A man listens intently as he waits his turn to speak at a at a village meeting in Kule, Maharashtra, India. (photo: Daniel Bachhuber/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There are some lines I love of the 20th-century German theologian and political martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They emerged in the clarity, and self-awareness, that arise on the edges of survival:
“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life … One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
He could be describing Christian voices in American media and politics of the last 30 years, of course. But those voices, however culpable for the damage they wrought, have not been alone in their shrillness. They’ve squeezed themselves into given forms of posturing in order to be heard. Even the most erudite secular American commentators condescend, prattle, and speak beside the point.
The truth is, we’ve forgotten critical aspects of human communication that need a place as we deliberate the open questions and bitter chasms the 21st century is presenting. Listening is chief among these — dwelling with questions rather than wielding competing answers like blunt instruments. We have no shared habits of pondering complexity, which in the first place would mean an acknowledgment of more than two sides to any issue. We don’t know how, in our public spaces, to seek to understand the point of view of another as a way to engage it more meaningfully. Listening is not about silence, or passivity. It is the only way to inform and deepen our answers while formulating better questions of ourselves and others.
Hard, evocative, human questions have been one great yield of a series of conversations I’ve conducted for the past six months — starting in the election season of 2010 and with a heightened sense of urgency after Tucson. The poet Elizabeth Alexander voices a question that is at once gentler and more exacting than who is right and who is wrong: “Are we not of interest to each other?” The pro-choice champion Frances Kissling says she has learned to ask, “What can I see that is good in the position of the other? And what troubles me in my own position?” The Evangelical educator Richard Mouw challenges himself and others to name “what it is about people like me that scares you so much. And what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised?” The naturalist Terry Tempest Williams wonders, “Where does voice come from? How do we keep it? How do we use it?” The civil rights veteran Vincent Harding challenges, “Is America possible?”
To be clear, I have no patience with questioning for questioning’s sake — as a dead end, feel good exercises in mere tolerance. I approach questioning and listening as tools for starting new conversations, for reframing and transcending dead-end debates. And the point of speaking and listening differently is to live differently — toward some kind of shared sense of reality if not, any time soon, a shared set of answers on the vast divisions before us now.
Listen, and join in our Civil Conversations Project.