I believe we suffer from a propensity to look at people with whom we disagree and say to ourselves, “That person can’t teach me anything. They are so wrong in how they think, so insufficient in their intellectual capacities, so distorted in their worldview, that I could not possibly see reality more clearly by interacting with this person.”
Think of the political divide. Republicans decry working with “the other side” as a compromise of values. In turn, Democrats seriously question the sanity and morality of those who disagree with their principles. Both sides react with disdain when anyone seeks a third way for moving forward.
Consider the culture wars. One side sees evil lurking everywhere.Government, the news, schools, technology–-all are trying to poison the hearts and minds of the faithful. The other side sees the forces of corruption, corporate task masters, and institutional suppression reigning supreme, preventing people from experiencing true liberation.
Think of what is now 500 years of theological division (non-Chalcedonian and Orthodox brethren aside, of course). For some, the Reformation was the moment of freedom, the removal of the shackles of theological corruption, the purification of doctrine and practice, and remains a cause for great celebration. For others, the Reformation was a grave mistake, a continued blight on the landscape of Christianity, a massive embarrassment, a destruction of unity that should be mourned, not celebrated.
The very way in which we talk to and interact with others is poisoned by the mindset, “You’re wrong. I cannot learn from you.” Too often, the logic is frighteningly simple: Someone is different than me. Since I’m right, that someone is wrong. Therefore, they have nothing of value to offer me or my tribe.
The Roots of Destitution
This thinking, it seems, arises from several deep-seated issues.
In the first place, it stems from us thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom. 12:3). I find myself falling into this error regularly. My wife and I are talking about something—usually something insignificant—when I feel the urge to hold forth and dominate the conversation, usually with a mediocre contribution of limited insight and doubtful value. My wife, holy woman and good sport that she is, plays along for a time. Then, as she so often does, she asks a penetrating question that reveals the sham of my verbosity. Someday I hope to truly recognize that I’m not quite as brilliant as I think I am.
In the second place, this mindset comes from our inability to listen. As Stephen Covey has noted, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Too often, when to talk with people we think to ourselves, “Let’s hear what this fellow has to say about this hot button issue. If he says A, I’ll counter with B; if he says B, I’ll counter with C; if he says C, I’ve always got D to fall back on. I’m really going to embarrass him today.” Instead of listening with the intent of understanding, we listen for the purpose of destroying or belittling.
In the third place, we inhabit the belief that those who think differently than us are our enemies–-that someone with a different worldview or who belongs to a different religion is, in some meaningful way, actively trying to do us harm. Now, there are obviously perspectives in the world that are, in fact, trying to cause harm to those who believe differently than themselves. There are worldviews that clash—ideas do have real world consequences. If there is such a thing as truth (and there is), this means some perspectives and ideas are not aligned with the truth—making them detrimental to reality and the people living in it.
But—and this seems to be a fact that we have often forgotten—not everyone who adheres to another worldview does so willfully, knowingly, or with sinister intent. Many ideas are assumed, taken as “just the way things are.” Further, not every worldview lies totally at odds with one another. The disunity of Christianity on Sunday mornings notwithstanding, there is the possibility of substantive Christian dialogue and unity—as Conciliar Post itself attests—despite the apparent divergence of denominational worldviews. Disagreement, therefore, does not indicate necessary incompatibility or antagonism.
The Antidote of Listening
So how can we shift our mindset away from the view that we should not listen or learn from “destitute” minds?
Initially, we each must contemplatively and prayerfully reflect upon on our own thoughts and actions. This reflection should be deep and wide. Why do I think this way? Why do I act this way? What assumptions and experiences shape my view of the world and my interactions with those with whom I disagree? Then, this reflection must lead to action—adaptation and change of not only our minds and hearts, but also our hands and mouths to no longer other those who are different than us.
Most importantly, we must learn to listen again–-to really, truly hear what others are saying, seek to understand it, and empathize with their perspective. This type of deep listening is increasingly rare today. Such listening is an art, a skill to be practiced, honed, and refined. Once you’ve attained a certain level of listening skills, you find yourself not only hearing what people are saying, but also being in a relationship with them. For when you truly hear someone, you come to connect and care for them as you do yourself (Matt. 7:12).
Toward Cultivating a Spirit of Listening
Practically speaking, I’ve found that one of the best ways to cultivate such a spirit of listening involves regularly interacting and dialoguing with people who don’t see eye to eye with me on things I deem important. That is, regularly listening to someone who disagrees with me on substantive issues—think religion and politics, not sports or entertainment preferences—makes excellent practice for listening.
Now, not every voice you could listen to offers the same usefulness. In an ideal setting, your listening partner should be someone similarly committed to meaningful conversation and learning (or at least someone open to that situation). Of course, the ideal is rarely possible–sometimes you must settle for someone who simply provides good food for thought. Additionally, you must also approach this process with a certain amount of openness and rigor: openness to truly learn and grow, and the rigor to maintain the boundaries and principles that reside at the core of your personhood.
Personally, I have found engagement with preachers with whom I have substantive theological disagreements to be an excellent way to cultivate serious listening. When I listen to a preacher who speaks faithfully yet distinctly from my own theology, I find my horizons expanded. By training ourselves to not focus on just the disagreements, we can learn from the agreements, applications, and other areas where our own perspectives can be stretched and grown.
Listening deeply leads to open ears. Open ears lead to open eyes. Open eyes, I’ve found, often lead to an open heart—and fresh opportunities to show God’s love to those neighbors in my life who I might otherwise ignore because of their differences (Mark 12:31). By listening to “destitute” minds, we can cultivate our own souls, show care to others, and serve God and our neighbors. Why not learn to listen to some destitute voices in your world?
What about you: what voices do you regularly listen to with whom you disagree? What value do you find in listening to other people?
This article originally appeared on Conciliar Post.