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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

A Miracle in Sonoma?

Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.

One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.

Boy, was that a good call.

The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.

It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.

I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.

Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)

I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.

Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.

All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.

Can Dialogue Pick Up Where Negotiation Leaves Off?

I was doing a live radio interview two Saturdays ago (Silver City Meetinghouse on WVBF AM1530 in southeastern Massachusetts; great hosts, fun show) when one of the co-hosts mentioned her work in labor-management relations. She consults with school districts using nontraditional methods of negotiation—specifically, methods that invite these traditional adversaries to work in tandem for a solution that benefits a whole, rather than against each other to get the most possible for their side.

As she described her work, I thought about the difficult position these negotiators must face. I suspect it’s a position many of us have faced, in other contexts.

When negotiators sit across from one another, at least two powerful forces conspire to draw them toward conflict and away from dialogue. First is the long history of adversarial relationship between the two sides: a great deal of hostility has flowed under the bridge over the decades, and mistrust has become instinct.

Even so, a negotiator deeply committed to dialogue might be able to overcome this personal animosity if not for the second force: she is beholden to someone else. Dialogue is not written into her job description; getting the very best agreement for her constituents is. If she dares to try understanding the other side, she risks facing hundreds of people who would accuse her of “selling out our interests.”

Could dialogue have any role in this? Is there any value in a negotiator’s stepping out into a virtual no man’s land to explore the issues together with the other side?

There may be, and it may have to do with what I see as a fundamental difference between negotiation and dialogue. Negotiation is all about compromise, giving up on certain points to get what you want. It is the natural choice for situations like labor-management relations, and of course it can be tremendously effective. The risk of negotiation, however, is that in the process of compromise the parties may never explore the deeper issues that underlie the points of disagreement. In the end, they may hammer out a mutually acceptable pact that addresses the details but none of the underlying issues. This is where dialogue—and its tendency toward exploration, toward mutual understanding—can have value.

And yes, there is no doubt that “rising above the fray” like this can bring a negotiator a lot of flak. It requires a great deal of internal fortitude (and/or external support) to face down the forces of conflict. Yet we desperately need people with that kind of fortitude—not only in the labor-management arena, but in the political sphere, interfaith dialogue, and many other places in the public square.

I think people of faith can play a significant role here, particularly those who have cultivated a deep connection with the Divine. These folks do not have to face the fray alone, because their hearts are full of the conviction that they are not alone. Their radical openness to God—an openness that, I have found, empowers them to let go of vested interests and “us vs. them” thinking—sets them free to initiate dialogue even in ultra-sensitive situations, heedless of the cost.

That’s the internal fortitude part of it. The external support is essential as well: finding allies who can nurture us even as we nurture them. It is much easier to let go of one’s position and deeply engage the other side when we know that people have our back. From a faith perspective, it is that same divine support expressed through the people around us.

So maybe dialogue does have a role to play in negotiating settlements. It certainly has a role to play when longtime adversaries meet to resolve issues in the public square. And the more our hearts and minds can be reoriented toward dialogue, the more readily we can enter the fray.

Why Today’s Cynicism Isn’t Enough: The Sequel

few days ago, I received a response to last week’s post from my good friend Kim. Kim is both a deeply committed Christian and a remarkable thinker, so it came as no surprise that her response took the whole conversation in a new and deeper direction—away from a critique of today’s cynicism and toward a reflection on cynics themselves and how they might move from cynicism to hope. Here (lightly edited and condensed to fit the space here) is an excerpt:

First off, I totally one hundred percent agree with your critique of the cynical mindset…. I also agree that critiques of culture, institutions, or individual circumstances need a “To” direction.  Getting rid of the negative or undesirable factors, without also having a positive outcome towards which you are aiming, tends not to get anywhere….

Having said that, I think the article falls short in that it…doesn’t exactly address the larger issue. In my experience with cynics, and I encounter many…there is no motivation on the part of cynics to change. They are not seeking a positive “To” direction, because they do not believe that change is indeed possible. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” is a fair summation of the cynic’s philosophy, mindset, worldview. Everything that could be tried has been tried, and found wanting.  In short, the cynic’s view is undergirded by a general sense of hopelessness.  If they did not feel that the situation (whatever situation that might be) was not hopeless, they would not be cynics. If they could envision a “To” direction, they would go in it.  But their negative mindset clouds their vision.

Vision is the ability to “call those things that are not as though they are.” In short, vision is faith.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The visionary is able to see things that are not, and walk towards them. They realize their vision by seeing that which does not exist, and summoning it forth into existence by faith. Martin Luther King envisioned a world where people were not judged by the color of their skin. Mandela envisioned a South Africa post-apartheid. Bobby Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things as they could be and ask ‘Why Not?’”

