Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Postmodernism 101 (according to moi)

I take my cues from postmodernism in the discussion of how to "hear" a viewpoint that contradicts your own. One thing I overlooked in this post that should be first is this:

Listen for a long time.
Spend time lurking around the viewpoint and resist the urge to comment. So that you can...

1. Get inside the point of view you find repugnant. Find out how that point of view makes sense to the individual holding it. That means setting aside your own presuppositions to adopt theirs temporarily. It means starting from the perspective that their view makes sense to them, is not irrational, is not merely a device to avoid reality or to justify evil or sin.

For instance, if I'm going to look at the pro-choice side of the abortion debate, I have to start by taking pro-choice assumptions: Women deserve the right to choose for themselves whether or not to carry a baby to term as a way to empower women who are at a disadvantage to men because they are the ones who carry babies (men don't), and the baby is not a person until born. These are the starting assumptions. In order to understand the arguments, I have to start there.

Do I have to agree with them? No. I only have to read their point of view with that filter on. Then I can discover how the idea of abortion functions for pro-choice people. I stop arguing and I discover that women have felt held hostage by their reproductive capacities for most centuries. I find out that fathers don't experience consequences for unintended pregnancies carried to term. I learn that the poor are more victimized by unwanted pregnancies than the middle class. I read statistics about women dying on abortion tables when it was illegal... and so on. In short, the presuppositions of the pro-choice side of the debate are the result of a view of history and women's place in it.

I can still not agree fundamentally with abortion (philosophically), but that doesn't prevent me from seeing how this other side, this other point of view coheres, aims to resolve problems my view is less interested in. In fact, I can go so far as to say that the problems the pro-choice view aims to address are important and deserve a deeper look. Simply arguing about whether the unborn are legally persons the way the born are doesn't even address the actual issues pro-choice advocates are concerned about.

Another example: Suicide bombers. To understand why this worldview functions successfully for Middle Eastern Muslim Extremists (note that that is our word for them, not theirs) means to enter and inhabit a world where westernism is seen as the enemy. This shouldn't even be a stretch for most conservative Christians seeing that we have our own culture war in America grounded in religious idealism.

What is a stretch is to understand how and why violence is perceived as a solution. There's no need to simply keep stating that they are crazy. Crazy people can't be changed. They need to be eliminated (hmmmm - sounds a bit like our foreign policy). Yet if we see the world through their eyes, we may come to the realization that what appears irrational from the outside is terrifyingly consistent and a satisfying means of addressing the crisis they perceive.

We might even see some parallels to our own worldview. There are plenty of leaders and pundits who argue that the only solution to the Middle Eastern crisis is the elimination of (fill in the blank) Muslims. We justify our violence as protecting our world, as being "civilized" because it is government endorsed. They justify theirs as defending their religion and culture against bullies.

To understand the worldview just means allowing yourself to get inside the sandals of the other long enough to see that they have successfully justified to themselves what they believe.

So that's step one.

2. Restating the other view using the vocabulary of advocates is a great place to start when attempting to understand a viewpoint you don't hold. This is how I've understood the benefits of reformed theology after listening to tapes, sermons, reading books, interacting online and sharing a mission field with reformed believers:
“The sovereignty of God leads to a place of yieldedness, gratitude and peace insofar as you let go of the burden to make all that is wrong with the world right. Salvation by election as a free gift feels like a mind-blowing, deeply satisfying, cleansing experience that goes beyond working for salvation. Reformed Christians see the glory of God manifested in their midst when people discover the gap that exists between themselves and the holiness of God, which moves them to awe, which leads them to humble worship. They then celebrate that holiness through creeds, through sacraments, through covenantal community, through the recitation of God’s greatness as contrasted with human frailty. This theological system makes sense of a chaotic world, puts God at the center and relieves human beings of the burden of their sinfulness.”
Even if I don't experience Calvinism this way, it doesn't prevent me from acknowledging that many, many people in fact do! And as Mariam said in a comment a few weeks ago, there is a zen-like detachment from the suffering of the world (because of trust in God) that leads to peace and acceptance which is deeply appealing to the human condition.

