Friday, July 2, 2010

The Discipline of Listening as Tool for Christian and Pagan Friends in Conflict

Oftentimes I have read Christian Friends' comments regarding the frustration of Meetings and online conversations that are, if not openly hostile to the Christ-centered Friend, at least not supportive of him/her. This is a serious concern and a hard thing for me to hear. It is especially hard when Christ-centered Friends suggest or even openly advocate that Friends be limited to Christians only. My perspective is often the opposite and so I want to argue and bluster when I read such things. To hear these things makes me feel unwelcome and defensive.

On the other hand, I have sympathy with the desire to worship only with Christians although it makes me sad. There are times when I want to only be around women (I went to an all women's college not because I disliked men but because I knew I'd grow better without their presence in the classroom). Sometimes I only want to be around my immediate family who knows me so deeply I do not have to fuss with defining and redefining terms. If I were a Christian Friend, wouldn't I want a place where I wouldn't have to be careful about speaking openly of my devotion to Christ? Wouldn't I weary of having to use terms that made others comfortable but missed the core and spirit of my meaning?

What I hear from some Christocentric Friends is that I am welcome in the greater community and I am a part of the family but that there are times when they wish to exclusively use a scripturally based, Christ-centered faith and practice and that having to include other faith traditions becomes a burden. Christian Friends should not have to always pretend they are OK with my Pagan language any more than I should have to pretend I am always OK with their Christian language.

But I still think we need to find a way to be Friends together in a way that not only transcends those differences but is honest about them. You don't transcend anything by ignoring it.

I am troubled when folks skim over differences and pretend that everything is fine. Respecting differences does NOT mean pretending they don't exist. It doesn't mean insisting on some kind of bland language that will cause no offense. "Great Spirit who is all things to all people or who may not exist at all...and that's cool because it's all cool..." There is no true peace possible when we will only hear those stories that make us feel good and that agree with our own experience. We must also have the strength to hear ugly things, discordant things, outrageous things.

There are many, many times when we listen faithfully and do NOT come to a place of agreement. We aren't clones and we aren't all right. If we could immediately find Truth without discipline and discernment there wouldn't be much point to any of this. This is work as well as blessing. The fact that I keep colliding against the hard edges of other people's truths keeps me from getting soft.

So I'm not suggesting that the point of listening deeply to others' stories is to develop an "it's all okay" attitude. Far from it. When I am listening to someone's spiritual statement, whether that person is New Age or Christian or Pagan or Buddhist, or a freethinker or whatever, I ask myself the following questions:

What led them to this statement? Do they make it in a disciplined and thoughtful way or are they feeling cornered and frightened into it? What are their experiences? Am I having trouble understanding because of language, ethnic, cultural, gender, differences?

Most importantly, I ask, "What are the fruits of their belief system?" Although I may find them "goofy" or "conformist" or ""jaded" if the fruits of their spiritual journey are full of the kind of love I still call "Christ-like" then I can be content with the differences in our personal approaches. If on the other hand, they talk a good game but I see that their spirituality is unethical, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy...well then I have another choice. I can labor with that person. Perhaps I have misunderstood. Perhaps they were feeling cornered or were in a state of awkward transition. Perhaps I was. Maybe I was the one being undisciplined, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy. (It happens.)

And sadly, maybe the answer is that I can't always share community with every soul I meet.

My very first Quaker experience was a conference led by a Friend. He called it "Spirituality and Silence." In attendance was an African immigrant Christian who was once a Muslim, two Buddhists, a Benedictine nun, an Eastern Orthodox priest, another Friend, a Christian, and me, a Goddess-woman from a strong liberal Protestant tradition. Actually, it was almost good enough to be a joke..."A priest, a nun, two Buddhists and a pagan walk into a conference..."

Before we arrived, we had each written an essay about the topic "Spirituality and Silence." We had no other guidelines. Throughout the conference, we were given readings on methodology and theory and asked to periodically read our essays out loud. We engaged in the "Quaker process" (a new one for me at the time) of waiting in silence after each person spoke.

We did not agree with one another. Not even close. But it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Silence bracketed hard words, grieving words, thrilling words. At first our desire was to overlap each other, to jump down each others' throats, to seek to gloss over differences or to dismiss one another. Then as we grew used to the practice of silence, we began to actually hear each other. And then we actually began to hear ourselves. The discipline of deep listening removed us from the lazy practice of just blurting out belief statements. We weren't so careless about our own messages. We were more honest as we became more interested in being authentic and allowing others space to be authentic than we were in "getting along." Our questions were more intelligent, our challenges more helpful, our entire process more disciplined.

More importantly, our process grew increasingly more loving. There was a greater integrity at work in that room of diverse believers as the goal of winning the argument fell away and was replaced by the desire to speak clearly and listen carefully.

So this is my message to all my dear Christian f/Friends. I do NOT want to change you. I'm so glad you are who you are. I do not need you to think as I do. I do not always have to understand you and I do not always have to be understood for our relationship to have value. Your faith in Christ brings strength and illumination into my life. I want to listen to you more carefully. I want to know you better so that I might glimpse the Divine shining through you. And I hope, very much, that you might also see it in me, for all my difference.


Mary Ellen said...

That "Spirituality & Silence" conference sounds amazing. What a lovely introduction to some of the best of Quaker (and, of course, other brands too) spirituality. Thank you so much for describing it in such loving detail.

Hystery said...

It was the most worthwhile conference or seminar I ever attended, although actually, that is not difficult since it was also the only worthwhile conference I have ever attended. I hate conferences!

The man who facilitated this seminar was also the head of my doctoral committee and the man responsible for my interest in research methodology. He was also the head of my father's doctoral committee!

Jeremy Mott said...

Hystery, That conference sounds
amazing to me. I have been at so
many Quaker gatherings where little
listening took place; people simply tried to convince others of their own pre-conceived "truth."
Now I am disabled so don't get to
these gatherings any more. Maybe that is just as well.
I have a suggestion about Quaker theology. I agree that at its
best it's not systematic at all; it's personal narrative---or it's
historical. Here is a brief example, from our very early days.
In 1649, when Quakerism was just
being born, the ruling Puritan
army in England captured King Charles I and put him on trial.
They intended to kill him (and they
did), but he was still their king.
So the 59 Puritan judges (later called the Regicides) refused to
take off their hats to him---as a
sign of their disrespect. Isn't
this obviously the origin of the
Quaker testimony against hat-honor?
Yet I have never seen this in writing. Luckily, none of the
Regicides was or became a Quaker;
if that had happened, our Peace
Testimony would have been called into question in 1660.
I believe that our Peace Testimony had a historical origin as well; most scholars agree with
me on this one. You can read what
I wrote in 1998 by googling "Jeremy Mott Protest Resistance." This was a conference paper; it may have convinced a few people, I don't know. Jeremy Mott

sta┼Ťa said...


Thank you.

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