The possibility of transcending personal beliefs, part 2


(Based on a paper I presented in May, titled “Ways of Believing,” at the regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature)

Jonas Gahr Støre
Jonas Gahr Støre

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.

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This is a fascinating topic. It’s interesting to hear how the words people use to express themselves convey where they believe themselves to fit in society, their political viewpoints, religious outlooks, etc. I think it’s difficult to practice, but seeing the world from another’s viewpoint can be an exhilarating (and scary) experience.

Ryan Downie

Lace –

This is a good post. To me, however, it often seems that faith shuts down dialogue before it ever begins. Dialogue, or at least meaningful dialogue, assumes that there should be some common ground, at the very least principles of reasoning. Faith, however, by its very nature often ignores these things and degenerates into a steadfast commitment to being correct. That is, no matter what an interlocutor says, the person of faith can merely respond, “I just have faith”. If one side is impervious to the points and reasoning of the other side and immutable in his/her position, what use is there in dialoguing? The other side will quickly realize that it is a dead end.


Great post. Too often we underestimate the power of communication. Or, we simply reduce this to superficial conversation. Even when we agree to disagree, if there is mutual respect and an attempt to understand the various interlocutors, much can be accomplished.

@Ryan: Religion by definition is about faith. It is difficult to talk about faith without the trite but very true statement, “I have faith.” This phrase can be anemic and trite, or it can be a powerful statement that is shaped by the power of life experiences and an individual’s quest. If winning an argument is the objective for sharing one’s faith, it can only result in frustration. However, if the intent is a genuine discussion of an experience, the conversation can be quite fruitful.

Ryan Downie

Prabu –

Thanks for the response. At the heart of dialoguing is the pursuit of understanding, but at the heart of understanding is truth. I don’t agree with faith as a means of being convinced despite counter evidence and reason. Faith is often used as a trump card, not necessarily for “winning an argument”, but for remaining immune to reason.

Lace Williams-Tinajero

Great comments by each of you. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post, the second one in a series. I’ll have more research to share in another post, particularly what happens in the human brain when we encounter others with different beliefs as well as the impact of critical thinking on a person’s faith.

In the meantime, let me offer this: I think it is very rare to find a person genuinely interested in what someone else believes and thinks and has to say. This is unfortunate. If you should ever be graced with such a gift, you’ll know it because you will feel like you’ve connected with another soul. Perhaps a lack of connection is what’s missing from most dialogue. What do you think? What has been your experience?


I agree, but it is difficult to achieve. It’s hard to understand what somebody else is saying because we don’t share the same experiences. I wonder if its going to be even more difficult in the digital age where more communication is separated by digital media such as this one?


My thinking on this topic has shifted greatly since I read “the Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist who studies the psychology of moral reasoning. His theory states that humans have moral emotional response systems that work as a sort of heuristic social shorthand designed by evolution to get us to conform to group norms, cooperate, and behave in generally pro-social ways. These emotional response systems are innate, but trainable by culture to allow the person to be flexible in their moral response across cultures.

This set of ideas has helped me to transcend my own personal values by recognizing that a lot of the anger that I have had about religious beliefs sprung from the fact that I have a value that I (an atheist) hold sacred. I hold sacred the value of intellectual honesty. This is a value that I don’t think many people of faith share. I don’t think that faith and intellectual honesty co-exist very well.

But what really helped me to calm down about this was the recognition that while I hold this value sacred, I cannot claim any special moral high-ground for doing so. There are plenty of other people whose sacred values I violate as a matter of course. This realization helped me to “walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes” as it were, and to realize that what I really have in common with people of faith was not my moral virtues but my moral failings. This was humbling for me, but it REALLY helped me to get my sense of humor back.

Anyway, that’s my journey on this topic. Thought I’d share.

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