Lost Art of Listening

How do you breathe? I recall someone talking about yoga and Indian meditation, and describing it in terms of learning how to breathe. Of course, most of us would say that we know how to breathe. It comes naturally. However, when I was in symphonic band, I was taught how to breathe properly for playing the saxophone. When I was in choir and taking voice lessons, again I was taught how to breathe. In swimming and in scuba diving, I was taught yet again how to breathe.

Perhaps it is true that we are not always that good at what comes “naturally.”

Some could argue that LISTENING comes naturally. I am not so sure. HEARING comes naturally… but listening involves investing in, and seeking to comprehend, others. People like to argue about what the “Fall of Man” entails. To me, it ultimately is a breakdown in relationship… a general loss of desire to invest ourselves in others, as well as the disinterest to truly understand someone outside of ourselves. Of course, an internal brokenness in ourselves that makes us fail to understand who we are in terms of our relationship with God, Others, and Nature is also true.  Ultimately, this all shows itself in a failure to truly listen.

Linda Stone describes a modern phenomenon “Continuous Partial Attention.” She notes that, “We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. “

There are a number of problems with this, including maintaining a state of constant mini-crisis…. maintaining a fear that “What is going on” is not enough. We must be constantly vigilant to find out “What ELSE is going on.” The biggest problem though is that listening suffers. To give someone partial attention means that we are not really listening. We are skimming.

Listening is a lost art. Pastoral Counseling today is often seen most in terms of listening, not advising or guiding. In fact, in an era where people do not fully listen, those who truly grasp the art of listening are sought out (and many counseling professionals get paid a considerable hourly amount… to listen). For some, the professional counselor and office have taken the place of the confessor and confessional.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that Christians are often among the biggest offenders when it comes to not listening.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. 

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.(In “Life Together,” 1954. Also look at THIS POST)

A friend of ours who is a crisis chaplain, says that one of the greatest gifts you can give another person is “your full undivided attention, seeking as best you can to understand what the other is going through.”

This is not simply about pastoral care or Christian fellowship. In missions, one must listen because effective missions is built off of an understanding of the other— their beliefs, their hopes, and fears, and so forth. It is also built on a mutual trust.

This is a challenge. People don’t become missionaries or pastors because they like to listen. Commonly it is because they like to talk, and enjoy being listened to. It takes a certain amount of empathy (a rare quality indeed) to recognize one’s own yearning to be listened to is a trait of nearly all others as well.money2

Christians are often encouraged not to listen to others. A poll of Americans showed that the religious group least aware of the beliefs of other religious groups is Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians don’t listen to others. But if one doesn’t listen to others, it is hardly surprising if others lose interest in listening as well. Several times in sermons I have heard the story of how the US Treasury, or Canadian Treasury, or various banks (or whoever) trains its people to recognize “real money” by only interacting with real money. They are never given counterfeits to inspect. The idea is that if one knows what is true, one can spot a fake. The story is completely false, and frankly does not make sense. But I believe their is a subtle message built into the story that Christians should not listen to others. They should bury themselves cognitively with people they agree with. But Christians need to leave the monastery and walk the roads talking to people. To reach them we must understand them. To understand them, we must listen.

“At the very heart of all forms of counseling” (and other forms of ministry as well) “lies the ability to listen. Listening has been described as being silent with another person in an active way, silently receiving what another human person has to say. Listening, unlike other forms of silence though, requires that the listener be open and active, not asleep or dead. The true listener is quiet and yet sensitive, open, receptive and alive to the one listened to.superstock_4186-4127-225x176

One of the major obstacles to listening is talking. This takes the form of the inability actually to stop speaking or else the “inner talking” that continually interrupts the flow of the speech of the other, especially where one disagrees, by inner responses or disagreement or counterargument.  (Emmanuel Lartey in “In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling.”)

So a few thoughts that help in the art of listening (NOT a complete list by any means)

  • Intentionally giving full attention to the one speaking (blocking out external distractions)
  • Seek to understand the other, bracketing judgment
  • Be (mostly) silent
  • Periodically clarify and reflect back to demonstrate and ensure understanding, as well as demonstrate interest and encourage more. This is to understand and relate, not challenge or attack.
  • Be emotionally strong and secure. To truly listen is to expose oneself emotionally, and be exposed to deeply personal and significant facets of another’s life.

Less Talking Please…

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together 1954. Pages 97-98.

Quoted here by someone who often forgets to listen.

