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“I Didn’t Know He Was A Heretic”—On Love and Listening

Have you ever felt confused by someone’s inability, or refusal, to listen to the viewpoint of another?

One episode of this that plays in my mind was grad school days at Notre Dame: I was a teaching assistant for one of the theology professors. He assigned an essay by Leo Tolstoy to his class. It was one of Tolstoy’s classic scathing essays of social critique. When the prof opened the class up for discussion on the reading, the first student to make a comment said: “I did not know Tolstoy was a heretic.”

The student refused to engage. He wanted to dismiss Tolstoy altogether because of particular elements of Tolstoy’s theology. The professor looked stunned, almost personally insulted. He was one of the few truly big-brained people I have known, and knew how to do theological critique of Tolstoy’s heterodoxy certainly better than the student ever could, and had loads of published works to prove it.

But this professor steadfastly refused not to listen to someone’s argument. He believed it to be part of the Christian tradition itself, a sort of non-violent listening to the claims and words of another. As a matter of fact, he would tell me that year that he wanted me to go to a conference held by a Catholic priest on economic questions which he knew I would find distasteful. “You need to understand their arguments,” he said to me, “so you need to go.” I dutifully did so.

Through such experiences I learned how much I could learn from people with whom I disagree about really important matters.

More than learning a lot from the Catholic-priest-with-whom-I-disagreed, I ended up writing a chapter in my dissertation on Tolstoy. He was, as the student had noted, a heretic; that is, Tolstoy did reject certain basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But here was the deep irony: he made a convincing case that the Orthodox church had, in its supposed orthodoxy, and allying itself with the violent power of king and emperor, corrupted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a “heretic” not in service to some new-fangled fad; he ended up a heretic as a sort of effort to be conservative, a conservatism which sought to honor the radical teachings of Jesus regarding love of enemies and sharing of wealth.

In our days of supposed enlightenment, glutted with the world of knowledge at our fingertips, we are increasingly siloed in our pre-formed convictions. Just think, there’s probably some Google AI algorithm trying to sort out whether this blog post is “conservative” or “liberal,” “Republican” or “Democrat,” “Christian” or “Muslim,” or whatever.

We all want to be heard. It is central to the nature of our being, a sort of validation of our existence, for someone to pay attention to us. Lee Camp

Perhaps this plausible suspicion that algorithms of so-called artificial intelligence are determining what gets served up to us means at least two things are required of us in the realm of social disagreement:

One, we need to learn how to talk and think in a way that is not reducible to stereo-typical categories, not reducible to partisan commitments. I’m reminded here of Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” in which he counsels us to “be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.” A bit of mis-direction, a bit of non-malicious mischief may be the new necessary norm, simply as a way to get a hearing for any sort of good news which will transcend sectarian hostility.

Two, we may have to keep going a long way out of the way to hear what others are saying. A friend shared with me last year David Augsburger’s wisdom: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” We all want to be heard. It is central to the nature of our being, a sort of validation of our existence, for someone to pay attention to us.

And because of this, in some cases, it may be that the best way to defeat a really horrible idea in the mind of another is not to refuse to listen, or be the first to launch a pre-emptive attack to convince them otherwise, but first really to listen. And it may be that we also learn some things along the way we would not have known otherwise.

No guarantee of that, of course, but we may. And even if we learn nothing intellectually, we will undoubtedly grow in the virtue of patience.

It’s a liberating experience, to be free to listen to and learn from people with whom one disagrees about deeply important matters. Hospitality, in other words, is not merely a gift to the recipient but to the giver.

I’d challenge you to go out looking this week for someone with whom you could have a good argument. Then, once you find them, take the posture of listening and loving, and see what you can learn.

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