hoever has ears, let them hear.” – Jesus (Mark 4:9 and elsewhere).
Like most of us, I have practiced selective hearing. Whether it involves arguments or tasks that I am simply not inclined to do at the moment, I have used a filter that only lets in those things I want to hear.
While this filtering can provide temporary comfort and relief from responsibility, this ultimately results in isolation and ignorance. Failure to truly engage and hear another person isolates me from him or her in other ways, even if we are in the same room. Furthermore, the more isolated I become in my own thinking, the more ignorant I become regarding the changing needs of others, including their perspective on key issues.
God created human beings for community, and throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as one who seeks ongoing conversation: God wants to be heard. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is called “The Word” (John 1:1). God is speaking in a variety of ways throughout Scripture, most clearly through His Son (Hebrews 1:1), but that is not the only way God speaks. God, by the Holy Spirit, speaks through His people, through nature, and even through circumstances. While He has spoken most clearly through Scripture and through Jesus Christ, God can use both those who are like us and those who are not like us to teach us something.
My first academic encounter with this reality came through a professor I had in my first year of college who disagreed with my perspective on nearly everything! Throughout the semester, I found myself moving from a defensive posture to a posture of truly trying to hear his perspective and to expand the way I think about my faith.
While I never saw completely eye to eye with this professor, I did benefit from really listening to his perspective, and for years he became the one professor with whom I interacted consistently long after college. We continued to disagree on some issues, but we learned to truly listen to one another and grow in appreciation and respect.
Later, in seminary, I read the work of controversial theologians including James H. Cone, the modern founder of Black Liberation Theology. Cone’s bold and often controversial style and message originally put me in a defensive mode and even offended me many times! I once threw a James Cone book across the room of my office in frustration. However, when I picked the book back up and tried my best to interact with his work, I developed a greater appreciation for the struggles and interpretive approach Cone advocated for throughout his long and esteemed career.
I found out later that what I was doing was called “suspended disbelief,” or, a “willing suspension of disbelief.” This phrase is strongly identified with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and with theologian Paul Tillich. It involves temporarily suspending my own views and critiques long enough to thoughtfully and fully engage the ideas and views of others. This allows me to get closer to their perspectives than my initial defensiveness would have permitted me to.
After doing this, I can then fully re-engage my analytical and critical thinking, including a full embrace of any perspectives I bring to the table, in order to more adequately respond to a different perspective. Most every time I have practiced this, I find that I come away with more sensitivity, more accurate knowledge, and a broader perspective (even in times of disagreement) than I otherwise would have.
In this issue, we look through the lenses of diversity. We attempt to hear other voices that, in our normal interactions, we have the luxury of selectively filtering out. My prayer is that we suspend our disbelief long enough to truly hear and to learn. By doing so, we will get a better picture of the wonderfully diverse tapestry of grace called the Kingdom of God.