The Argument for Listening

I’ve heard from several people thoughtfully disagreeing with the premise of my FoxNews.com piece. They doubt that anything can be gained by talking with young earth creationists. As one person put it, “almost all [Young Earthers] at my S. Baptist church have a HS diploma at most and do little if any reading beyond devotionals. It is a big jump to assume they could even understand a scientific worldview or how science works. Those who begin by assuming the Bible was written to be literally interpreted by a 21st century person instead of for folks who lived totally different lives 2 to 3 millennia ago are hardly likely to listen to nor understand scholars or scientists. My survival mode as a believer is simply to avoid raising the subject and keep my scientific views to myself.”

Those who believe in a Young Earth often display a mirror image of this: they don’t see any point in dialog with people who don’t treat God’s Word as inspired and infallible. They believe the early chapters of Genesis, understood in a common-sense way, tell us what we need to know, and it’s not that hard to understand. Scientific “evidence,” they say, only takes us in circles, proving what’s already been assumed through naturalistic presuppositions.

Given such very different starting points, nobody can guarantee that any real communication can take place. Both positions are a counsel of despair, but sometimes despair is realism.

It’s a point of faith with me, however, that it’s worthwhile listening to people and trying to understand their point of view. I’ve done a lot of it as a journalist. As we are all human beings, there is often leakage between our air-tight compartments. Some common ground may be discovered.

It’s worth trying if only because it implies treating each other like fellow human beings. When people listen to each other, instead of lecturing each other, it’s amazing how often they find a measure of understanding.

I think of it like marriage counseling. No marriage counselor–my wife is one–can guarantee that a marriage can be saved. But for sure, if the two parties won’t listen to each other, if you can’t get them to try to understand each other’s point of view, it’s pretty hopeless.

We owe it to each other. Those of us who are followers of Jesus are obligated to it. We are told–no, commanded–to love our neighbor. I think that involves, among other things, really listening to him. And the stronger the feelings, the stronger the obligation to try to understand.

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5 Responses to “The Argument for Listening”

  1. Silas Says:

    I’m not sure you have properly characterized the argument against listening (at least my argument).
    Communication may be difficult, but the real problem with listening is that it gives credence to damaging ideas. The national voice that young earth creationists have in the US has negatively impacted scientific and technological advancement, and has stalled our reaction to climate change. Yes young earth creationists ought to be treated with the respect due to all human beings. But this respect shouldn’t oblige me to listen to damaging distortions of the truth.

    • timstafford Says:

      I take it that what you say applies to public forums. Giving “equal time” to someone who deserves no time distorts the public discussion. I’m not sure I disagree, though there’s also the possibility that when you try to stifle dissent by ruling it out of bounds, you actually increase its appeal.

      I should have clarified that public forums aren’t what I am thinking of. In fact, on the creation-evolution questions, public forums have proven to be quite useless, dominated by point-scoring. I’m thinking more of private dialogue, where “winning” isn’t at issue.

  2. Clark Johnson Says:

    Listening and having genuine conversation in which at least 2 people are finding some connecting points, is hard when one is stepping on another’s world view. No one likes having holes poked in their foundational beliefs and most will go to almost any defensive lengths to stop the conversation. But no one has all the bases covered. Everyone is wrong in some parts of what they believe, and get quite defensive when pushed. But, if you love someone (beyond mere conversation) and they begin to trust you (because you are in fact trustworthy) then these tender edges of the world they see may in fact flex and grow. Most times it’s only in crisis when such changes are possible, and then you better already have built the trust. If you can’t be trusted, with my sometimes hare-brained ideas, then why should I trust you to completely rebuild my world? How do you feel, when you find out you’re wrong, deeply wrong about something you’ve believed in?

  3. James Says:

    Listening is hard, as Clark says. When someone won’t admit the facts that I think are self-evident, it’s natural to assume that he or she must be stupid, dishonest, or malicious.

    In mathematics (where I admit that questions are usually less controversial), we have discovered that it is impossible for us to prove anything without first establishing a set of axioms — claims that are assumed to be true without proof.

    This is not only philosophical hair-splitting — it touches on everything we do. It even inspired some bad old jokes:

    Problem: “I am seven times as old as my daughter. A year from now, I will be only six times as old as she is. How old is each of us?”

    Teacher, at blackboard: “Let x be the present age of the daughter.”

    Student, at back of room: “Yeah, but suppose x ain’t her age?”

    So even the theorems of mathematics, the ultimate bastion of objectivity, are true, certain, justified — but conditional. [It has taken the math community a long time to recognize this, by the way.]

    The experience of mathematicians suggests that, no matter how consistent and rational our mental constructions of the world may be, we must all have some fundamental beliefs that we can’t justify, but allow to go unquestioned. I think it might be useful for us (individually and privately) to try to be more aware of these — and more humble about them, realizing that we can not provide logical reasons for anyone to share them.

  4. Tolerance, Diversity and the Power of Listening | Rescuing Jesus Says:

    […] It’s worth trying if only because it implies treating each other like fellow human beings. When people listen to each other, instead of lecturing each other, it’s amazing how often they find a measure of understanding. ~ Tim Stafford […]

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