Ignore Your Friends and Listen to Your Enemies

Consider your teachers, preachers, authors, and public speakers, are they:

Men? White men? Old white men? Heterosexual old white men? Protestant heterosexual old white men? Protestant evangelical heterosexual old white men?

It might be time to expand our horizons.

I’m not saying that protestant evangelical heterosexual white men have nothing of value to contribute, but that they are only one story in a vast library. I only want to point out that women and people of all races, creeds, and orientations have important things to say because they have experienced life differently. It is important to recognize the uniqueness that everyone contributes to society.

More than anything else, I am preaching to myself here. I honestly thought that I was making a commendable effort to read and learn outside of my traditions. I thought I was taking in differing opinions and nuanced perspectives. I thought that I was being fair to those I disagreed with by actually reading the words they had written.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

To understand just how deep my bias was I decided to go through the books that I have read and recorded some statistics. I tallied how many books were written by men or white people and whether I disagreed with the premise of the book before I read it. What I found astounded me.

Do We Read Books Only to Experience Solidarity Within Our Own Tribe?

The variety of authors that I have read is abysmal. 97% of the books I’ve read were written by white people, 89% of them by men. Of these books, I read 54% of them because I knew that I agreed with the premise. Only 6% were read specifically to get a better understanding of a view that I disagreed with (the remainder were novels or nonfiction that I didn’t know enough about to have an opinion beforehand). It appears my efforts to diversify my bookshelf had failed.

My bookshelf is filled with books by authors like Roger Olson, Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd and Philip Yancey. Their words have enriched me and their perspectives have positively shaped my Christian walk. It isn’t my intention to discard the wisdom of these men simply because of their orientation, race or gender. In the same way, though, how much am I missing by not listening to homosexual, female or non-white voices? What am I missing by not listening to differing theological positions? I don’t want to discard the wisdom that can be found in diversity.

Sure, I have many books on my bookshelf by authors that I intend to read: Christopher Hitchens, Diana Butler Bass, Efrem Smith and RC Sproul, but, for some reason, they haven’t been read yet. It isn’t enough to intend to read them either, because that accomplishes nothing. I need to read what other people say and intentionally listen with an open, inquiring mind.

I urge you to look at your own bookshelf (or iTunes podcast subscriptions, or favorite blogs, or downloaded sermons, or…). It was eye-opening for me, even as I was counting the books I thought “wow, I am sure putting a lot into the ‘white’ and ‘male’ columns”! Not to mention the column I labeled ‘agree with’ seemed stacked compared to the ‘disagree with’ column. For someone who considered himself open to new ideas, this was a humbling, but necessary, experience.

Can we see how always learning from the same people might become a problem? I think we lose perspective on other views and disregard other experiences when we only listen to our own tradition (or culture or gender or…). To have a better view of humanity as a whole we need to better understand those in different tribes and we can only genuinely understand those tribes when we take the time to understand their stories.

In the past, fitting into a tribe was necessary for survival. As such, it was essential to espouse our own ideologies and undermine our neighbors. After all, our lives could very well depend on fitting in. While that is probably still true for many people around the world, we — as westerners — live in a time and place when that should be unnecessary. We find ourselves in a situation where it is easier than ever to get detailed information about other people’s beliefs without the usual propaganda. We can understand other views without resorting to straw men arguments based on ideologies taken to the extreme. Why aren’t we taking the time to fully appreciate and learn from other cultures and beliefs?

Take the time to understand everyone’s story. We can all learn from listening to anyone if we give them the opportunity. Please don’t listen to their stories as told by our culture leaders because that is bound to produce discrepancies. Listen to the stories as told by the people who have actually lived them. Get to know what people actually believe, and better yet, get to know why people believe it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we always have to agree with differing views. This isn’t a call to operate in some hyper postmodern, relativistic and syncretistic wasteland. In fact, listening to a variety of people will probably frustrate and could even anger you (as it probably should sometimes), but, at other times, it will also enlighten and convict you. It may point out your own bias and you may grow on your path to absolute truth.

By branching out and consuming media, art and literature from different people groups we can become more empathetic to their opinions. We may learn that people’s perspectives are driven by their personal experiences and that most times we don’t understand their perspectives because we haven’t lived their experiences. The contexts of people’s lives can be so vastly different that it is normal not to understand the differences. To put it simply, we do not understand the nuances of other lives because we have not lived them and we cannot fully understand them until we authentically engage.

This happened to me with one of the 6% of books I’ve read simply to get a better understanding of a theology I disagree with: ‘Become a Better You’ by Joel Osteen. There was a time that I was cynical about Osteen’s message and, ultimately, his motives. Having read one of his books though, I will admit that my attitude has changed. I still don’t agree with much of what he says but I have a greater appreciation for his motives. I have come to respect the love that I believe he feels for people. I would have never changed my mind unless I took the time to actually read what he has to say, instead of relying on his critics to inform me of his theology. I let him speak for himself.

I think honestly listening to dissenting opinions has that effect. In fact, all the books I have read by people I disagree with have had a positive effect on my opinion of their motives. As another example: I now have a greater respect for Calvinist’s commitment to God’s sovereignty even though I still fundamentally disagree with them on what that means exactly. I suspect that this is the case for most people. We should strive to better understand those we disagree with because it produces a more balanced perspective.

Do We Only Listen to People that Reaffirm Our Own Beliefs?

For many of us we listen to the same preachers every Sunday, the same radio evangelists while driving, and the same podcasts while exercising. We read the same books and magazines and socialize with the same types of people. I think it is our natural human tendency to seek things that affirm our established beliefs. To that end, we find people that look the same as us and espouse the same ideology. It’s a radically safe way to live because it means that our beliefs will never be challenged. It means that we don’t get to refine our own views and we can exclude those that may have important insight. This reminds me of a recent Canadian political event.

Much to the chagrin of critics everywhere, Canada’s Prime Minister appointed a gender balanced, racially diverse cabinet. Without even looking into whether the new cabinet ministers were qualified (hint: they are) armchair political scientists on the internet erupted into a chorus of “I don’t care about their gender and/or race as long as they are qualified”. On the surface, this seems like the right way of thinking but it exposes a major problem: no one says that statement when the cabinet is made up of only old white dudes because we assume that old white guys think and act the same way we do, therefore they are qualified by default. They have no need to ‘prove’ themselves in the same way that women or minority groups do. I’m following a rabbit hole here but the point I want to make is this: Sometimes, simply being in a minority group qualifies people because their unique perspective, crafted by their life experiences is something that we are missing in our own theology, culture, and lives.

I get it though. It’s hard to step out of our cultural comfort zones. It’s difficult to trust people that don’t look and act the same way as we do. In fact, our xenophobia might be a completely natural reaction. So, how can we authentically engage differing viewpoints when every fiber of our beings wants to tell someone they are wrong, exclude them from our society or discount their experiences?

I don’t really know the answer but my commitment is to branch out of my niche even more. I am going to interact with dissenting voices. I am not going to listen only to tear down their beliefs. I am going to try to listen with an open mind and empathize with their story. I won’t always agree but I will always consider the context. More often than not, I think I will find that my enemies aren’t really enemies at all.

What was the last differing opinion you engaged with and how did it change you?