Back in March, I started this blog and a face-to-face discussion group called Gray’s Theology. The purpose of these forums was simple: Get people together from different worldviews who don’t normally talk to each other. Talk about the big questions. Why? This is how I put it in my first post:
Sometimes we need a wakeup call that challenges our assumptions and/or the way we’re living our life. This is a forum to get that wakeup call from each other, to provide it for each other, and to try on new ideas and mature in old ones.
So these forums have been around for about six months (yesterday was the blog’s exact 6-month anniversary, in fact), and it’s been an interesting trip so far. I hope we’re just getting started. We’ve had some interesting conversations, in person and online. But as this experiment develops, we’ve also hit some bumps in the road.
We ought to expect to have difficulties, given that the point of this blog is to (a.) gather folks from multiple perspectives that don’t talk to each other very much, and to (b.) have those people challenge each other. What complicates things further is the idea that this conversation needs to happen with respect, and where everyone is free to talk (those are the two rules). It turns out that respect is difficult to define. In addition, a community where everyone is free to talk (not just formally allowed to talk, but actually feels free to speak up) is difficult to cultivate. These problems haven’t manifested themselves in recent conversations only, but have been vexing me from the beginning. To me, the latter problem is more vexing than the former—I regularly find that folks (myself included) dance around the questions I ask, rather than saying how they really feel about a particular issue. We’re afraid of looking stupid, afraid of bigoted people from other worldviews who hate our kind, afraid of any number of things. This second problem (people are scared about speaking up) is compounded by different standards for respect and different understandings of the nature of dialogue. We walk on each other, often without intending it.
Why should we care? Because of the way we learn
Some folks may ask, if you’re serious about waking people up to truth, why worry about people feeling safe to speak up, and why worry about respect—why not just let the smart people tell it like it is? And if the talkative people turn out to be not so smart, someone smarter will teach them. There are indeed plenty of places online where this attitude forms how dialogue proceeds. But I don’t think this model of dialogue is helpful in truly challenging people, and I don’t think it is a model that reflects the way people actually learn about their world. We learn about our world in community, and a community where we can learn from each other needs to be cultivated.
This weekend I’ve been reading some books by Parker Palmer, and the rest of this post is pretty heavily influenced by him, especially this book. Palmer says much of the sickness in our educational system today is influenced by a faulty model of learning, an “objectivist myth of knowing.” He expresses it in a diagram that looks like this (on p. 100 of the book linked above):
In this model, the object of knowledge is “out there”, divorced from the knower. “Experts” are “people trained to know these objects in their pristine form without allowing their own subjectivity to slop over into the purity of the objects themselves. This training transpires in a far off place called graduate school, whose purpose is so thoroughly to obliterate one’s sense of self that one becomes a secular priest, a safe bearer of the pure objects of knowledge.” (Ibid.) Amateurs are people who are full of bias and depend on the experts for pure knowledge of the pristine objects in question. Baffles exist between each stage, so that knowledge can flow down, but subjectivity is prevented from flowing back up. This, I think, is how we usually think about how we know what we know.
The problem with this model is that people don’t actually learn this way. Certainly, classrooms may work like this, some online discussion forums may work like this, but no one actually makes any advances in science, literature, theology, or any other discipline according to this model. The reality of inquiry is much messier.
First: We actually have to engage the thing we’re investigating (not sitting in a theater protected from it, objectively observing) to learn anything about it. Physicists can’t learn anything about the subatomic particles without altering them. Knower and known are always joined. You can’t know something without perceiving it, and perception involves engagement.
Second: Advances in any field happen because of human interaction, testing of hypotheses, conflict, challenges, and often, interpersonal disarray and disorder. Not only must the thing studied be engaged for the thing to reveal its secrets, but people must be engaged for truth to be communicated, evaluated, corrected, nuanced, and confirmed.
Instead of the objectivist myth of knowing, Palmer presents an image he describes as the community of truth.
In a community of truth, the subject is at the center. A subject is what is studied, what is known—whether principles of thought and language that become philosophy, or events or figures in history, or ancient texts, or the human psyche. As knowers, we gather around the subject to understand and to speak of what the subject actually is. We engage and interact with the subject. And in the process, we engage and interact with each other. As we interact, we challenge, confirm, encourage, fight, and teach each other about the thing we are engaged with.
The subject in the center keeps Palmer’s ideas from relativism. Rather than saying that what we know is meaningless and based entirely on our subjectivity, Palmer says that what we know is really out there. We know it as we engage it and engage each other. But we do not know it absolutely.
(Parenthetically, does agreeing with Palmer on this theory of knowing make me a pluralist? Palmer is a pluralist, but no, I’m not one. Is Palmer’s model the same thing as the blind men and the elephant? Not exactly. We should talk about this sometime.)
There’s much to be said about communities of truth, but this is really what I’d like to try to foster here. I’d like this to be a community where each person is respected as a knower, where each person is able to challenge another in knowing the thing we are examining. I’d like it to be a community that, each month, is encircled around one of the great things of human existence, and discussing it from our vantage points. As we circle around this great thing (typically for our purposes, a component of human emotional experience, or a question in philosophy, or a topic in theology), we need to be careful to listen to that thing and listen to each other.
Barriers to a community of truth
There are barriers to this kind of community. We knock against these regularly.
One barrier that is in front of me all the time is being centered on the wrong thing. Let’s say we want to understand something about the value of human beings, or my own life history, or something else. In that endeavor, if my (unstated) ultimate value is communal intimacy, I will not say or hear the things I need to say or hear. Instead, I’ll listen for and say what makes people happy and what keeps the peace. If my ultimate value is being right, or better, or smarter—again, I won’t say the things I need to say or hear what I need to hear. Instead, I’ll listen for opportunities to exploit the weaknesses in the folks I’m talking with, and I won’t hear what they actually have to say. I’ll say what pushes someone off balance, not what clarifies what we’re talking about.
