Creating Space

One morning last week while I was exercising, I decided to listen to a podcast program of On Being, the weekly radio program on spirituality hosted by Krista Tippet. The one that popped up at the top of the list had the word “abortion” in the title. I was in no mood to listen to anything that had anything to do with that endless debate. I have heard enough shouting from both sides of the abortion issue to last for several lifetimes. So, I pressed the title of another program and waited for it to come on.

It came on, all right. But something went wrong (Ok, I did something wrong!) By the time I figured out that precisely the program I didn’t want to listen to was playing, I had already I gotten on the elliptical machine, worked through all the menu choices, and started my workout. I didn’t want to start all of that over, so with a big sigh, I just decided to listen to it. Am I glad I did. One of the best I’ve ever heard.

The program was part of Tippet’s Civil Conversations Project, a series of public discussions offering ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces. In this particular program, she invited two persons, one from each side of the abortion issue and they simply sat on stage and had conversation.  On the pro-life side was David P. Gushee, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. On the pro-choice side was Frances Kissling, a Roman Catholic religious and president of the Center for Health and Social Policy. She was President of Catholics for Choice from 1982 until 2007. I highly recommend listening to the program. You can access it at http://www.onbeing.org/program/pro-life-pro-choice-pro-dialogue/4863

It was fascinating to listen to the conversation unfold. Both participants had come to the place of realizing the futility of trying to change someone’s mind. So, they entered into this conversation and into other kinds of hard conversations having given up the need to be right. Sr. Kissling at one point talked about how she used to believe that certitude was a virtue. Now she believes that doubt is the virtue. She didn’t say it, but the implication is that the sense of absolute certitude is the vice, the sin, the evil. Here’s what really captured my imagination. Near the end of the conversation Tippet asked her, “If you have given up the need to change someone’s mind about an issue that you care so deeply about, then why do you enter into these hard conversations?” She said that she enters these hard conversations for the possibility of being changed herself.

So, to create the space for doubt is to create the space for learning and growth. To enter into a hard conversation with someone different that me is to create the space for learning and growth. To enter into a conversation from the place of absolute certitude is to be dead to the possibility of growing.

I happened to be listening to this program in the last few days of the partial government shutdown. I thought of so many of our politicians who have staked their claim and they are right.

I think that dogmatism and ideology are anathema to real conversation and the possibility of real growth.  I wish there was space for conversation and for the possibility of learning and growing!

As a culture, we have stacked the deck against real conversation and being open to growth.  We are taught to take a position and stand there come hell or high water. How many presidential candidates have had their hopes dashed because they changed their mind on some issue? We are taught that there are winners and losers, and you’d better not be a loser. We are taught to affiliate only with people with whom we agree.

I don’t think these are the values of the kingdom. I think the values of the kingdom invite us to listen, to relate, and to create the space for learning and growth. So, if that isn’t happening in the culture, where can it happen?

I’m hoping the church can be a place for that? Can we create space for conversation about meaningful things and talk about those things even when we disagree?

I’m challenging each of you to find someone and have that conversation. Find a friend, a neighbor, an acquaintance and an issue you disagree about. Invite them into a conversation. The invitation might go something like this: You know, Bob, we disagree about _______________. But I’d like to have a conversation about that. Here are the ground rules: I won’t try to change your mind and you won’t try to change mine. I just want to understand your point of view and how you got there and why you believe it so strongly. And I hope you will do the same for me.  See how it goes. I bet if all of us could practice such conversations, the world just might be a better place.

I’m going to try it myself. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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