It is also possible to recognize that the idea of grace, for instance, is a revolutionary, universally powerful meme that has had profound consequences for good in the centuries since the reformation, without also believing in all five points of the TULIP. Restating has a way of revealing one's own agenda (if you can't do it without sneaking in sideways attacks, you haven't let go of your agenda yet). It also helps the other person to feel heard.

3. Agreeing to disagree is not satisfying. What feels better is to know that the other person has heard how what you value functions in your life and that you are honoring the truth as best as you currently understand it. The problem occurs when two different points of view must cooperate in a single context (a church, a marriage, a family, a business).

The scale of difference in point of view invariably leads to relational crisis. And it usually means changes of some kind. What is never helpful in any setting is pushing one set of presumptions/assumptions as normative for everyone when that is no longer the case for one or more. The more coercive the environment becomes, the harder it is to keep the relationships together.

We've managed to keep our marriage together when the big changes occurred, but I wasn't able to stay in our church. I've found a place in our homeschooling community, but I had to let my online community go. I've gotten closer to some of my old friends and lost some. It's always tough to face changes in relationship due to changes in beliefs. It's made me want to honor the centrality of others people's belief systems even when I don't agree with them... and I avoid intruding on contexts where my beliefs aren't welcome.

These are a few of the things that have worked for me.


Keren said...

Yes, I'm hearing you. I come from a large fundamentalist Christian family, and they don't know what to do with me. It helps in some ways that I'm living in the UK and they're in New Zealand, but in other ways creates a larger barrier to overcome.

The other thing that annoys me so much is the assumption that I'm just being wilful, rather than understanding that I have serious intellectual issues with the theology. I'm torn between not wanting to rock their faith, and wanting them to understand that I'm not questioning just to be rebellious. I know that it's rooted in fear, but I don't know how to deal with it without getting angry. Any tips??

Ampersand said...

You know, it's so simple, but it's true, once you suspend your own assumptions and accept the other's (not necessarily agreeing) it becomes easy to understand them, to get a glimpse of their reality and how they make meaning of it.

I love this post for it's simplicity and clarity.

r. michael said...

I like this statement "honor the centrality of others people's belief systems even when I don't agree with them..."

r. michael said...

I have been thinking about this and have a couple of comments...

1) I am glad you did not mention the "C" word...compromise. a good friend of mine says compromise is like a houseboat...it is not a good house and it is not a good boat. No one walks away satisfied...nuff said

2) this is a helpful model for understanding other's points of view but it is only one side of the equation...i.e. getting the same response from the other person about your particular point of view. I feel like I bend over backwards to understand others (folks at work and my family call me the "negotiator") but rarely get the same treatment in return....perhaps this is a sign of my own immaturity or my lack of ability to articulate my perspective...but I have to deal with the fact they the other person may not have any desire to understand another point of view...and that is that...suck it up.

julieunplugged said...

Keren and Michael, you both make really good points about two-way listening. Active listening, mirroring, hearing without having to fix the other side is not a culturally popular way to interact (note all the talk radio and TV shows that feature heated, one-sided arguments).

I remember discussing this dilemma with one of my professors who has put a lot of his marbles in the "dialog" basket. He told me that there are very few "candidates" of hope (that could bring about real, sustained understanding and mutuality). He sees dialog as that tiny shift in the atmosphere that could be just enough to prevent hurricanes, to change the course of a storm etc.

In that way, I like to think of listening as my contribution to defusing the bomb. I may not get it back (and how I want it!), but by not engaging in similar tactics, I'm at least limiting the damaging impact of not listening but not participating.

One of the difficulties, though, is that there are times you want to be heard (particularly when in relationships that are close). You want the freedom to say exactly what you think, why you think it and how it challenges what the others think. I've been accused of hypocrisy (not listening, once I express my own pov) in those moments.

The irony of course is that while I can hear a different point of view, I also have a point of view. Hearing does not mean agreeing or that I am now promising to "only say nice things" about the other.

