Posts Tagged ‘Christian’

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Letting Our Cherished Convictions Go–a la Thomas Merton

I had a great blog post planned for this week—until a quote from a friend got in the way.

If you’ve read my book or other things from me, you probably know what I think about our most cherished convictions. We invest a lot of our lives in forming them. They guide us as we try to navigate through life. They may well reflect a piece of Reality and, as such, must be taken seriously.

But ultimately, we are one person among billions, with one set of convictions among billions. Our ability to know The Truth as a whole, on our own, is negligible. So when we enter into dialogue, we set aside those convictions—at least temporarily—to open ourselves fully to hearing the truth that the other has to offer. On a grander scale, holding our convictions lightly enables us to listen more open-heartedly to Reality as a whole, which in turn aligns our deepest selves toward that Reality.

I’ve said all this before, but then, today, a friend sent me a quote from Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, prodigious writer, and towering intellect on the contemplative life. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he wrote the following. The first two sentences relate directly to holding things lightly; see what you can make out of the rest of the quote.

We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom.  When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are.  Only then can we begin to see God in them.  Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road of dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.

What thoughts does this quote bring up for you?

Dialogue and a Deeper Listening

Listening reminds me of a pool: just when you think you’ve plumbed its depths, you find more depths to plumb. Two recent encounters with listening brought this home for me.

First, some context. Dialogue only happens when we listen. Listening is not the same as hearing: we might hear any sonic input at any time—ignoring it, giving it fleeting attention, or focusing on it as we see fit—but we listen with a clear mind, an open heart, and our total attention devoted to the other person. That allows us entry, unfiltered, into the other’s way of thinking.

One treasure of contemplative spirituality is that listening becomes a way of approaching all of life—a habit of the heart, if you will. We listen to God, to the flora and fauna of the natural world, to the prevailing culture, to hidden messages, to everything that communicates. Every now and then, this listening stance produces some extraordinary discoveries, such as…

Listening from within another’s point of view. This, to me, is one step beyond listening open-heartedly to another’s perspective; it involves climbing into that perspective and thinking from inside it, the better to grasp its nuances and shake free more wisdom. When asking my Facebook friends about their experiences with Holy Week, I specifically addressed my query to Christians, figuring that people who did not identify as Christian would neither know nor care about the topic. That assumption nearly cut me off from the insights of one of my atheist friends, who showed a remarkable ability to think from within the Christian tradition and meld it into his own thinking. The Public Conversations Project published my article about this experience; feel free to take a look for the details.

Listening to our thoughts before we think them. Late last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Justine Willis Toms for a future installment of New Dimensions Radio. (The program is slated to run sometime this summer.) During the interview, in which we quickly established a deep listening connection with each other, she asked me a question about the nature of God, and I responded with my latest thinking. What stunned me, though, were the ideas coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t thought of before. I do not know where these ideas came from, but I had the eye-opening experience of learning from them. The beauty of listening as a habit of the heart is that we are listening to everything, even to ourselves as new insights emerge from us.

Have you had experiences like this—the word magical or miraculous may apply—when listening deeply to another person? Feel free to share them here.

Moses and Where Change Comes From

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.”                           —Exodus 3:11-12a

 

Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:

  1. God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
  2. We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.

If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.

So what do we do?

I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”

The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”

For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.

Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.

Certainty from the Left?

When I think of people who are certain of their beliefs—no possibility of compromise—certain strains of conservative come to mind. My conservative friends, however, tell me that progressives can be just as certain.

I think I’ve found a case in point: a compelling article by Candace Chellew-Hodge. In “Smashing Our Idols,” Chellew-Hodge—a pastor and editor of an online magazine for LGBT Christians—muses on her interactions with David Gushee, an evangelical and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.

The thinking from both parties is remarkable for its civility and nuance. Gushee makes clear that, while he is currently opposed to “all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marital acts,” the question requires a rethinking on his part, and that process is ongoing. Chellew-Hodge, meanwhile, affirms the humanity of people on the “other side,” is glad to have allies like Gushee with which to dialogue, and stresses the importance of patience.

I wish all interactions between adversaries were like this. It could easily serve as a model for the whole Church. One piece of it, though, doesn’t quite sit well with me: Chellew-Hodge’s sense of certainty—and what that might do to the dialogue. She writes:

…we must give people time and space to come to the side of full equality. Those who are making an honest effort, like Gushee, must be applauded and nurtured – not attacked. In the same manner, we who want full, unconditional inclusion in church and society need to be in relationship with people like Gushee so we can encourage them to keep whacking at the statues of exclusion and oppression until they are finally gone.