These two false centers obscure the subjects we’re talking about. Respectively, they are based in fear and arrogance. (You could argue that arrogance is also based in fear.) Fear pulls us out of the circle, arrogance pushes us into the center, or flattens the community into a horizontal line and leaves us space to climb above the line of amateurs. In order for us to learn from each other, we need to guard ourselves against timidity and arrogance, and hang together.
What to do?
In the face of these obstacles, it’s tempting to clarify rules. Any rule that I come up with, however, could be used for or against building a community of truth. For example, if I say, “You have to stay on topic!” that could be good. Some of our conversations have been frustrated because a speaker is being challenged on 7 different fronts. This rhetorical move makes the challenger look smart, but it gives the speaker a near-impossible task—to give a nuanced, satisfactory answer on all these off-topic challenges. The focus is removed from the thing studied and the focus is on how the original speaker can beat off the opponent. At the same time, this rule would be bad. The best conversations between friends meander all over the place. A challenged presupposition—even an off topic presupposition—can yield great insights into the original thing studied. The rule does good, but it also kills.
Instead of rules, I want to try to go for principles that should guide our conversations. Palmer builds his own principles for education around “the grace of great things”. By “great things”, Palmer means the things we study, the things that are “out there” for us to engage and know, but because of their greatness, cannot be known fully. By “the grace of great things”, Palmer means that these things call and hold learning communities together. They evoke in us the love, curiosity, and desire that—when we are at our best—give learning communities their finest forms. Palmer describes these communities “at their best” in the following principles (pp. 107-108). While Palmer is talking about educational institutions, these principles can apply to our conversations as well.
We invite diversity into our community not because it is politically correct but because diverse viewpoints are demanded by the manifold mysteries of great things.
Inviting diversity doesn’t just mean gathering people who are less intelligent around me so I can teach them what I know. It means being willing to live with—indeed valuing—different presuppositions than I have as we talk about the same phenomenon. It means I will forgo attacking someone I disagree with on as many fronts as I can. Instead, I will engage one another on what they said about the topic at hand. Valuing diversity frees us to ask questions of people who are different from us, rather than immediately going on the attack.
We embrace ambiguity not because we are confused or indecisive but because we understand the inadequacy of our concepts to embrace the vastness of great things.
Embracing ambiguity means that it is ok to say you don’t have all the answers. It is being able to freely admit the limitations of your worldview while still holding your opinions in enough esteem to advance them.
We welcome creative conflict not because we are angry or hostile but because conflict is required to correct our biases and prejudices about the nature of great things.
Conflict here is distinguished from competition. We don’t fight to win, we struggle to know. And we’re free to question anything that is said, especially as questioning each other helps us grow in our ability to understand the thing we’re looking at.
We practice honesty not only because we owe it to one another but because to lie about what we have seen would be to betray the truth of great things.
Practicing honesty includes being truthful about what you see, what you believe, and as it serves the conversation, where we fail to be consistent between our emotions, beliefs, and behavior.
We experience humility not because we have fought and lost but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen—and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible.
Humility isn’t just making polite statements like, “But that’s just what I think”. It’s coming to the table with the anticipation that you will learn something new from someone you disagree with—even from someone you may always disagree with at the worldview level.
We become free men and women through education not because we have privileged information but because tyranny in any form can be overcome only by invoking the grace of great things.
This is the freedom I hope we cultivate—not just because we grow into a community that learns to talk to each other, but because we have become individuals open and awake to learn and grow.
Do you think we can do that?
Folks, I don’t know. I don’t even know entirely what a community like this looks like. I do think it’s worth striving for. And I hope you’ll join me in continuing the effort. I certainly appreciate your support so far. Based on your support and the hits on this site (which are not reflected in the number of folks who comment), I do think there’s a hunger out there to practice the ideals I’ve been talking about. But for it to happen, I need some help from you.
First, I need you to ask yourself some questions: Are you interested enough in learning about the world that you can learn about it from people who see it differently than you? Is your vision of the world large enough that, even if you are firmly planted within a worldview, you can listen intently to what others have to say? Will you seek to understand as well as be understood? I am not asking you to be a pluralist or a relativist (although this blog is for you, too, if you are one). I’m not a pluralist or relativist either. I am saying, though, that if you believe that your worldview is the only rational one and that outsiders are not adequately rational or open-minded, this really isn’t the place for you.
Second, if you’re still with me, I need your refining comments. So, the topic for this month’s Gray’s is, what do you think of all this? What don’t you understand? What do you like? What do you disagree with? What do you think works? What don’t you think will work? (No need to answer all those questions! Pick one or two and comment below.)
Finally, as we continue conversing, I need your help to facilitate respectful discussion. If someone is being disrespectful, I need you to speak up. When you speak up for respect and for our principles, you aren’t necessarily avoiding the subject at hand—you’re preserving the community where subjects may be discussed. When someone veers from the kind of community we’re trying to protect, we all need to protect this space. I don’t mean that misbehavior should start flamewars. But I do think our communal space will be violated if I am the only one who is allowed to judges whether someone is being respectful, or whether our principles are being upheld. Discussion moderation is something I’m happy to do, but it’s not something I can do myself, and so I welcome your participation. Can you help me do that? Indeed, when I’m being disrespectful, will you hold me accountable?
As the discussion continues, you’ll sharpen these thoughts. I’ll refine and distill these thoughts and put up a “Principles Page” for future newcomers.
Thanks for reading and for helping us build this community together.
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