Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Let’s Define ‘Progressive Theology’

For the past weeks I’ve been writing about specific features I’ve encountered in ‘progressive theology’—specifically, a certain view of love and relationship, and a concept of blaming tradition itself for certain abuses. In discussion with a few people, I’ve been pressed to provide a definition of what I mean when I talk about ‘progressive theology,’ and I’m going to try to do that today. Please note that while I disagree quite strongly with what I see in progressive theology, my goal today is to attempt to give it a charitable rendering. In other words, I hope that a progressive reader would find himself or herself unobjectionably described herein.

Car-Clash

Before anything else, let’s talk about the word ‘progressive.’ For most of my life, and in an ongoing way in political discourse today, the dividing line between ideologies is rendered most often in the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Liberal politics, like liberal theology, is theology ‘of the left,’ on the socialist and ethically progressive side of the scale, while conservative politics (and theology) is ‘of the right,’ and espouses some kind of capitalist, ethically traditional perspective on politics and theology. For a variety of reasons, I find these labels unhelpful when describing theology. First, because they are so trenchantly tied to political blocs, it seems all too easy to associate—and perhaps even identify—a theological position with a political one. In this, it is worth remembering that there is a long and upstanding tradition of Christian Democrats (e.g., Billy Graham), as well as a long a sordid tradition of Pagan Republicans (e.g., fill-in-the-blank). Some of these associations dispose us to errors in describing theological positions when we describe them as liberal or conservative. Second, many features of the ‘liberal’ agenda are deeply Christian—such as care for the poor, prioritization of human rights, and a disposition that aligns itself (at least ostensibly) with those members of society most likely to be abused by powerful systems of government. Whatever problems we might identify with ‘liberal’ theology, they aren’t these, and therefore I think it might be helpful to separate what is ‘liberal’ from what is ‘progressive.’

Billy-Graham-and-John-F-Kennedy

For similar reasons, I also find ‘conservative’ to be an unhelpful theological label. ‘Conservation’ can imply retreat and protectionism, and can sometimes reflect nothing more than a doubling down on the status quo such that ‘conservative’ can imply simply ‘opposed to change in any form.’ Another label to be avoided is ‘orthodox,’ if only because to use it implies an automatic value judgment for its opponents (i.e., they are unorthodox). Additionally, to claim a position is orthodox, in a formal theological sense, means that it falls within the boundaries of creedal and conciliar Christianity. The proper antonym for orthodox is heresy, and to be a heretic means to adopt a theological position that has been declared a heresy by the Church (e.g., Arianism, or Nestorianism, or the like). For these reasons, and many others, I prefer the label ‘traditional’ as an opposite to ‘progressive’ in describing theology. Moreover, ‘traditional’ theology (as we will see shortly, I hope) differs in each of the key aspects which define ‘progressive’ theology.

A final aside before we begin. Naturally, these are my observations about the features of progressive theological thinking. They are formed from my reading, my conversations with progressive thinkers, and especially from my quiet observation of a few highly progressive online communities. Nothing that I say, of course, amounts to the level of a kind of formal sociological study—these are simply the things I see when I observe this phenomenon.

I perceive five characteristics that define ‘progressive’ theology:

Theology cartoonkirk-anderson-ona-cartoon-440W#1) Progressive Theology operates with a certain conviction of the progress of theology. In some ways, this may seem obvious (since progress is embedded in the name), but it is worth making explicit. As a methodological lynchpin, progressive theologians view the theological task as a developing, progressing one. We know more now than we knew then, and that which we know now ought to have significant impact on how we formulate theology. For example, we know more about evolution than did the author(s) of the Genesis account, and that new knowledge ought to shape our reading and interpretation of the text. We know more about human rights and dignity, and that ought to shape our reading of texts which permit slavery in the Old Testament (and fail to condemn it in the New!). We know now that women and men are equals in every respect, and that equality ought to shape our praxis and belief regarding women in the church. We know more about human sexuality, and our new knowledge ought to force a readjustment of our teaching and attitudes towards persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. However you may feel about these individual issues, in each of them a similar methodological turn is at play—new knowledge forces a reinterpretation (sometimes radical) of what was previously thought. At their heart is a belief in a certain kind of progress. Put theologically, the Scriptures and councils of the Church spoke for their times but do not necessarily speak for our time. In this way, the Spirit continues to speak in fresh expressions (much like an ongoing fulfilment of the Acts 2/Joel passage) which continuously develop our theological understanding.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral#2) Progressive Theology prioritizes experience on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If you don’t know, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of viewing sources of authority in Christianity. It has four sides which together support Christian belief: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In its original formulation, scripture sits at the bottom of the quadrilateral as a foundation, while tradition, reason, and experience form secondary considerations in theological discourse (i.e., they each answer to scripture). For progressive theologians, however, experience is given a position of priority. Put simply, the lived religious experience of individuals has more value than an ancient text. If I encounter a homosexual individual who has a robust and visible relationship with the Lord, that lived experience ought not to be invalidated by a text or a tradition. Alternatively, in stories that are quite common, Christians with traditional views of human sexuality change their minds when one of their children comes out as gay. In fact, to validate the text over against the person is viewed as a form of dehumanization, and may even look (to the progressive theologian) a lot like Pharisaism (holier-than-thou adherence to a tradition that is far removed from and neglects the lived experience of the people). Within this preference for experience seems to be embedded a deep suspicion of religious authority, manifesting itself in distaste for traditional arguments from scripture, and for expressions of hierarchy or patriarchy. It may be from within this metric that progressives find themselves viewing traditionalists as oppressive, or even repressive.