Separatism, Pietism, and Apocalypticism

Bonhoeffer saw the chief temptation faced by Christians as the lure to withdraw out of the world into pious enclaves, to erect private spheres of religiosity or to view religion as one activity or dimension of existence in addition to the others.

The Gospel is not a call to be religious in this sense. Bonhoeffer asserted. Thus he rejected any suggestion that Christians should strive for a detached, disengaged piety that was viewed as elevating them above humankind. To be a Christian, he argued, does not entail cultivating asceticism.

Rather, to be a Christian means to participate in the life of the world, to serve God in the world, and not merely to some sterile religious sanctuary or in an isolated sheltered Christian enclave. The church is ‘to stand in the center of the village,’ he argued, and the Christian life is to be lived in the world. He found this call to be based on the nature of the Christian hope itself, which is not directed toward an escape from the present situation into a better world beyond the grave, but rather sends believers back to life on earth in a wholly new way. We must ‘drink the earthly cup to the lees,’ he declared, for only in so doing is the crucified and risen Lord with us.”

Quote of Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson in the book “20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age,” InterVarsity Press, 1992, pg. 153.

I was raised up in a a Separatist tradition. While there is much in my upbringing that I do embrace, I do believe that Separatism (the spiritual, and often physical, removal of the church from society as much as possible) has  tended to make churches increasingly irrelevant. I believe Pietism (I am using the term in this case for the attitude of judging “spirituality” or “godliness” by the intensity or duration of privatized spiritual disciplines) and Apocalypticism (I am using the term in this case as an intense focus on the future Kingdom of God so that the world we live in, and our role in it, is highly devalued) are related problems within the Reformed, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements. I am not attacking these movements. I am deeply rooted in two or three of these movements, but believe it is time for some self-reflection and change to be effective in our work in the world.

Critics Needed

No one likes critics… at least when the critic is leveling their critique at us. In theory, a critic can give positive or negative comments… be we tend to associate critics with negative comments.

Christians are often very thin-skinned about criticism in matters of faith. We often feel that criticism of Christians, Christianity, and faith, is the same as attacking God and the Gospel.  Even the most mild (and self-evident) criticism often leads to counterattacks.

Of course, Christians are not alone in that. From personal experience, I have come across SOME Mormons who will quickly level charges of “Mormon bashing” at almost any point of disagreement. Of course we have seen in the news outrageous responses to any comment or caricature that draws into question an idealized view of the founder of the Islamic religion. But Christians are to seek a higher standard, rather than aim for a “not as bad as” comparison with non-Christians.

The fact is, we need critics. We need people on the outside to point out issues that we are blind to. We need people on the inside to do the same.

From the outside, there have always been critics. They recognize how Christianity appears to outsiders. During Roman times, some charged Christianity with atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Why? Christians did not go to temples, involve themselves with religious festivals, would not bow to the emperor or any other idol. Christians also described themselves as eating and drinking the body and blood of their founder. Christians called each other brother and sister, and yet were married to each other. It is easy to see why outsiders would be greatly confused. This sort of outside criticism was very useful. It probably led to Christians being better at sharing their faith.

We do know it led to Christian apologists who wrote down explanations as to the Christian faith. People such as Aristides, Quadratus, and Justin Martyr, helped describe the Christian faith to be intelligible to outsiders. Attacks by Marcion led to a clearer understanding of what is (and is not) God’s revelation.

In recent years, international critics have leveled charges at Christianity for being immoral. Since Christians in the US like to call the United States a “Christian Nation” and the US is pretty much the leading producer of immoral (by almost any faith system) material to the world… it is not hard to see the confusion. Studies that show that insignificant differences in moral behavior between those who attend church and those who don’t add credence to this charge. It is useful to take these charges seriously.

Critics from the inside are also very useful. Yet they are often the most hated. Critics of the church, in the past, could be punished or even killed. On the other hand, critics could be great reformers. The monastic renewals came from insider critics of the church. The Protestant Reformation also came as the result of such insider critics. People such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri used literary humor hundreds of years ago to point out failings in the church.

In more recent years, polemicists from within have used writings to effect change. Soren Kierkegaard attacked the lack of fervor and faith of the Danish church in the 1800s, while Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the same with the Reich Church during the Nazi Regime in Germany.  Bonhoeffer was rejected by his church, while many even today seem to think of Kierkegaard today as an “atheist” because of the harshness of his criticism.

