I was reminded recently of how important listening is as a form of love. Listening has pertinence to how we raise our kids, interact with our spouses and friends, relate to our neighbors, and engage those of other faith perspectives and ways of life. I touched briefly upon this subject the other day in the course of reflecting upon the topic of “bait and switch” in Christian witness.
We cannot really understand others, if we do not listen to them. It is easy to assent to this proposition, but it is much harder to follow through on really taking time to listen to others in the search for greater understanding. Fear of others often keeps us from trying to understand them. In contrast, understanding them will often keep us from fearing them.
I read a blog post today by a Pagan writer on how Christians often approach Pagans with fear and with little understanding. I came away thinking that our concern as Christians for articulating our convictions gets in the way at times of really trying to hear others express their convictions. As it relates to Pagans, such passion to promote our convictions as Christians has often expressed itself in forms of inquisition rather than relational inquisitiveness. As a result of such one-sided passion, we easily set up straw men arguments. One of the major problems with straw men is that they are not real people! Moreover, you do not have to listen to straw men or understand them, and you cannot have relationships with them. Just the opposite with real people.
The Golden Rule would tell us that if we want to be understood, we need to seek to understand; we need to listen and love. The prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi includes these words:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.
Surely, as Christians, we need to be concerned for believing and living in accordance with Christian Scripture. As the Apostle Paul said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). But Scripture also says that we need to be quick to listen. James, the half-brother and servant of Jesus, writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). I believe such quickness to listen also applies to interacting with those of other spiritual paths. How will they know we love them, if we don’t care to listen and learn from them what they themselves think and believe? We must not try to speak for them, but allow them to speak for themselves. That way, we really can move forward toward effective communication involving consideration of our respective convictions.
In my world religions class at the seminary where I teach, I always ask leading representatives of various faith traditions to share their traditions’ stories, perspectives and customs rather than try to speak for them. After all, they are truly invested in their beliefs and practices. I am approaching them from the outside looking in. Still, I want to try and understand them from the inside out as much as possible. To do so, I need to listen to them in a spirit of charity. I often say to my students that we need to be charitable in spirit, critically discerning with our minds through the lens of Christian Scripture, and creative/constructive in our engagement as Christians with those of other faith traditions and spiritual paths. Charity involves a desire to listen, to learn, and to understand them. Charity is inquisitive. Charity goes a long way toward building trust and cultivating healthy forms of communication in Christian witness, when coupled with these other qualities.
Not too long ago, I was speaking with a Buddhist friend over a meal with some other Buddhists and fellow Christians. This Buddhist’s father is an Evangelical, who has basically rejected his (adult) child for my friend’s beliefs and way of life. Given that I may very well share similar convictions about Christian doctrine and behavior as this person’s father, I asked if my friend felt the same way about her Evangelical friends at the table, including me. Her response to us at the table left an indelible impression on me: “No, you (plural) are inquisitive.”
I am not always inquisitive. I don’t always have a desire to learn. Sometimes my passion to share my faith gets in the way of listening to others share about what matters most to them and why. But if I don’t listen to them, why would they want to listen to me? Listening speaks the language of love.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.