundated with. The important would get buried in a sea of irrelevant news.
Indeed, this is a real challenge for us today. But I wonder if the problem lies more in our disposition to simply not listen and learn from others. Yes, truth is being lost in a sea of irrelevance, like Huxley predicted, but the bombardment of information is not the only culprit for this trend. I think a greater problem is that we do not really want to think and listen to others.
Social critic Os Guinness tells the story of a person who studied under Francis Schaeffer. On one particular evening in a French bar room, the student was having a drink with a skeptic. The skeptic asked this Schaeffer protégé many questions about faith. To every question came a response that was nearly word for word from Francis Schaeffer. Finally there came a point in the conversation in which the skeptic, who had actually read much of Schaeffer’s writing, looked at the Christian and said, “Excuse me, but do you write with a Schaeffer pen too?”
The skeptic’s point was that while he was asking genuine questions he was receiving stock answers being trotted out mechanically. Each question was greeted by a ready-made response. They might have been good answers in another context, but they did not seem to grapple with the questions being asked by that particular questioner. True and genuine thinking was not taking place
I confess I am guilty of the same categorization that my friend placed upon me in that heated exchange I wrote about earlier. I have been in conversations with others and have tried to figure out where to place the other person. The problem with this approach (aside from being disrespectful and ignoring a person’s dignity) is that listening for fails to acknowledge the real complexity of what makes up a person’s opinion and line of argument.
More importantly, simply listening for what a person is going to say models an extremely reductionistic view of the human person. It is as if we are saying that our conversational partner can be reduced to a mere set of lists, categories, and sound bites. But are we as human beings not more complex and more sophisticated than that? Is it not the art and discipline of listening—truly listening—that gives our conversations dignity, worth, and civility?
Listening Is Hard Work
Perhaps one of the reasons many of us find it difficult to listen in conversations is because genuine listening takes more work and critical thought. Worryingly, I am convinced that we have become skilled in learning what to think, but not as strong in learning how to think. We are good at clinging to content and conversations that substantiate what we believe and what works within our view of the world. But as soon as we encounter a contradictory opinion to ours, no matter how intelligent it is, we have difficulty engaging it. The tendency is to move away or to tune it out.
Instead of listening to the other person who is sharing an opposing thought to ours, our default setting is to place them into a category that we can comprehend—a category that will keep our own views and convictions intact.
When we find it hard to understand opposing views and we enter into a mode of thought that seeks to place the opposing opinion in a category, are we not implying that we do not desire the truth? Yes, our views and convictions might survive the conversation, but the end result is that the truth, at least our desire for it, has drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Recently I was speaking to a group of senior high students who were about to head off to college. During the question and answer time of my session, one particular student expressly disagreed with a point I made in my talk. The room slowly became quiet. Many students turned their heads to the ground. As it became my turn to respond, there was pin-drop silence. The roaming microphone was then taken away from the questioner and I began my response.
I thanked the questioner for his question and comments. I then asked if we could bring back the roaming microphone so that he and I could continue the conversation. I expanded on the points I made in my talk that he called into question, and we had a meaningful dialogue. After the session ended, one colleague came to me and said, “I missed some of your talk, but I loved the way in which you gave the microphone to the person who asked the most controversial question.”
Truthfully, I would not have made that observation on my own. But in hearing my colleague’s feedback, it reminded me that one of the most significant ways we can navigate tough conversations is to ensure that each person in the conversation is heard.
Christianity Speaks to the Challenge
So what might Christianity have to say to these challenges? As I look at the way the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul interacted with others, I find two practical ways their interaction with others can shape how we think about conversations.
1. Be open and willing to engage with those with whom we do not agree.
There are many stories of Jesus in which we see him embodying this attitude. Even when others come to trick him, he still listens to and interacts with them. When the Pharisees and Herodians come to trap Jesus in Matthew 22:15–22, they ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus responds by asking for a coin, and he then asks them whose image is on that coin. They acknowledge that Caesar’s image is on the coin. Jesus famously says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (ESV).
Matthew’s gospel continues: “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” We are not sure if these exact people ever engaged with Jesus again. But just by his willingness and courage to engage with those with whom he disagreed, a meaningful conversation was had.
Commentators often make special note of the question that Jesus asked this politically charged and theologically fierce group. He asked them a question about image. In the ancient world, images denoted authority and accountability. An inscription or a sculpture of a ruler often signified their ruling over a particular area.
When Jesus asks this question to the Pharisees and Herodians, they immediately know the answer because they understand the power linked to Caesar’s image. Yet, as significant as that question was, what is even more striking is that Jesus was willing to have a conversation with people who had opposing views to his.
There is so much to be gleaned from Jesus’ conversational care and thought, but we would do exceedingly well to simply practice and live out his generous willingness to engage with others who did not share in his teaching.
2. Read and understand what others are reading.
In Acts 17:22–34 we read of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians. Paul is explaining and defending the Christian God to a mixed group that included Stoics and Epicureans. Just by doing a bit of study of this story, we soon realize that Paul refers to and cites poetry that had powerfully shaped the religious belief of his audience. His method of evangelism reflects a disposition that wanted to understand the people to whom he was ministering. He was interested in how they thought. He had much to say, but he wanted to show them that he understood them.
There are so many points to draw from this one rich passage of Scripture, but we should not miss the fact that Paul’s citing of poets tells us that he had read the poet’s! He had read what his conversation partners had read. In our moment in which we have become severely groupish in what we read, what we listen to, and who we spend time with, we would do well to take notes from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.
This does not mean we should immerse ourselves in literature contrary to the Christian faith. It simply means that our reading and learning should indicate a desire to learn from others outside our faith conviction. Paul’s method of evangelism at the Areopagus can provide a guiding light to us on this front.
These are only two points, but if we are serious about wanting to listen and learn from others in our radically misunderstanding time, the Christian faith shows us that a meaningful start begins with a willingness to enter into the hard conversations. No one did this more beautifully than Christ. Paul shows us that reading and engaging what our friends have been shaped by could provide real and practical help to our understanding them, not to mention making our witness of Christ more appealing.
We live in a time in which listening, learning, and understanding each other seems beyond our reach. Yet, Christianity brings encouraging news to us here. May God give us the courage, the care, and the clarity to rise above the challenge of misunderstanding others and do so in his name.
Nathan Betts is an apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). He speaks frequently across the US and Canada. His focus areas include the interface of faith and culture, digital technology and belief, and youth apologetics. Follow him on Twitter @NathanGBetts.
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