I once worked in a bookshop in a university area, and as a young Christian I learned a lot about respect, mutual tolerance and intellectual difference. The workforce was composed of people from right across the Belfast community, as well as those from outside of Northern Ireland altogether. Every conceivable view on intellectual and moral issues was represented, either among the staff or in our regular customer base. The people I worked with knew I was a Christian, they respected me for it, but they would also question me on it – the same interaction was possible for me with a Palestinian Muslim woman who was a colleague. Then, there were the books, ranging from Bukowski to Bunyan, from Gower to Ginsberg, diversity and controversy rubbing shoulders and spines. The humanities department where I was studying likewise embodied the spice of academic and personal variety in a way which broadened my mind and deepened my faith. Perhaps it is the passage of the twenty years since all of this became past tense, but those now feel like golden days – an atmosphere which is to be greatly preferred to the conflict and pup-like pursuit of dominance which our culture now hosts. We have stopped listening, we are overreacting, and we are no longer learning from people who don’t share our biases, and we are much the poorer for it.
We have, of course, been building our information silos for centuries before social media became ubiquitous. We have been beating out the bounds of our intellectual lives against the bogeymen and bogeywomen who would bedevil the simplicity and harmony of our views since the invention of moveable type, perhaps before. We have eschewed the vulnerability of the forum in favour of the invincibility of the fortress, where few things can penetrate our particular view of things. The ensuing loss has been enormous. The difference that can be observed in our hyper connected world is that this attitude is now perceived to be a virtue to be embraced, rather than a vice to be resisted.
As an evangelical it would be easy for me to point the finger at how my beliefs mean that others won’t listen to my voice, but that would achieve very little – other than pinging a signal into my own echo chamber. More difficult, is to recognise where I have stopped listening, where I have allowed the beliefs or decisions of those with whom I engage to deafen me to the important things they have to say, and the vital things I have to learn from them. The advent of Google and Facebook means that when I now encounter a new voice in literature or music, or in theology, I can run an enhanced background check on what their views are on a whole range of social and moral issues before I listen. I can vet people according to their profile blurb or their book recommendations, or the causes they advocate for, and then I can mute them, I can remove their channel from earshot, and this is dangerous.
The reason why this is dangerous is not merely that I stop being able to reach people who are different from me with the gospel, but they stop being able to reach me with their perspective and their feelings. I don’t believe that the message of Christ that I have come to trust in is so weak and ephemeral that it can’t withstand hearing others carefully, respectfully and openly. Face value is a formidable and at times frightening way to receive others and their views, but it works much better than employing an intellectual doorman who won’t credit others with having credible things to say unless they can show that their identification matches my own. It is interesting that I, along with many others, are blessed to engage with the literature and sermons of men like George Whitefield without writing them off for the reprehensible position that they adopted with regard to slavery. That seems like a safe thing to do because they’re dead, and the issue is resolved (legislatively if not socially), but it is no different than giving air time to the views of others who differ with me in other significant areas. I must not invalidate others merely because they diverge from my opinions in important ways, any more than I would wish to be written off by them because my end of the spectrum of diversity is the polar opposite of their own.
So I need to relearn the gentle art of gracious listening, of true openness which is not threatened by the other side, but listens to it, thinks it through, and deepens my own understanding. Perhaps those reading this could benefit from doing the same.