I can say that I grasp why reformed faith satisfies adherents and just as truthfully state that the doctrines of election and predestination turn my stomach. That is not a judgment, nor is it hypocritical. Yet it is often painted as such by those who want agreement rather than an openness to learn how their perspective impacts others who don't hold it.

julieunplugged said...

One more comment.

When badgered by someone who is unwilling to allow you your pov (when you are told that you are really just wanting space to sin, or that you are willful, or that you are being deceived), I like to end the conversation. In some cases, I've had to end the relationships.

I don't need agreement, I don't even need the other person to respectfully hear me through listening or mirroring or dialog. What I need is to be believed. If I state that I have intellectual disagreements with the faith, I find it insulting to be told that I'm covering up a deeper motive that they understand better than I do.

Likewise, I don't want to psychoanalyze why someone else hasn't challenged the doctrines of the faith the way I have. I want to accept their own reporting of their reasons for faith.

Without that foundation, it's easier to limit conversations to sports, food and family.

mariam said...

I have been thinking about your post here and it has taken me a bit of time to respond. In the non-virtual world I could probably count the number of Calvinists I’ve known on one hand, or, at least known that I’ve known,; Canadians tend to be more private about their beliefs. However, I am looking at the same sort of thing happening in my own Anglican church where the conservatives are insisting that the liberals are in apostacy and need to be disciplined or asked to leave the Anglican Communion. In some ways the Anglican church is like a microcosm of Christendom with everything from Catholicism to Calvinism to universalism to be found under its roof. So this topic is very germane for me, as our church teeters, once again, on the brink of schism.

I always think of it as God’s great joke on liberals: that by own core beliefs we are forced to tolerate the intolerant, forgive the unforgiving, include those who exclude us, affirm that beliefs we disagree with are “true” for the person who holds them while they disdain our experience and what is “true” for us. How do we share the fellowship of Christ with those who do not count us as Christian. It seems unfair somehow, but perhaps it is how God keeps us from getting too complacent. It is as Christ says, easy to love those who love us – much more difficult to love the unloving, especially those in our midst, who claim allegiance to the same Christ.

Like you my first step is to try and understand where they are coming from. This goes beyond what Bible verses support their position (which is where “biblical” Christians often stop trying to understand) to what is it about their background and life experiences that has brought them to the position that they hold. If they grew up with their beliefs, that is easy enough to understand, but if they converted to that particular position what is it about those beliefs that fills a need? An even more humble question, if one believes that God shows people various paths so that they can find their way to the divine, why did God think that this path would bring this person to healing and to oneness with Christ? I truly believe I was led to the Church I ended up in, because I had a desperate need for God’s grace but was unable to get over my humanism and skepticism. God found a path for me. With humility, I must therefore consider that God opens a path for others that may be very different from mine.

Secondly, I try not to take anything personally (ala The Four Agreements). I realize that their story is true for them as mine is true for me and that God’s story is much bigger than both. God accepts them and more, importantly, I am confident that God accepts me, which takes away any need for me to prove that I am right. I don’t need to be right. THAT is the manifestation of God’s grace to me – I do not have to be right.

Thirdly, I try to remember that everyone has something to teach me and for that I should be grateful for each person that comes into my life. Sometimes what they seem to be teaching me is by way of a terrible warning of a path I don’t want to go down, but at other times I can see where their beliefs have a strength in an area in which I am weak and I think about how that weakness I have might be strengthened. For example, the “strength” of authority-based Christianity, whether that authority is coming from the Bible or the Pope, is that there is a kind of cohesiveness and certainty that an appeal to reason lacks. For that reason I have tried to strengthen my own theology by relying increasingly, but still holding lightly, on the Christian scriptures and tradition. Does this mean I believe that the Bible or Christian tradition is infallible? No. But it means I think a good deal about the things from those authorities which I cannot accept and why, before I jettison them into the “I could never agree with this” scrap heap. Does it mean that I think that the Christian faith is the only way to God? No. But if it is to be THE WAY, for me, then I need more than a superficial, laissez-faire understanding and acceptance of it. In this “Reformist” minds can help me by showing me both the best and worst of where holding tightly to the bible leads, whereas Catholics show me the best and worst of where relying on tradition leads.

