(Based on a paper I presented in May, titled “Ways of Believing,” at the regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature)
In part 1 of my series, I shared a story involving two of my former students, one an agnostic young woman, the other a young Islamic man from Pakistan, and how we experienced a rare and profound moment of transcending our differences to discover each other’s humanity.
That incident occurred in the fall of 2007. Since then, I keep coming back to something we lack but need. Understanding. We underestimate our need for understanding. Years ago I heard a report on a major reason why people choose to divorce: because they feel misunderstood.
I think the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, is onto something. It would serve the world well to pay attention. In his TED talk, “In defense of dialog,” Støre makes a strong case for engaging all kinds of religious, social, and political groups, including terrorists.
Støre has much to say concerning the “deficit in dealing with modern conflict.” As a way forward, he says, “My point is that you don’t have to be neutral to talk, and you don’t have to agree when you sit down with the other side, and you can always walk. But if you don’t talk, you cannot engage the other side, and the other side which you are going to engage is the one with whom you profoundly disagree.”
Støre supports his position with examples of the Red Cross and the Truth and Reconciliation efforts led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Despite the successes of individuals and organizations to reach peaceful solutions, a pessimistic outlook persists. Nonviolent initiatives are nothing short of unrealistic and utopian, we believe. Such pessimism blinds us not only to our need for understanding but also to the need to admit just how difficult it is to transcend personal convictions and stances—some so entrenched they seem worth the fight—for the sake of understanding another.
Something has helped me be less dogmatic about my Christian stance and more accepting of others regardless of the label they carry—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Muslim, LDS, Jewish, atheist, agnostic. I offer it for you to try.
In 2004 I started researching for my dissertation, bridging two distinct disciplines of biblical interpretation and speech act theory. Little did I know my research would lead me to connect with people from various faith traditions. I treated my dissertation as one more hoop to jump through to get another degree. It was the final requirement to complete, get bound and put on a shelf, and off my back so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. It’s now eight years later.
Since the publication of my dissertation, The Reshaped Mind (Brill, 2011), I’ve had a handful of engaging conversations on my book. For the most part, however, it doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. After all, who wants to hear about illocutionary acts, or the distinction between assertives and assertive declarations, or about mental states in the brain? Not many.
To my surprise, learning the technical aspects of John Searle’s philosophies of speech acts and mind, coupled with biblical interpretation of the blood-of-Christ motif in the New Testament, has broadened my appreciation for people who believe differently than I do. From my research two questions have emerged, questions that involve the human brain. I base my interviews of people regardless of religious affiliation on these questions:
Does this person’s language (their words and phrases) reveal anything to me about what they believe?
How has this person arrived at their beliefs?
These questions shift how I perceive people with different beliefs. Not as a threat, but as human beings I see them.