Cynics lack this basic capacity; in short, they lack faith. Not necessarily faith in a particular God or view of God, but basic faith that things can ever be better—better in their personal circumstances, better in our political system, better in our communities and institutions.

How does one get from Point A (cynicism) to Point B (hope)—that is the question….

I think…often the cynic is changed by the unfailing love he or she receives from a believer.  I have been watching the movie The Way this week, and it has a similar story line. A father loses his son, he is angry and bitter, and in the course of completing the pilgrimage across the northern Spanish coast—which his son was undertaking when he died—the father is changed. He is changed not by anyone telling him he needed an attitude adjustment, but by the human encounters he experiences along the way. Our hard attitudes are most often changed, not by lectures, but by the unselfish love and mercy we receive from others. We are changed by patient love that wears down our defenses over time.

Why Facts and Logic Aren’t Enough

Scene 1: A buddy forwards me an email that rails against U.S. foreign aid, because it’s taking away from Social Security. I’ve read enough to know that’s not true—foreign aid constitutes maybe 1% of the federal budget—and I send him a reply to that effect with three links from reputable (though allegedly liberal) sources. My buddy appreciates the input but still thinks there might be something to the email.

Scene 2: A pillar of a conservative church comes out to the congregation, one family at a time. When he lays out the case for LGBT acceptance—using the Bible and countering the oft-cited passages against homosexuality—people tend to believe him. Then he leaves, and they’re worried that his “silver tongue” has simply deceived them and distorted what they’ve always known as the truth.

What’s happening here?

My knee-jerk response is exasperation with the people who “won’t see sense.” They hear logical reasons to change their minds, they have access to facts and statistical trends and whatnot, and yet they retreat into their current mindsets. I want to use the word ignorance in its root sense: an ignoring of what’s in front of one’s face.

But that’s wrong on so many levels. Most important, it dismisses the sheer power of the deeper forces that move us: culture, upbringing, religion, values, the “tribes” in which we live, our mental health and emotional needs. All of these contribute to the dense mesh of our beliefs and opinions.  All have spent decades weaving themselves into our psyches. They will not yield easily. Nor should they, necessarily: often these influences provide us with time-honored insight into the universe—and shape our lives for the better.

But the strength of these influences can keep us from hearing other people in dialogue, no matter how good our intentions. And since we have to share this planet, hearing one another in dialogue is essential.

This is why I believe that logic and facts and processes, while invaluable, will not suffice to create a climate of dialogue. At some level, we must find within ourselves an openness to others, a willingness to hear and weigh entirely different perspectives, a deep sense that the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the forces that move us may not always be correct.

These are attitudes of the heart. If we do not have them, we must find a way to reorient ourselves—to, as the Shakers sing, turn till “we come round right.”

Faith is good at this sort of thing. The goal of so many faith traditions is transformation at the core of one’s essence, usually toward compassion and peacemaking: the very virtues that both fuel and provide the reason for dialogue. When we start with the transformation, we can come to the dialogue table already open to the other; we can listen to the logic and facts and employ the processes more fruitfully—using our core principles not to block the entry of new ideas, but as a source of wisdom to contribute insights to the conversation.

Yes, we need facts and dialogue processes and ways of coming together, without question. The proper orientation of our hearts is no less important. With all these ingredients working together, who knows how far our dialogue can go?

Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?

How do we know when our language needs a makeover?

One great thing about writing for the web is that it starts conversations with extraordinary people. Two months ago, Kathleen Turcic commented on an article I wrote for Huffpost Religion, and from there we had a most pleasant and stimulating email exchange.  In the process, she introduced me to her own venture, QuintessentialYou Design.

In a nutshell, Kathleen helps people live out their essential selves into their external circumstances, thus creating a life full of energy, passion, and purpose. While touring through her website, I was struck by how essentially spiritual and postmodern her language is. It’s not exactly light reading, but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it expresses essential truths in words we’re all familiar with.

That got me thinking about the language of faith in general. How do we know when to keep using the time-honored words and phrases of millennia past, and when to update our language?

For instance: You may have noticed that I rarely use the word religion. Quite simply, it carries negative connotations for so many people that it can, I think, detract from my ability to connect with them. (The hordes of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” serve as evidence to this point.) So I talk about faith, faith traditions, and spirituality, but I try to avoid the “R-word.”

Here’s why this matters. Most faith traditions have “good news” that cries out to be shared in, I would submit, respectful dialogue. Christianity, in particular, urges its followers to share the good news of Jesus. Yet these faith traditions, and their language, are at least two millennia old. Are we authentically sharing the good news in our postmodern world if postmodern people can’t understand our ancient language?

