Sunday, March 26, 2006

Listening to People

In a recent post Vaughn noted the difficulty of listening to people with whom we disagree. It strikes me that I struggle with this difficulty in two basic settings.

I spend time talking with one group of people online, most of whom would define themselves as conservative Evangelicals. I often feel like a frustrated liberal trapped with a group of people who refuse to consider any views that don't fit their preconceived conclusions. For example, when we talked about environmental issues, one of our number challenged the rest of us to convince him that climate change really matters. It was clear from his challenge that no mere marshalling of facts and findings, no matter how complete, would do the trick. We needed something else, something more. I find myself baffled as to how to proceed in a conversation when I have been dared to produce "facts" to someone who has concluded there are no "facts".

The problem is that I am reasonably sure that if he and I could talk together, I would find considerable common ground. He has something real to contribute to my understanding of the world; but it is so hard to listen when we are told that what we are saying doesn't count. Or when we feel like what we are saying doesn't count.

I have spent some time talking with another group of people online about Franklin Graham, who is planning to hold an evangelism festival in Winnipeg in October. The participants in the conversation were members of Mennonite Church Manitoba, and several of them feel strongly that MCM should have nothing to do with the festival because Graham supports the American war effort in Iraq.

In this setting I have felt like an unreconstructed conservative, arguing that we can work with people in one setting (evangelism), even though we disagree with them about another (attitude towards war). Here also I feel trapped by the passion with which we hold our viewpoints. I have tried to engage the two who disagree with me most strongly in either a meeting over coffee or a telephone conversation, thinking that putting a face and a voice to emails may help us hear each other better. So far I have not succeeded.

Again I suspect strongly that if we knew each other, we would find significant agreement, even a shared passion for peace. But (my sense is) they can't hear me, so strongly do they express themselves; and in turn I find it hard to her them (feeling pushed away by their passion).

I haven't found any resolution to these conversational binds. I believe strongly that, if we believe in peace (with my Mennonite friends), we must practice peace with each other in the household of faith. If we can't speak with each other and hear each other, how do we expect to model peace for the rest of the world anywhere? I believe strongly that, if we believe in Jesus (with my Evangelical friends), we will love and listen to all those who bear the name of Jesus. At least that's what Paul tells us to do (for example, in Romans 12 and Philippians 2).

A closing parenthesis. People in general are rational, even when they disagree with us. Combined wisdom is greater than any one person's or any one group's insights. We need each other to sort out the challenges of life. Somehow we have to learn to listen!