Her underlying assumption, as I read it, is that she is on the right side of the issue, and that the most gracious thing she can do is to “be in relationship with people like Gushee” until they come around.

Just for clarity’s sake, I happen to believe—passionately—that she is on the right side of the issue. I hope to God that the Church continues to move in the direction of welcoming all people. But authentic dialogue, as I see it, requires one more step than Chellew-Hodge has taken: a suspension of one’s preconceptions—however temporarily. Only with that step, I believe, can we be fully open to the other.

Suspending one’s preconceptions is a nod to one of humanity’s most fundamental realities: “I don’t know.” We may believe with passion. That passion may be enough (in some cases, it must be enough) for us to wrap our lives around the conviction and even attempt to steer the world in that direction. But especially in matters of the spirit, we know nothing. While this bedrock reality may not play a huge role in our daily lives, we can best extend compassion and a listening ear to the other if we enter dialogue with it in mind.

What would happen in a dialogue entered this way?  We could create a space in which, no matter how much we disagree, we can listen for the value in the other’s perspective and for how it might make our own thinking better. It’s unlikely I will ever adopt Gushee’s current stance carte blanche, but if I am fully open to it, I might hear more about the values beneath it and how they resonate with my own thinking. Maybe what happens is that I reaffirm my current thinking on LGBT issues but reimagine the place of spiritual intimacy and commitment in it.

Dialogue rarely changes a participant’s position completely or instantly. In many cases, that’s not the point. The point is, more often, to grow together in love and reconciliation and to accumulate wisdom wherever we can find it. Goodness knows, we can all use more wisdom.

Of Dreamers, Realists, and Dialogue

A few years ago, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting a monastery in South Africa. Like many monasteries, Mariya uMama weThemba observed the Great Silence from roughly 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. I relish this extended time of silence and was dismayed, when I awoke early one morning, to hear my wife (quietly) chatting at me.

I reminded her that we were in silence. Her response, with that impish twinkle I know so well: “I don’t care. I’m your wife. I’m going to talk at you anyway.” I couldn’t help but crack up (quietly).

Next story: From time to time, I have joined organizations that think big thoughts and do great things. They are actively seeking ways to make a profound difference in the world. And their contribution to the world is well worth the effort. Many times, however, these groups include a realist or two—someone whose role is to say, “I’d like that too, but here’s how this really works….”

I love these people. And here’s why.

On the dreamer-realist scale, I fall squarely on the dreamer side: the people who push for what could be. The realists remind me of what is. I consider silence a higher good; my wife reminds me that other people have other priorities. I love spinning lofty ideas out of not a whole lot; realists remind me that I have to start with the raw material of right here, right now.

What we miss sometimes, I think, is that we need each other.

Too often, dreamers and realists disparage those on the “other side.” Yet without the realists, the dreamers would, most likely, not make as much progress as they could. Without the dreamers, the realists would, most likely, not reach beyond current realities to envision, and therefore create, breakthrough change.

If they come together with a heart for dialogue, however—a heart oriented toward suspending preconceptions, hearing the other, welcoming a deep interplay of ideas—watch out. They could be a force for serious change.

This need for each other extends well beyond realists and dreamers. I see this in my faith tradition. Many Christians, traditionally identified as progressives, stress God’s concern for the dispossessed and for justice—God’s action in the world. Many others, traditionally identified as conservatives, stress the importance of sanctity and the joy of a personal relationship with the Divine—God’s action in each person.

These emphases often come into conflict. Progressives, for instance, see LGBTQ equality as a justice issue for a dispossessed group of people; conservatives see it as an erosion of godly personal behavior. What if they came together with a heart for dialogue—not tussling over the issue at hand, but listening and probing more deeply to understand, and appreciate, the other’s deeper beliefs? Both sets of beliefs (if the Christian scriptures are any guide) are close to the heart of God, after all.

With a heart for dialogue, we can dispense with our instinctive hostility and instead approach our adversaries with curiosity. We can be open to hear what they have to offer that we need, and vice versa. In most cases, I truly believe the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

Dialogue and Christmas—the Holidays—Whatever

We’ve talked a lot about the need for precise language, in dialogue and out. Our dialogues could be so much more productive if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them. It is in the spirit of precision that I now wish you:

Happy Holidays.

Every year around this time, there’s a certain level of fuss about that phrase. “It’s the Christmas season, dammit!” goes the line of thought. “Jesus is the reason for the season! Why can’t we just say Merry Christmas?” Happy Holidays, to people who argue this way, is too vapid, too “politically correct,” to describe what December is really about.