Wickedly controversial case in point: “God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die as a sacrifice for our sins.” To the ancient Jews, with their system of temple sacrifices and offerings, this faith statement probably made some sense; they at least had a point of reference from which to grapple with it. We postmoderns have no such point of reference. That’s why, to many people who are not Christians (and some who are), the statement makes God sound barbaric. What kind of God needs a sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own offspring, to appease his anger?

Now, whether you take this statement literally or metaphorically, it does speak to the wild extravagance of God’s all-consuming love for humanity. But many people in our age can’t get past the seeming cruelty of the act itself. Do we need entirely new language, or perhaps a tweak of the old language, to make the same point? Can we change the language without changing the message?

I don’t know the answer, but I think this deserves discussion—not just on the “died for our sins” point, but on many others in many faith traditions. What do you think?

Why Should I Listen to You?

Yes, I admit it. The question in the title isn’t terribly nice. It usually precedes a dismissive statement: “Why should I listen to you? You got us lost last time.” “Why should I listen to you? You don’t know anything.”

Our ironic postmodern culture is very good at dismissive. We’re always scoping out the credentials behind the statement—and the hidden agenda behind the credentials. “Why should I listen to you? You’re a [liberal/atheist/fundamentalist/Wall Street trader/Tea Partier/socialist/wingnut].”

But is there something to the question? Why should I listen to you (or read your book, or visit your blog, etc.)? Is it legitimate to pay more attention to one person’s opinions than another’s?

Sure it is. But we can take it too far.

First, a review of the reasons why some opinions are more equal than others:

  • Expertise. If I can’t grasp the potential hazards of offshore oil drilling, I’ll give more credence to a mechanical engineer than to a U.S. senator or my Green Party friend who doesn’t understand the technical side.
  • Vested interests. Yes, agendas do play a role. If that mechanical engineer depends on ExxonMobil for her livelihood, I’ll take that into account when weighing her words.
  • Track record. Over the years I have found David Brooks and Thomas Friedman to be thoughtful, incisive analysts who approach each new issue free of rigid party-line bias. So when they write about the next big issue I’m more inclined to trust them.
  • Time. I haven’t read any books by Richard Dawkins, the prominent thinker who often writes against the concepts of God and religion. I might gain a lot by reading Dawkins, and I’d certainly sit down with his articles or blog. But I only have so much time—and given what I know, I’ve decided that reading an entire book like his God Delusion is not the best use of it.

So. All we do is use this set of filters to decide whom to hear and whom to dismiss, right?

Not so fast. There’s an important distinction to be made here.  We can certainly dismiss ideas. We should never dismiss people.

Two reasons why. First, people are always surprising us. Perhaps my Green Party friend has done extensive research on drilling technology. Maybe Richard Dawkins has a message I need to consider. If we dismiss these folks entirely from our consciousness, we cut ourselves off from any opportunity to hear a perspective that could broaden our own. Those opportunities—and the wisdom they may engender—are too valuable to pass up.

The second reason has to do with intrinsic human worth. Nearly all faith traditions (not to mention other worldviews) find inestimable value in human beings. By paying attention to people, we affirm that value. We honor the person behind the opinion. And we fulfill the imperative toward compassion that springs from the heart of the Divine.

What about you? To whom do you pay attention? Are there some people whose opinions you can barely tolerate? How do you deal with that?

Have Values Ruined Our Dialogue?

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times makes a provocative point in his excellent analysis of today’s political dialogue. About halfway through, he suggests that a confusion between values-speak and politics-speak is making things worse. In Rutten’s words:

Values do not admit compromise; politics, which is the prudent application of values in pursuit of the common good, requires compromise.

Some of what we’re experiencing today as bitter political rhetoric may reflect the leaching of the values debate into the generality of our political life.

The problem with politics in which every question and situation is framed as a matter of fundamental values is that it makes compromise impossible. There simply isn’t any way to meet the other side even halfway without, in some fashion, ceasing to be yourself.

Rutten may well be right about the current interplay of discourse and values in contemporary America. But unlike him, I don’t think it has to be this way—especially if we come to the belief that we are not our values.

Here’s why that matters. I have often said that authentic dialogue calls us to set aside (however temporarily) our preconceptions, including our values, in order to listen with full attention and an open heart. That’s too much to ask if our values define us.

But what if our essence is deeper than that? Many faith traditions point to something deeper: the soul, the life force, the divine spark. If we identify with this essence, we can relax our death-grip on the other things we often use to define ourselves: status, wealth, and position in society, but also our proclivities, perspectives, and yes, values. That “relaxed grip” empowers us to set aside most everything to engage in dialogue—without “ceasing to be ourselves.”

