When I applied to grad school, it turned out that one of the classes I’d taken as part of my English minor didn’t count as an English credit at Liberty– it fit into their communications department instead; this led me to taking an online literature course from Regent University: American Women Writers. I decided to write one of the required papers on Louisa May Alcott and argue that Alcott wasn’t writing from a traditional Christian perspective– she was a Unitarian.
As I started doing research for the paper, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about Unitarianism, and I was having trouble wading through online resources or the public library. So, I turned to a forum I was a part of at the time– tarvalon.net (which is dedicated to Jordan’s Wheel of Time series). I knew one of the members there considered himself a Unitarian, and I asked if he’d be open to talking about it.
Looking back at that conversation makes me want to cringe.
While I was respectful and did my best to simply ask questions, my mental state at the time was completely inappropriate. At the outset I made the assumption that Unitarian Universalists couldn’t possibly be Christians and none of them consider themselves to be Christians– without even bothering to ask. I knew what traditional, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christianity looked like, and believed that anything that didn’t look or feel like what I’d been exposed to wasn’t Christian. From the beginning of our conversation I had already dismissed him, and the only purpose for talking to him was to pump him for information so that I could write a paper. I didn’t really care about what he believed, or why he believed it, and I never even really bothered trying to really understand him. Him, as a person.
That was wrong. So very, deeply wrong.
A couple Halloweens ago, when I was in graduate school, I ended up in a conversation with two of my colleagues about the nature of death– and the existence of ghosts. I was unaware of concepts like Monism and annihilationism in Christian theology, but when one of my colleagues who had earned my respect over the two years we’d been in classes together said that he believed in ghosts, it took me by surprise. I’d been so accustomed to the belief that only children or superstitious cultures believe in ghosts– hearing it from an extremely intelligent and orthodox, sacramental Christian bowled me over.
But, I listened this time. And while I didn’t exit that conversation persuaded that ghosts exist, I had taken the time to hear out his argument and the questions I asked were because I was confused, and not because I was trying to eviscerate his argument.
One of the things that I have learned to absolutely adore about the online community I’m a part of is the sheer diversity. I’m getting to know and truly understand all the different ways my online friends approach faith– or non-faith. I have huge respect for people like Vyckie Garrison, Sarah Jones, Adam Laats, and Jonny Scaramanga. When I read their blogs, or their twitter rants, or what they post on facebook, or I have the opportunity to have a conversation with them, I sit down, shut up, and listen.
And what I’ve learned about this form of listening is that any other kind is really pointless.
The only kind of “listening” I learned to do when I was growing up was paying attention to what they were saying so I could trip them up– to watch out for logical fallacies, for self-contradictions, for places where they were stretching, for times when what they said conflicted with my worldview. The only reason why I bothered ever talking to them was so that I could deconstruct their argument and prove them wrong.
I didn’t understand that when I was talking to someone who disagreed with me, that I was talking to a person. A human being that is worth getting to know and truly understand. I learned that when I was enduring their half of the conversation just so I could respond with a rebuttal that I was dehumanizing people. I didn’t care about them– I only cared about how they were wrong and I was right.
I bought a book on Sunday at a library book fair– The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. I don’t know anything about it, I’ve never heard of the author before, but none of that matters. I want to know. I want to understand.
In the words of one of my favorite Disney songs: if you walk in the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew that you never knew.