We need critics. We need critics in missions as well. While there have been many inspiring missions and missionaries throughout history, we need to recognize and grow from failures. Some of these  in mission history include:

-Too close of a relationship between State, church, and missions.

-Cross-or-Sword conversions… Later Gunboat missions.

-Non-contextual mission work.

-Racial bias in missions.

-Ignoring groups (Muslims are the classic group here)

-Confusion of Gospel/”Civilization”/Culture.

The list can go on and on. And the list can go on and on today. We need critics to analyze present mission work (both from internal out external perspectives). Some that could use such analysis might include:

-Focus on relief-based missions

-Focus on quick conversion over discipleship

-Spiritual mapping

-“Signs and Wonders” missions

-Business-model missions

-Dependence-models of missions

-Short-terms missions movement (same with tentmakers)

As I said… the list can go on and on.  Critics are definitely needed.

Christ and Government?

Richard Niebuhr is well-known for his 5 possible relationships between Christ and Culture (from the book “Christ and Culture” (1951)). While these may not be a complete set of choices, but they do provide a good list of options.

Christ against Culture

-Christ above Culture

-Christ transforming Culture

-Christ and Culture in Paradox

-Christ of Culture

Culture is important, but we also need to think hard about the role of Christ and Government. It was easy in the second century to see Christ against Government. It may have been easy in the fourth century to see Christ of Government. With the growth of the concept of “Christendom”, and state (Christian) religions, the blurring of Christ and Government increased.

The faith group I am in tends to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal of a “high wall of separation” between religion and government. Not seeking to disagree with my group, but there are obvious problems. First, religion and Christ are not the same thing. Even if one holds to this ideal, it does not answer the question of the government’s relationship with Christ. Second, in many cultures, faith is integrated with all aspects of life, including governance. Is it appropriate to tell a culture that a foundational aspect of their way of life is flawed?  Third, secularism is a religion (although an unorganized religion) in that it provides answers for the key questions of life and guidance as to how to evaluate experiences and make life decisions. Therefore, removing (a) religion from governance simply replaces it with another (for practical purposes).

Some would suggest a smaller wall of separation. This would be a religiously neutral governance. Religion is not anathema within government, but no religion is placed above another. This is almost impossible to practice consistently. Secularism tends to still become the “favored religion”. This may work better than some choices (or not), but it still does provide little answer to the question of the relationship between Christ and Government for Christians. With the big wall and the small wall, there still tends to be a compartmentalization of faith in the lives of Christians.

On the other hand, some Christians aggressively believe in a theocratic ideal. Christ rules a “Christian nation”. This has been promoted by many Christians. It certainly removes the issue of compartmentalization of faith. However, it seems to seek more of an Islamic ideal for the relationship between faith and governance than a Christian ideal. This ideal has problems when Christianity is the minority faith (as it is in Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist dominant countries). Even in countries such as the United States or Philippines where Christianity is dominant, there can be communities where other religions are dominant, such as Mormonism, Islam, or Secularism. It is easy to love the power of being the dominant religion in a community. But is one willing to accept the active or passive persecution associated with being a minority faith? Many Christians in the US want to see public prayer restored to schools, but are they willing to accept public prayers in schools where the prayers are directed to the local dominant deity (such as the Mormon Elohim or the Islamic Allah)?

Why is this important? In missions, people come from one government system into another government system. When Christ is brought over, so are attitudes about government (for good or for ill). If a missionary comes from a democratic system, should one assume that Christ loves democracy and wants to change all governments to democracy?  On the other hand, is Christ only interested in spiritual change? Does He lack concern about social injustices and corruption that are allowed (or even encouraged) by the local government. Should missionaries be active in governmental change, or just be quiet and happy as a “guest” of the host country?

How should churches relate to government. Can they love their country while opposing their nation? Should they risk losing registration or tax benefits by challenging the government?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his entire adult life mulling over this question. His denomination attached itself, for the most part, to the local governance of Nazi Germany. Shouldn’t their allegiance to Christ take preeminance over their allegiance to Hitler?  But if so, how should they have demonstrated that?  American churches often closely link faith and patriotism.  Are their problems with that? Here in the Philippines, there is a fairly low wall of separation between church and state. Many evangelicals here assume that by voting evangelical Christians into political office that government will improve. But would improvement be the result? And what is the real agenda… is it seeking to improve government or to take the power away from other religious groups for themselves?

This is a rambling post. But this is something we as Christians, and ambassadors to the world must think about. What is the relationship between Christ and Government, and how should that affect what we do as individuals and as people of God?