In actual conversations or debates about my beliefs what I try to do is, as you say, rephrase what they have stated with back to them, never cynically but maybe generalizing it out a bit, trying to get beyond the specific verse they are quoting to what underlies for them the importance of that particular doctrine. (“so you believe that …”). I then ask questions, and sincerely, as someone who wants to learn from them, not as a way of manouvering them into looking stupid. I then try and find something to agree with them on. From there I might try a find a similarity in the core of their belief to something similar in my beliefs, or another faith system. I might, for example, tell a Calvinist, who has stated the importance of the unquestioning acceptance of the sovereignty of God, even when He seems cruel and capricious. how I find that similar to some aspects of Bhuddism. I find, almost inevitably, that if I avoid using sarcasm and trigger words, if I appear to be listening and trying to understand what they are saying, then they soften not necessarily their theology, but the way that they phrase it. They may even try to find some common ground with me. I have had people go from telling me I am on the road to hell and that my views are dangerous to telling me that they are convinced that God is working in my life (not the same as being “Saved”, I know☺ ) within a half-hour conversation. I use the old teacher trick of “catching them being good” and I praise any efforts they make to soften their tone and to listen to what the other person (me) is saying. I find that when you praise people for something you want them to do, even when they aren’t necessarily doing it, their inclination is to not disappoint you. So when I praise somebody for debating their point in a constructive and gentle way, their tone is more likely to become constructive and gentle.

Love, the sort of love that Christ calls us to, is a combination of acceptance and concern. Liberals focus on acceptance; conservatives on concern. We can say that we are concerned, of course, in a social justice sort of way but I think that concern for a person’s soul is not typically what motivates liberals. And that is because we believe that God (however we define that concerpt) is taking care of that – that we have an inclusive God who will not exclude anyone on the basis of what they believe, that God will lead people to the path that is right for them. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that there is only one right path and that it is the right belief that keeps us on that path to salvation. What a loving Conservative is doing in arguing with you about your wrong-headed beliefs is showing a Christike concern for your spiritual well-being. That is how they perceive it and, if we are to demonstrate understanding for them, that is how we should perceive it. That is not to say that there aren’t conservative “Christians” who don’t give a damn about your soul and just like to think that they are going to be able to lord it over everybody else when the judgment day comes, but there are also liberal Christians who use their liberalism as an excuse for not bothering to do the tough stuff of being a Christian.

Which brings me to my last point in this long post. I think that it is not necessarily a coincidence that scriptures are so vague and so open to a variety of interpretation. I think it is intended that way. I imagine that God knows that we are all different and need to find a way that will work for us. I also think that not only each person but each denomination in the body of Christ has a purpose. I think that outside of those that use their faith as an excuse to promote violence and hatred (the "terrible warning" contingent) that if we allow ourselves to be taught we can see that the Catholics connect us through history to the founders of our faith, that the sacrements and the liturgy of some faith can be incorporated as a means of connecting with God, that the "biblicism" of the reformers keeps us grounded in what is unique about our faith among faiths, and reminds us that we all need rules and the enforcement of rules to be able to live peaceably together and that the liberals remind us that those rules have to be tempered with love and mercy. The Body of Christ could be so much more than the some of its parts, if we listened more to our head and heart.

Drew said...

A reconfigured otherness is critical to many postmodern discourses. But I think what you present here is a very modernist method of criticism. In one way, phenomenologists would call it "bracketing". But we also know how influential phenomenology was on folks like Derrida (see Husserl).

What is not modern is the notion of resolution of difference. Difference is that which becomes something to embrace. And as you point out, this is not just "agreeing to disagree". But it is noting fundamentally irreconcilable differences on certain issues and learning to continue the discussion of them. This is not for the goal of reaching a consensus, but to call into question one's own perspective through the other. And this is how rationality transforms over time.

So understanding and living with difference along with self-critique is very modern. But embracing difference and the tensions that it creates as something revelatory is a break point with modernity.