• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Listening to the Unlikely

Here is an incontrovertible truth: I enjoy expressing my opinion. Anyone who blogs joins me in that category, as does anyone who tweets or updates his or her Facebook page; or teaches, or preaches, or otherwise speaks in public; or writes journalism, or scholarly articles, or books; or broadcasts, webcasts, podcasts, and otherwise -casts….

Here is another incontrovertible truth: I sometimes learn things by writing or speaking. The act of consolidating my thoughts, compressing them into the space allowed by the medium I’m using, ordering them for intelligibility, and even presenting them with what I hope is a little élan often clarifies, sometimes expands, and even occasionally outright changes what I thought.

But here is the last of the axioms for today: I learn most of what I learn not by communicating my own thoughts, but by attending to someone else’s.

Nothing novel here, of course. But what challenges me today is Proverbs 18:2: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” And I thought immediately of the online world of discourse. Didn’t you?

How many times have you finished a provocative weblog post or column or article and sought out the Comments section only to be dismayed, even repulsed, by the horrible goings-on therein? The ratio of “pleasure in understanding” to “expressing personal opinion” is shockingly small. So few people apparently willing to consider an alternative. So many apparently quick on the draw to once again smite Evil in the name of Good.

Yet so much of what I have learned, I have learned not by warring with, but by listening to, people I initially thought to be contemptible, either morally or intellectually disqualified from any respectful attention:

Friedrich Nietzsche: violently anti-Christian

Simone de Beauvoir: worldly feminist

John Calvin: promoter of a God who enjoyed damning people

F. D. E. Schleiermacher: father of liberal (= heretical) theology

Augustine: very old Catholic

All nineteenth-century Bible critics: highfalutin’ enemies of Scripture

Pentecostals: hysterical, superficial, spiritual chauvinists

Karl Marx: reductionistic religion-hater

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: extreme idealist turned confusing worldling

Reinhold Niebuhr: chaplain to power

Mennonites: old-fashioned, irrelevant bumpkins

The entire discipline of sociology: elaborate proof of the obvious

Well, that uses up all the humility I have, just to list those few prejudices and stereotypes that kept me from learning—and for quite a while, in some cases.

But I did get over those barriers, began to listen, and learned a lot.

I wonder, then, whom I am tempted to write off today and thereby stop my ears to anything useful, let alone true, they might have to say.

The Tea Party?

Richard Dawkins?

Joel Osteen?

Fox News…or CNN?

Mark Driscoll…or Rob Bell?

Deepak Chopra?

Lena Dunham?

The Parti Québecois?

Marine Le Pen?

I should at least be asking why so many people find these people interesting and even inspiring. What is going on here, and what can I learn from that? What do they know that I ought to know? What are they saying that I should be saying?

It’s easier, and often more fun, to express my personal opinion about such obviously mistaken people. I might learn something in that process . . . but probably not as much as I will learn if I listen, hard, instead.

(Don’t worry, loyal readers: There’ll be more personal opinion coming your way soon…)

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