I. On Listening
Listening is hard work. Listening requires vulnerability. Listening requires dialectic thinking. Listening requires an openness to the idea that your views are not necessarily The One Truth. Listening requires a parenthetical acknowledgment that maybe, just maybe, you're wrong (or at least, maybe someone else is as right as you are). Listening requires a willingness to venture beyond your own paradigms and assumptions and step in someone else's shoes for a moment.
I want to make it clear that listening is really difficult, especially if you already have your own ideas. Have you ever been in a conversation and just felt yourself waiting, impatiently, to say your next line? Have you ever caught yourself zoning out while someone was explaining their bad day? Have you ever caught yourself thinking, "my day has been so much worse; they don't even know?"
Listening means that when you do put on someone else's shoes, you're not just doing it so you can step back into yours and say "see? I was right. My shoes are more uncomfortable." Listening is about the pure experience of being in those shoes, about the empathy you develop as you allow yourself to feel as someone else feels, to think as someone else thinks, and to be as someone else is.
Listening is taking on other people's burdens, not so you can say "I told you so," but so you can say "ah, I think I understand now." Thus, to listen is to be like Christ.
And true, genuine dialogue requires listening. So, in a way, to dialogue is to be like Christ.
And to avoid dialogue is to be less like Christ.
II. Avoiding Dialogue
You may wonder what I mean when I suggest that sometimes we "avoid" dialogue.
Sometimes people sit by and watch conversations without contributing, because they don't yet know what they feel. And that's totally justified! I'm not trying to attack that behavior; it's okay to stay silent until you figure things out. What isn't okay is when people chime in but use their rhetoric only to shut others out or to dismiss views that don't conform with their own.
Just look at any ideologically provocative or controversial post on social media. Or look at political debates. Or look at religious rhetoric. In these examples, are people typically facilitating dialogue, or are they avoiding it?
Facilitating dialogue means you're willing to let two voices have equal share in a conversation. These two voices are allowed to respectfully disagree and they're allowed to try to work together anyway. They don't see each other as obstacles. They see each other as cooperative subjects in our grand collaborative effort to make the world a better place. When people facilitate dialogue, they recognize that we're all sort of on the same "team," in the [maybe oversimplified] sense that everyone wants to be happy and everyone wants things to be better. To facilitate dialogue is to encourage input, to celebrate differences, and to work together to find common ground and common goals.
On the other hand, avoiding dialogue means you're only willing to let one voice dominate the conversation. Other voices are just a distraction; other voices are the Devil trying to trick you. People avoiding dialogue see each other as stumbling blocks in their own grand conquest. When people avoid dialogue, they interpret any ideological or intellectual opposition as adversarial. To avoid dialogue is to discourage input (unless it's guaranteed to back up what you already believe), to fear differences, and to shut down strange voices, dismissing them as "confrontational" or "apostate."
(Ironically, some of the most confrontational and/or apostate things I've ever heard are from people who were supposedly doing battle against confrontation and apostasy.)
Maybe you see a lot of people facilitating dialogue. If so, that's wonderful! I hope I am in the minority when I say that what I most often see is the opposite. I constantly see people avoid dialogue because it's "too scary" or "too confusing" or (and no one says this last one out loud) "too unlike what I already believe."
From my perspective, this is a big problem and it needs to be rooted out. We need to teach people to listen to each other again. But how?
III. How can we encourage dialogue?
My friend Travis and I had an enlightening conversation this afternoon about this. We decided that the change needs to start in the family (but it shouldn't end there).
Parents need to teach their children how to disagree with each other respectfully and how to explore complicated and controversial issues with one another (and with the parents, too) non-didactically. Kids need to learn how to recognize bias and see other vantage points.
Beyond the home are schools and churches. They have a lot of responsibility.
Teachers need to help their students be aware of a variety of viewpoints, ideas, perspectives, and styles. Any music student should be required to find something interesting and positive about classical, jazz, country, punk rock, rap, etc (John Cage said "everything we do is music." Students need to wrestle with this idea!). And, likewise, anyone studying film should be required to find something interesting and positive about drama, horror, black & white, color, action, comedy, and weird four-hour experimental Russian sci-fi films.
Churches need to do likewise. Churches need to learn from each other. We need more genuine inter-faith dialogue. We need to seek out edification in all the truths taught by those around us. We need to be fascinated by each other's rituals and symbols. We need to read each other's books. We need to go to each other's sermons.
Most of you know that I'm Mormon and that I worry very earnestly and very often about Mormon culture. Joseph Smith once told an inquiring mind that Mormons ought to be the kind of people who "seek after anything [that is] virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy." He backed this up with action: he allowed other pastors to preach from his pulpit to his people. He was always asking questions and having dialogue with his own members as well as with people outside the faith.
Are we Mormons still like that? Or do we just read the accounts of Joseph sarcastically shutting people down in heated debates and think "that's awesome" while we go out to Bible-bash anyone who disagrees with us? Do we forget that between those heated debates he had those people over for dinner? Do we forget that after being tarred and feathered he preached a message of love to his enemies anyway?
Taking it back even further, to our New Testament roots: do we just read about Jesus flipping tables over in the Temple and think "that's awesome" as we scavenge around looking for opponents to disrupt? Do we forget about when He was on the cross begging for the Father to forgive the very people who were crucifying Him?
I'm not saying there's no room for righteous indignation or passion. I'm saying that our main goal needs to be patience and love; maybe we forget that because it's really hard to be patient and loving. Love is the "Higher Law" for a reason. It's the ultimate test. It's the commandment upon which all others depend. And we all fail at it, all the time. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. It means we should open our hearts and our ears to each other so we can see our neighbor as a spiritual sibling. Gordon Hinckley said that "as surely as there is fatherhood, there can and must be brotherhood." I believe that! We have a Father. So let us be brothers.
I don't have any conclusions. I'm exhausted. I just wish we could all listen to each other.