This doesn’t mean values are irrelevant to dialogue. Indeed, they help us weigh what we have heard after we have heard it: what it might mean for us and our understanding of the world. But by not leading with our values—by not declaring certain things “off limits” or automatically filtering the other’s perspective through our own—we free ourselves to listen deeply. Deep listening builds trust, and trust is essential for making dialogue, and collaboration, work.

So we can hold values and still reach across divides. Good thing, too. How can we even hope for a civil society otherwise?

Dialogue From Where You Are…When Where You Are Isn’t Good Enough

I did not see this coming, and frankly, I’m pretty embarrassed about it.

A while back, I wrote a column on the still-hypothetical “national conversation on race.” A dear colleague emailed me this week to point out, graciously and civilly, that the ideas in the column had “white as normal” written all over them.

She’s right.

Like many other white people, I tend to see myself as more or less normal. I don’t see how my ideas arise in part from my position in society: membership in the privileged race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. I think I think like an everyday person. I actually think—at least to some extent—like a white, middle-class, male, straight person.  (If you think this is a tempest in a teapot, check out the Witnessing Whiteness book and blog, or the ten misunderstandings white liberals have about race. Or enjoy Colbert’s take on the issue.)

My colleague’s comment horrified me. The last thing I ever want to do is exclude people, however unconsciously. Yet if it’s unconscious, how do I know I’m doing it?

Shelly Tochluk, the author of Witnessing Whiteness, provides an interesting way to think about this. In writing about her attempts to foster discussions around race at her college, she notes:

I’m not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I’m not as good I want to be is a powerful thing…and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.

After ruminating on this awhile, I’ve come out with four lessons for myself. I would love to hear what you think of them. 

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. That somewhere is usually with one’s own story, background, experience, etc. The ideas I have are inextricably bound up with who I am. You might say that the best I can offer to the world is who I am.
  2. Who I am is severely limited. Same with who you are, or the neighbor down the street, or Barack Obama. Each of us is exactly one person, with exactly one person’s perspective.
  3. To expand my perspective, I need you. Specifically, I need to listen to you. Verbal dialogue lies at the heart of that listening. But it could also mean reading the books you love, absorbing the music you enjoy, hanging out with the people you hang out with.
  4. This type of dialogue is hard work, and it leaves us extraordinarily vulnerable. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone. That’s one reason I believe people of faith are so well qualified for dialogue. They don’t need to muster the inner strength alone because they’re not alone. With the presence of the Divine to encourage them, they are emboldened to take the risks needed to reach out and be reached out to.

When I think about this last point, it brings to mind a prayer at the end of the Episcopal Mass: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Serving, loving, and listening take strength and courage. So when we screw up and get slapped down—as we inevitably will when pursuing dialogue—we acknowledge our blind spots and go to the Source of that courage. Then, refreshed, we return to the fray.

Getting to Openness…to Get to Dialogue

I wrote last week that for dialogue to work, we have to open our minds and hearts and keep them open, even when the discussion boils over. But how on earth can we do that?

I don’t think we can—not on our own.

Yes, there are things we can do. The longer we practice openness, for instance, the more it becomes woven into us. Eventually, we become open almost by habit. 

But practice alone is rarely enough to effect lasting change. One reason is the typical failure of sheer willpower: think dieting and you know what I mean. A second reason is the position in which openness places us: by definition, we become extraordinarily vulnerable—especially to those who attack us and defend themselves. The willingness to be open is one thing; the emotional capacity to be open is quite another. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone.

This is where the Divine comes in. 

As we seek to encounter God on an ongoing basis—in prayer, in meditation, in reflective reading of sacred texts, in communities of believers, in the world—the Divine Spirit fosters a connection with us at the core of our being. In the process, that same Spirit also molds us, gradually, into people more “in the image of God”: people of peace, of justice, of compassion. The Benedictines call this conversion of life: a slow, persistent turning of one’s life, from the inside out, to something better.

That has two profound effects on dialogue. First, through this conversion process, we find ourselves not so much practicing virtues like openness as watching them flourish within us. The connection with the Divine opens us automatically to the world beyond our own skin. We begin to see things from a larger perspective. We become acutely aware of our place in the universe: as one person among billions, with one perspective among billions. We almost can’t help but be more open.

Second, when we enter into this encounter, we no longer need to muster the inner strength alone—because we no longer are alone. In the Christian and Jewish scriptures, God continually reassures his people with the words “I am with you.”

This, I think, is why people of faith are uniquely positioned to lead the movement toward fruitful dialogue—because they are connected with a transformative Power than can orient them toward fruitful dialogue. How ironic, then, that many people of faith have developed reputations for the very shouting and contentiousness that plague us today.

It is time for us to act out the words of the magnificent Shaker hymn: “To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” If we turn toward God, we turn toward dialogue—and take up a critical role in transforming a world that so desperately needs it.