Monday, October 5, 2015

Pride, Legalism, & Dialogue

What do you think the most common sin amongst all of our generations is? Surely there are things that are often seen as young people's problems and others that older generations seem more prone to, but what about everyone? 

I would posit that one particular problem that every generation in our churches face is pride. We are finite beings, but we often act as though our way of doing just about everything is the way for all. We exalt our finiteness. 

There has been an incredible amount of conversations within churches over the last few years concerning legalism. Just googling legalism brings up this kind of definition: "Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. [Within theology]: The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws."

The thing is, I don't think this is limited to a "conservative" issue. Even terms like that are becoming less appealing to me because I don't think they are helpful distinctions. I think that legalism is a people issue, because pride is a people issue. Let me illustrate.

My generation is known for being a rather liberal generation. Story goes that there was a female, liberal, feminist professor at a university in Oregon (can't remember which) who was speaking out on her personal take of a common conversation. What's interesting is that her take on the issue was not the common liberal, feminist perspective. Some students responded very negatively to her ideas, and acted as though they were emotionally traumatized by her words. The university even responded to the event by allowing students to skip her lectures and even created "safe rooms" that included ambient music, soft lighting, plush chairs, playdough, and even lava lamps that these students could retreat into if they didn't want to hear the "offensive" ideas of the professor. With all that was done for these more liberal students, you'd think that some incredibly conservative person had come to campus with his or her bag of different ideas, but once again, it was a liberal, feminist professor with whom the students agreed on probably 95% of every other major issue out there.

I am not saying at all that it is fine and dandy to offend people or that we shouldn't work towards being sensitive with our speech. Racism, sexism, and every other "ism" out there are surely things I would love for us to move away from. However, in our attempts to become better people who are more sensitive to others, are we reaching other extremes where we cannot even hear other people's ideas? 

Let me offer another example. Alot of people seem to really like Pope Francis. I myself find that he is quite an interesting voice and really enjoy alot of what he is doing. His positions on ecology, economy, and a number of other social issues have really been favorable amongst more progressive people. Then, news stories were released about him meeting with Kim Davis (the woman who refused to issue marriage licenses with her name on them after the Supreme Court's ruling) and giving her some form of approval. All of a sudden, people were commenting "He was so good until now," "I guess he really isn't that great after all," and many others of such a nature. Basically, as long as people agreed with everything he said, he was cool. Once he seems to have a slightly different opinion on something, he's a bigot. Now, new stories are emerging that seem to downplay any type of meeting with or approval of Kim Davis's actions at all, but still, the dramatic switch in support and opinion was incredible. 

Go back and read that definition of legalism once again, and tell me that it doesn't apply to these situations as well. Whether your law falls on the side of conservatism or liberalism, it doesn't matter, legalism is still alive and well. It's kind of like how fundamentalist Christians have tried to force religion off on others, even sometimes by force. In response, New Atheism has kind of been exactly the same, just for the opposite side. The extremes of many spectrums share many of the same ideological methods and tactics, and simply disagree on the content of what they are discussing. 

We live in a world full of monologuing. More than often when two people get up to give a debate, this is what you end up seeing. Rarely does anyone in a debate say - "You know what, that was a really good point, I'm going to have to think about that more."

This is why we must learn how to dialogue, and I have a few things that might help us get there. For even more, look into the work of Dr. Carol Hughes. 

The first step in creating dialogue is Mirroring, which is "the process of accurately reflecting back the content of a message from another person" - a paraphrase perhaps. Essentially, to have any hope at a meaningful conversation, you have to first understand exactly what the other is saying. To do this, you have to show that you understand it by mirroring back what is said. This allows the person to clarify anything that may be misunderstood and also keeps the listener accountable for not casting some sort of emotional interpretation onto what is said. On a more macro level, this would include being well informed as to the other side's position, preferably from the other side themselves.

The next step is Validation, which is "the message to a speaker that the information received and mirrored 'makes sense.' Validation is a temporary suspension or stepping outside your way of looking at things in order to allow the speaker's perspective to be shown as having value. To validate the other's message does not mean that you agree with his/her point of view or that it reflects the way you see things." All behavior makes sense in context. If a person behaves in a certain way, there is a reason for it, and it makes sense. That doesn't justify the behavior and it certainly does not mean there is never a better or at least more helpful way to think about things, but it does make sense. Validation says - "It must have really hurt you that I didn't show up on time for dinner when you worked so hard to prepare it; it makes sense that you are upset." Once again, this doesn't mean that you agree, as much as you can step outside your opinion to see why it makes sense to the other person or group.  

These two things lead us Empathy, which is "the process of reflecting or imagining the feelings that the speaker might be experiencing about the event or situation being discussed." Empathy is what makes the world a better place. Once again, I am not trying to say that nothing out there is offensive, because some things truly are. However, if we are operating out of a position of empathy, I am fairly certain that we will be able to disagree in ways that are respectful and loving. 

If the young, the old, and all the generations in between can create dialogue and arrive at a place of empathy together, I do believe that legalism on any side will not be an issue. I hope that we can strive for this. 

After all, I can truly think of no greater example of empathy than Jesus. It was He who said - "Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." It is easy for me to feel empathy for the homeless, LGBT, and other oppressed communities. What is harder is feeling empathy for those systemically infected with hate like Al Qaeda and The Westboro Baptists. I'm not sure any one of us, as finite beings, completely know what we are doing. I surely don't. But I know that Jesus looks down from the cross and says "forgive them" - and as long as we seek to be more like Jesus, I think we can figure the rest out just fine.