Since moving to a large city a fair amount of my life has had to change. I have a 60lb Goldendoodle who keeps me on my toes each day. We used to play at dog parks and have long sessions of fetch in the green spaces near our various homes. However, moving to the city has limited our options for exercise time as fences are in short supply and my pup is still fascinated with the entire squirrel population so fetch without a fence is simply not happening. Thus, we have turned to long walks up and down city streets that are filled with old homes.
Just recently we were out walking when we approached a man with his two large dogs. He was on his phone, sort of plodding along as he shuffled from the sidewalk into his driveway. As we approached, his dogs began to bark at us loudly. I paused, hesitant to keep going, when all of a sudden one of his dogs got out of their harness. With all the hair up on their back, teeth barred, and growling, this dog came up to my pup and very obviously staked their claim to the sidewalk in front of their home. The dog started to aggressively engage with my dog and the man attempted to call his dog back to himself. My heart was racing and I worried for our safety.
Eventually, the man got his dog back and tossed a, “Sorry ‘bout that,” in my direction. I mumbled, “It’s okay,” and we returned to our fast paced walk. It took a few minutes for my heart to slow down and I noticed that my dog was acting skittish toward any approaching sounds from bikes, runners, or other pedestrians.
There are times when we enter into theological dialogue thinking that we will be having a nice walk to exercise. We expect to talk along familiar streets of thinking. We anticipate that our heart rate might even increase because we feel passionately about the content. But what happens when our theological conversations become more like theological sparring? Is this what we really want?
Encountering those who are different from us can often result in what I experienced on my walk: surprise, distress, anger, and defensiveness. It is not uncommon for me to be reading through my newsfeed on Facebook or news articles and think to myself, “People really believe that?” My surprise then gives way to distress as I begin to question the character or intentions of people I know. Sometimes I even get angry as I think about how wrong they are, wondering how they could not see the damage that results from their particular viewpoint, or the logical inconsistencies that they have dismissed. I then find myself defensive of my own viewpoint, convinced by this point that this person or opinion is obviously wrong and they need to be set straight. As I encounter “the other,” the hair on my back goes up, my teeth are barred, and I’m growling.
There is no shortage of things to argue about these days. And of those topics, I would say a good number ought to be fought for— they deserve passionate pleas and strong convictions, as the safety and livelihood of real people are involved.
However, I believe the time is ripe for a new way to disagree. Inherent to the type of disagreement that I described above is a posture of fear. The dog that we encountered is probably not a mean or aggressive dog. He was a scared dog. And scared dogs and scared people can act scary. Minimizing our fear of other people and different perspectives is a long and challenging road. It requires us to breathe deeply, aware that we care about what is being discussed. In the case of theology, we are usually talking about God and what God is like— no small potatoes kind of thing. When we are mindful of our emotional investment, we can then begin to interrogate our own selves: What do I believe? Why do I believe it? How has this view been shaped and formed in me? What about this opposing view makes me upset/scared/angry? What is at stake for me in this issue?
When we interrogate ourselves, we are then able to come to our conversation partners as neighbors, not enemies. The interrogation has already happened, and we can begin listening instead of fighting, asking questions such as these: What do you believe? Why do you believe that? How has this view been shaped and formed in you? What is at stake for you in this issue? What about my view makes you upset/scared/angry?
Several years ago my husband and I were preparing to get married and we were offered this advice in fighting well. I was familiar with a type of arguing that yelled, slammed doors, and sought to hurt the other. The advice I was given instead encouraged us to see each other as being on the same side, and the object of our disagreement as a third thing, a challenge for us to work out together. While this was excellent advice, it first requires us to fight it out within ourselves so we am aware of what it is that we each think. Once we have become aware, we then are able to discuss and strategize our solutions.
Disagreeing over theology is nothing new. Church history offers us many examples for what can result from disagreement: schism, crusades, war, separation. Isn’t it time for a new way to approach difference? Isn’t it time to discover a new posture towards the other?
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes how the face of the other summons us and that it is only in being in relationship with the other that we become who we really are (1). Thus, when we remain in a stance of sparring, we are all losing out for we need one another to become as God intends.
Perhaps in adopting a posture of listening instead of fear, a posture that sees neighbors instead of enemies, we will open ourselves to the spiritual and ethical summoning that Levinas is talking about. Perhaps when we listen instead separate we are allowing God to prepare a table for us with our enemies. Perhaps it is in the listening, both to ourselves and to one another, that we will find more of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. The world is filled with anger and discord, and we can instead sow seeds of peace and reconciliation. Perhaps it’s time for the hair on our backs to go down, for our lips to cover our teeth, and for our growls to dissipate— for the other to become our neighbor and friend. What are we afraid of?
About the author. Leanne is a regular person in all accounts. Her imagination has been captured by God’s activity in the world and she spends most of her time wondering and trying to make sense out of life. She is Midwest grown, but currently calls Toronto, Ontario home while she works toward her PhD in preaching. When she’s not studying Leanne can be found hanging out with her spouse and their dog exploring their new city.
1. Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics as first philosophy,” in The Levinas Reader, 83-84.