On Listening to People with whom I Disagree
A recent book by Alan Gregerman carries the title, The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation, and Success. The author argues that, with all due respect to our usual circle of friends and family, we significantly shortchange our potential if we do not engage, learn from, and collaborate with “strangers,” that is, those who differ from us.
I agree with this basic premise, and even though the book focuses more on personal and professional growth, profound implications for the Christian and the church exist as well.
Before I turn to the reasons for Christians to listen to those who differ from us more broadly, let me mention a personal motivation for addressing this idea. The 140-character limit in Twitter creates a number of challenges. Thoughts expressed in this format resemble proverbs in their brevity. Like proverbs, these thoughts do not possess the luxury of larger context, leaving them open to interpretation (and misinterpretation).
Another danger accompanies such snippets when they originate from an outside source. Someone viewing the post might consider the one being quoted suspect in some way, and thus overly identify this concern with the one posting the quote. At a minimum, the one posting the quote “should have known better than to have cited such a disreputable person.”
For example, over the past year I have read from Richard Rohr’s works fairly extensively. On several occasions I have posted quotes from him on Twitter (linking also to Facebook). For those who don’t know him, Rohr is a popular but controversial Catholic priest and teacher. I don’t believe I have ever read anyone from whom I derived such equal measures of insightful inspiration (mostly in the area of spirituality) and significant disagreement.
As an academic, I have been trained to examine sources critically. This practice challenges the researcher to find and appropriate what is valuable while rejecting that which fails to meet the standard. The quality of discernment required for this practice understandably leaves room for disagreement.
While the critical approach forever remains an inexact science, the alternative necessitates the appointment (or self-appointment) of some individual or group to determine which sources are “safe” and which are “dangerous.” This judgment typically implies that the former merit implicit trust across the board while the latter should be avoided altogether. This approach saves time and mental energy for many, but it obviously carries its own dangers, not the least of which is the narrowed field of vision it imposes.
Christians need to listen to “strangers,” therefore, because they potentially have much to teach us. We should not be surprised by this assertion. The Bible’s claim that we are all created in the image of God suggests that someone who has never seen a Bible possesses capacity for insight into the truth. The Bible’s claim that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God suggests that the most devout student of the Bible will not possess perfect understanding.
Christians also need to listen to “strangers” because we need to understand them if we are to fulfill our calling from God toward them. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our “sympathetic” high priest because of the great lengths to which he went to identify with us. A much smaller gap exists between us and our neighbors, but it remains a gap we are called to close in order to carry out our priestly ministry and to perpetuate Jesus’ incarnational presence.
One final thought: At times I find it easier to listen to Richard Rohr and other differing voices than those whose backgrounds and basic beliefs more closely resemble my own. Why? These are the times when the “strangers” reflect a transparency about their own limitations in understanding and a refusal to take themselves too seriously, while my friends sound so harsh, so confident of their monopoly on the truth, so predictable in their responses to every event. The latter stance suggests to me fear and insecurity rather than the fruit of advanced wisdom.