Hearing the Other Person

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When I was a teenager, I went to a different church with a different take on Christianity than what I believe now. Their particular perspective stayed with me for a long time, though, and in truth, I had a hard time letting go of it. Not because I thought it was right but because my introduction to Christianity came at such a pivotal time in my life and changed so much of who I was and would become. For years, I would struggle with feelings of guilt and depression created by a warped view of God, the church, and human existence.

One thing I remember as illustrating this, at least of the leadership, was this series of ideas: We are right; everyone who isn’t us is wrong (and going to hell); end of subject. Asking serious, penetrating questions was beyond frowned upon. Coming up with answers the establishment (meaning the pastor and a few like-minded elders) didn’t agree with or care to answer was a good way to find yourself ostracized from the community. Ask enough questions or answer enough the wrong way, you might well be asked to leave. Curiosity was fine if the conclusions ended up being their conclusions. 

Eventually, I found my way to college and later seminary, where asking the question and finding an answer that may or may not be the same as the powers that be was more acceptable. Not always liked, but acceptable. Trip Fuller wrote about a conversation he had with a Benedictine monk who told him, “If you live long enough, you will finally ask a scary enough question to become a real theologian.” I started asking myself scary questions, questions considered heresy by many if not most of the people I knew. I learned to read authors the professors disagreed with to find out why they disagreed. Sometimes, I agreed with the professor, sometimes the author. Sometimes, I sought out writers I thought I might disagree with and walked through the process alone. Sometimes, I found people to engage in person, conversations that sometimes started uncomfortably but usually ended with a talking partner, even if only for the day. What was the difference? The difference is hearing the other person, or more specifically, listening to people who disagree with you. For most of us, the first ‘wrong’ idea we hear sets off a defensive posture in us. We feel the need to protect ourselves by not allowing the ‘bad ideas’ to infect us. 

Hearing people is more than listening. It is listening with an open mind and a willingness to understand from the other person’s perspective. It doesn’t mean you try to change their mind, or they are trying to change your mind. It means you are choosing to engage with the other person in a true dialogue, an exchange of words and ideas. We have a tendency as society to lose this hearing because we reduce the people who believe them to the ideas they believe. We don’t see them as people anymore, we see them as their ideas or the labels that go with those ideas. Hearing other people humanizes them. Once you see the person beyond the ideas, once they are humanized, it is harder to dismiss them out of hand. They have thoughts, feelings, stories, same as you. They have taken a journey through life and faith as you have. They have had to work through their understanding of God and church and belief as you have. When you can see this, you can see the person, not just the ideas or perceived ideas.

Hopefully, we can become a people with ears to hear as Jesus says. In becoming hearing people, maybe we can make our families, neighborhoods, and communities better places.