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.
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Source: Christianity Today