Listening to Another Side
by Mark Gutman
One of my Seminary classes dealt with the theology of a large Christian denomination. We were regularly assigned to read chapters in a book by a writer of that denomination. Our professor would then spend a day or two explaining one of that denomination’s teachings (which we’d just read about) in a way that made it sound quite logical and reasonable. Then he’d turn around and show why we disagreed with them on that point. But he told us that the earlier part of some of his presentations would occasionally lead a student to worry, “Are they right on this point?” I was intrigued as I saw doctrines that I had always understood to be unbiblical presented in a way that made them seem logical. I could actually understand how or why someone might believe such a teaching.
Contrast my teacher’s presentations with those of “progressive” or right-wing radio stations. If there’s good about the other side, don’t expect to hear it from those stations. They “take no prisoners.” The logic, the motives, and the integrity of people with a differing point of view are all skewered mercilessly. Being gracious to the other side is out-of-bounds.
Karen Armstrong describes the situation for many: “All too often people impose their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures. It often becomes clear, when questioned more closely, that their actual knowledge of the topic under discussion could comfortably be contained on a small postcard” (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, page 117).
Are you more like my professor or a political radio station? How easy is it for you to disagree without being disagreeable? To hold your convictions firmly, but respect the honesty and intelligence of those who hold different convictions? Do you view being willing to allow other beliefs and different views as too compromising and dangerous?
In Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, Madeleine Van Hecke relates that she assigns students to write a “poles-apart” paper. For the paper they are “to investigate a way of life, an attitude, or a set of beliefs that is poles apart from their own.” So, “a public school teacher discussed home schooling, a born-again Christian explored Scientology, . . . [and] a staunch supporter of President George W. Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq considered the opposing views of Quakers” (page 123).
The first time Van Hecke assigned the paper, she was shocked at the resistance of the students. She knew that the assignment was different from the usual evaluations or critiques: “(t)he primary goal of learning about the opposite pole was not to evaluate it in an analytical way, but to try to grasp how it was possible to see the world so differently; . . . the aim of the paper was not to create a debate that one or the other side could ostensibly win, but to search for ways to understand how someone very different from oneself views the world” (pages 123,124).
Apparently the students were recognizing risk in warming up to “the other side” in any way. “If we actually succeed in understanding how someone else could believe, think, live in ways that are deplorable or offensive to us, what will that do to the values that led us to pass judgment on these opposite poles in the first place? If their perspective actually makes us realize that we have been somewhat off in how we have seen the world, what else will that realization call into question?” The students “had the intuition that the more clearly they were able to grasp the pole apart, the more difficult it might be for them to judge that perspective as wrong” (page 124).
As Adventists, many of us understand that our set of beliefs is closer to reality and ideal than the set of any other religion or denomination. As Adventist Today readers, many of us feel that our perspective is more informed or less naïve or “infected” or compromised or (you fill in the blank). So why risk learning about others’ error-filled or dangerous views? I’ve heard the situation compared to the work of a Secret Service agent whose job is to detect counterfeit currency. The agent does not need to study the counterfeit; learning the genuine currency will show up the counterfeit automatically. So if we know what’s right, we don’t need to study what’s wrong. Why take the risk? Why lose the ability to call sin by its right name?
In Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman relates his experience in becoming an atheist and eagerly collecting all the bad stories about religion that he could find. He sought out any opportunity to point to religion and say,” ‘See! Look how bad it is.’ When you’re looking for garbage, you’ll find it. It became easy to notice the flaws and miss the merits” (page 84). But as he worked side-by-side with those not-so-smart religious people in various projects he couldn’t help but realize their good side and that their religious motivations were motivating them to be helpful to humanity.
Ellen White’s quote gets dragged out to defend all kinds of odd (or unique) views, but probably most of us have read or heard many times that “[w]e have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. . . Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed” (Testimonies to Ministers, page 30). But sometimes we act as if we’re going to disprove that statement, or at least not have it apply to us in the future. Now that we know so much, why waste time on the inferior beliefs of others?
I submit that it’s worth it to be willing to listen to differing viewpoints. Whether from reading or from associating with others, we can gain in more ways than one. As Stedman discovered, people whose beliefs were quite different from his atheism were more inclined to listen to him when they found that he was willing to show an interest in them. He sheepishly relates the story of attending a birthday party for Alex, his cousin, who ran up to him and asked if the birthday ice cream was good? “Without pausing, I said matter-of-factly: ‘It isn’t ice cream, Alex. It is sherbet.’ . . . “In my youth, being ‘right’ held ultimacy. I valued precision and accuracy, and was sure to correct anyone I felt was ‘wrong.’ I thought I was doing people a favor by correcting them. Now, I strive to lead with listening instead of lecturing” (page 180).
Smugly explaining that we know nothing about someone else’s viewpoint and making it plain that we have no interest in learning about it closes doors in more ways than one. Like Alex, we may discover that we’ll end up getting our ideas across better as we listen to others. We may communicate our thoughts better because we understand more about our audience. They may be poles-apart from us, and maybe there’s no way we’ll ever see things the way they do. But if we show them the respect of listening to them as human beings, we may be surprised at what we learn.