The Importance of Listening
One of the things many Christians fail to do when having conversations with those outside of the Christian faith is listen. This is a terrible error for lots of reasons, three of which I’ll mention here. First, if we fail to listen, we may end up attacking an argument they aren’t making. I’ve seen Christians get all worked up to show how false a premise is, only to find out that no one believes that premise anymore – not Christians – not non-Christians – no one. That’s a waste of energy and intellectual capital; it’s like bombing an empty field. We ought to be able to understand another person’s position well enough to describe it and explain it to their satisfaction. We ought to, in other words, seek first to understand, and only then to be understood. Straw men make easy targets, but they make us look foolish – like Don Quixote jousting with windmills.
Second (and this is so similar to the first it almost shouldn’t qualify as a reason of its own), failing to listen can lead us to defend against objections to our faith that no one is actually making. This second reason is similar to the first, but the difference between these two reasons is the difference between offense and defense. When we rebut arguments they aren’t making, it muddies the waters and threatens to cut the lines of communication altogether. After all, very few of us like to talk to people who put words in our mouths – especially when those words are inaccurate. We should listen to objections and treat them as honest objections. That means being respectful, and that requires listening.
The third reason we must listen to people with whom we disagree is because we aren’t infallible. We can’t expect other people to listen to us with open minds if we haven’t demonstrated that same willingness – and that includes the willingness to entertain the notion that our thoughts and arguments may, in fact, be flawed.
Defending our position with bogus arguments is foolish. Our calling is to be humble and gentle – while we are also attempting to demolish falsehood wherever it may be found – even if that happens to be within our own belief system. That’s a tough balance to strike, but strike it we must. Otherwise, we run the risk of appearing to be the biggest fools of all and actually hindering the cause of Christ.
I’m not suggesting we jettison the historical, orthodox Christian faith found in the great creedal statements – those declarations about the godhead as three-in-one, about sinful humanity in need of a savior whose love comes into contact with people through his sheer gracious intent, about the unity of all those who are in Christ. All of that can and should stay. But let’s face it: most of us have added a few lines here and there. And some of that stuff needs to go.
Personally, my commitment is to truth. I believe that the Christian faith isn’t just better than all others; I believe it is true. I don’t think it’s true because I’m a Christian; I think I’m a Christian because I believe it to be true. (though faith is a complicated philosophical notion and cannot be explained away as easily as I have done so here – perhaps we can explore that phenomenon more later).
However, I also understand that I am finite and will never be able to grasp truth absolutely. It is always going to be certain that portions of my understanding are flawed and incomplete. But that doesn’t mean I am going to give up on truth. I am going to continue searching, continue asking and continue learning so that my understanding will grow.
The only way that can happen is if I am willing to listen – really listen – to others.
That might actually mean looking up from the chess pieces and engaging the chess player across from you. He may take your Knight or your Queen, heck, he might even put you in checkmate, but he’s way more important than the game. He’s a person after all.