I’ll admit that Happy Holidays is kind of vapid. Because of my faith tradition, Christmas is a treasured holy day for me. At church on Christmas Eve, I will be delighted to wish my fellow parishioners Merry Christmas.

Outside of church, though, it’s a different story. The U.S., where I live, is not predominantly Christian as it once was—not by a long shot. Millions of people here are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of no faith tradition, you name it. And often (as with Hanukkah) their holidays and festivals take place in December as well.

So when I encounter people at the store, or on the street, and I don’t know their faith orientation, Happy Holidays seems the best way to greet them with good cheer while respecting their beliefs about life. If I’m addressing a group—either physically present or virtually, as on Facebook—it’s usually a safe bet that someone in the group doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Happy Holidays is a way of showing respect to those people too.

This is a basic principle for dialogue. Without a perception of respect from their dialogue partner, few people would willingly share their convictions in dialogue. That showing of respect creates a welcoming place in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of recrimination.

So…to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To all my friends, Happy Holidays.

Christians and the Call to Dialogue

We Christians are notorious for fighting. We fight among ourselves over subtleties of doctrine. We fight with other faith traditions over what constitutes Truth. The Crusades, an extreme example of fighting if there ever was one, are a horrible stain on our history.

Fortunately, some Christians have made good progress in dialogue over the past few decades, especially in the field of interfaith dialogue. That is a very good thing indeed. It puts us in line with a Savior who, I think, would heartily approve.

It is true that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life make no mention of dialogue. But Jesus in these accounts waxes eloquent about the ideals and objectives behind dialogue. In the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his most sweeping single statement of his approach to faith—he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). A bit later in the same sermon, he exhorts his followers to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).

This label, “children of God,” fascinates me. It speaks, I think, not of mere familial relations but rather of affinity: people who, out of their deep connection with the Divine, reflect God’s orientation toward the world. People who reflect God are peacemakers. People who reflect God are committed to love.

What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, how can I love you most effectively—how can I act in your best interests, for your greatest good—unless I know you? And how can I know you unless I listen to you?

Listening also reflects what we read about Jesus. Among the numerous accounts of him preaching, challenging, probing, and delivering his message, several stories show him listening as well. He heard—and was amazed by—the faith of the centurion who asked for his servant’s healing (Matthew 6:5-13). He listened to the woman who cleverly parried his understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations (15:21-28). One might argue that he posed his famous question—“who do people say that I am?”—not as some test of his disciples’ understanding but honestly to seek their insight.

This same Jesus also prayed for another fruit of dialogue: unity. “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).

That’s what I hear when I read the Bible. What does your faith—Christian or from another faith tradition—tell you about the need for dialogue? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

Reflections on the Dialogue: LGBTQ Issues and the Christian Church

Hello, my friends. It’s so nice to be back with you.

A few weeks ago, I told you about an upcoming dialogue to which I’d been invited—a conversation with a dozen evangelical Christians about LGBTQ issues and the Church. As you may know, the words evangelical, LGBTQ, and dialogue do not often appear together in the public square, so this gathering promised to be extraordinary.

It was all that, and then some.

I don’t think I can describe it any better than I have in this Huffington Post piece on the dialogue. The article includes some questions that the dialogue raised in my mind: new (to me) possibilities about the way we might think about not only LGBTQ issues, but the future of the Church itself. The comments on the article, on the whole, have been more thoughtful than one sometimes sees online, so you may want to check them out—and add your response. I’d love to hear your thoughts, there or here.

Reading Material for the Dialogue Journey

I will be away from the laptop for a few weeks, so instead of an original post I thought I’d link you to some other food for dialogical thought. Read one a week, and it’ll be as though I never left!

  • The Abortion Stalemate: Can “I Don’t Know” Break It? In this post, I suggest that starting over again on abortion—from a position other than drop-dead certainty—might help us make some progress in dialogue where little has existed before. The comments are particularly interesting: many of them show a serious and genuine struggle to grapple with an extraordinarily difficult issue. Hearing the wisdom of others is one of the best things about writing.
  • Can Humility Change the World?  From what I can see, this misunderstood virtue is one of the indispensable “habits of the heart” that can reorient us toward dialogue. See what you think of my perspective on the term.
  • Beyond Stereotypes of “Conservative” and “Liberal” Christianity. Dialogue starts from a better place when we view our dialogue partners as individuals rather than through predetermined filters. In that spirit, I share what I’ve learned about the “liberals” and “conservatives” in my faith tradition. Again, the comments are most valuable.

As you may have picked up, I so appreciate those who take the time to read, reflect, and comment on what I write. That goes for you too. I learn a great deal from hearing your voice, and I am encouraged by your support. Thank you. I’ll be back on the blog before you know it.