#3) Progressive Theology prioritizes a certain interpretation of the love commandment in all theological/ethical thought. In line with a belief in progress and a prioritization of experience, progressive theologians/Christians emphasize the love commandments as the final word in Christian ethical debates. Since the Old Testament is full of commandments we don’t follow (boiling goats in mother’s milk, wearing mixed fabrics, etc.), and since the New Testament appeals to a new law of love which transcends those old commandments, all we need to think about is the new commandment. God is love, and love is all. This ought to manifest itself especially in love for one’s neighbour, particularly one’s downtrodden, poor, or oppressed neighbour. When a traditional Christian critiques the progressive Christian on scriptural grounds, this ethical prioritization activates, and the question of ‘which is more loving?’ is commonly utilized to navigate the dispute. For the result of the dispute, see the comments above on Pharisaism.

God is still speaking 2#4) Progressive Theology commonly prioritizes its progressive elements in witness. When progressive Christians witness, they commonly foreground those elements where they believe progress has been made—they preach inclusion, and LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality, and advocate for female clergy, are often pro-choice, and may describe themselves (and their theology) as “woke.” This makes sense—if you believe that the Spirit has moved in a new way in the present, and that this new way includes all of these elements, then you will want to celebrate these new elements in your public witness. Personal sin and salvation regularly plays a reduced role in progressive Christian witness.

#5) Progressive theology is impatient with ‘regressive’ theology, viewing it as a kind of bondage. This is of course a clear parallel to #4, but to the degree that you are convinced that a) you are an agent of progress, b) that the lived experience of individuals is of more value than dead tradition, c) that the love command is paramount, d) that this ought to be preached loudly and clearly, then it follows, e) that you will regard traditional theology as a kind of bondage. In fact, you may well view traditional theologians as modern day Pharisees, attempting to bind the common man to a law he cannot keep, and which God does not mean him to keep. Progressive Christians sometimes view themselves as liberators, and in line with that there is commonly an impatience, if not an outrage bordering on vilification, with which they regard traditional Christians.

tomorrowland-astronauts

Sometimes progress is just a guess.

There is, doubtless, much more to be said about progressive Christian belief than this, but perhaps this is a helpful start. I have refrained so far from criticizing any of these features, if only because my intention has been to maximize the charity of my presentation. In view of this, I will limit myself to the briefest of criticisms now. First, most importantly and essentially (and as I mentioned before), I am deeply suspicious of the narrative of ‘progress.’ In the past two thousand years there have been a host of ‘advances’ which were not advances at all, or at least were not advances that altered Christian belief. I struggle with a narrative that invites so much discontinuity not only between the Old and New Testaments, but between Christian belief and practice from the ancient world until today. ‘Progress’ very often is simply a representation of what is ‘popular,’ and as Inge said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Second, as a traditional Christian theologian and thinker, I am disposed from the start to distrust experience. That’s the reason we prioritize Scripture—it provides a foundation against which to measure the vicissitudes and changes in personal experience (which is fickle), as well as with tradition (which occasionally goes wrong), and reason (which can be deceived). Third, while there is great merit in focusing on the love commandment in Christian life and practice, it still means that we have to define what ‘love’ is, and to define what love is we’ve got to appeal to a source of authority. That source for traditional Christian thinkers is a complex formulation based on love as it is defined in the Bible (manifested especially in love for God as our sovereign Lord), and then worked out in theological history. Fourth, traditional theology prioritizes the saving event of Christ in its witness (whether through preaching or eucharist) and views the prioritization of any other issue—no matter how valuable in itself—as a serious impediment to the proper work of the Church. Fifth and finally, traditional theology sees itself as forming an allegiance with God against the world in its bondage, while progressive theology often appears to align itself with the world against the Church.

So, what do you think? If you identify as progressive, does this describe you? If you identify as traditional, does this help you to better understand your progressive friends? I’m curious to hear your response.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.