Listen before you cure. (Or: What the church could gain by welcoming skeptics.)

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The other night I was at a bar doing what I usually do when I have a pint in front of me…I was talking about God.

Being home can often return you towards certain habits. Being in familiar places can bring up someone you used to be. In the past these conversations were built upon leading people to see what I see. As they spoke my brain would gear up with numerous responses that would address whatever doubt they had or criticism they directed towards my belief. Rather than equal parties articulating their beliefs without pressures, it was often debates where my goal was to be the victor. And so I sit the other night talking to two friends over a pint about God. One of these friends was an admitted atheist. And we were talking about various social issues and those defensive responses kept bubbling up to my brain as they always have.

But then it occurred to me: How often can skeptics and atheists simply speak and be heard? How often are they able to just say what’s on their mind without being met with someone trying to cure or fix them?

I remember years ago, having a friend (on the edge of her faith) show up for the first time in a good while to a bible study for people her age. She felt a draw back towards the community of the church and in her courage attended a gathering with church people.
She decided early on she would be honest with what she was struggling with in her life. And the very first response was well what aren’t you doing? Here’s what you need to do. Here’s how to change these things.

The group tried to cure her before they even attempted to know or welcome her. So naturally she felt judged. She felt “other-ed” and inadequate.  She felt like she should probably never express those doubts or views again to these people.

The closer I come to understanding concepts like Trinity and God the more I’m learning this lesson: If the goal is relationship and love, It’s more important to first establish a safe space than a diagnosis. In my ministry we call this “earning the right to be heard.”

Bible Scholar Peter Enns put’s it this way: I want people to know that they are valued as people first and that the Christian faith (not to mention the long, honored, and diverse history of Judaism) has known that even (perhaps especially) the central pillars of faith wobble and that the community of faith is precisely where these things can and should be worked through.

People need to know that they can bring their thoughts and concerns openly to the church and wrestle with them, with you. That doubt is a welcome partner to faith and not something we have to weed out of people.

Speaking personally, nothing has detached me further from “Evangelical Christianity” than this. Over the last many years I have wrestled with a great deal of the Christianity I was raised to see the world with. When I would bring these points to other believers, rather than listen to the points I was trying to articulate, the believers listened with a sense to cure me or bring me back to the right path. Because of their responses and lack of actual listening (and lack of effort towards understanding) I was led to seek out other Christian circles where such questions were welcome.

Vulnerability is such a beautiful and authentic thing, so why do we often meet this beauty with a defense?

The truth of the defense is this: curing is, more often than not, about your ego and your security than anything else.

I think this is why fundamentalism can lead to such great violence and exclusion. We are the only ones with the truth and everyone else is wrong. That’s an ego issue that is born out of fear.

In the HBO documentary “Going Clear” a spotlight is brought on the religion of Scientology and the fact that members of that church are not allowed to read criticisms of their faith. In other words; Scientologist could not watch “Going Clear.” I remember thinking how tragic and repressive that is and then immediately thinking “Wow, a lot of Christians feel this way too.” The ego says certainty is the best thing. It makes the world safer and easier because we enjoy things feeling secure. We enjoy being the truth holders. We enjoy being right and everyone else wrong. Vulnerability and doubt attack this ego. And so many people suppress their doubts and oppress others’ doubts because of one easy word: fear. This fear is the ego protecting itself.

Take something like “biblical inerrancy” or the belief that the Bible is without error or contradiction. We hold this belief because to open up the Bible as anything other than this, is to draw into question not the Bible itself, but rather our certainty and our ability to know certain truth. In my conversations with “Evangelical Christians” about inerrancy my words so often were met with “Yeah, but that’s dangerous Devon. That opens up picking and choosing verses and determining your own truths.”  Basically the question becomes if there are errors in the Bible, how can we know truth? Which is an ego question based on a fear of not knowing with certainty.

My response has always been “Just because it’s dangerous, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” When we meet skepticism with certainty we make the decision that I have nothing to gain from this person and their ideas. And rather only they have much to gain from my truth. Certainty puffs up the ego. Certainty builds false walls that create security. In many ways fear leads us to make the bible “behave.” Rather than allow it to be authentic and messy. And we do the same in our conversations with doubt and skepticism.

The Proverb reads:”As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another.”

By meeting an individual with our ears, we often are meeting them with our hearts. By asking what can I learn from this person, I have diminished my ego in the conversation.

It’s why I think we learn from a lecture, a sermon, a book, or a podcast more than a argument. We are forced to a place of submitting to the words and ideas of another. We are forced into a place where we must first gain something from the words before we can respond with our own. We are forced to listen before we can reply.

If we can come to grips with our own vulnerability, and our own doubts, we open ourselves to be an inviting people. We make it possible for one man to sharpen another. When the body of Christ becomes a place where such skepticism can be heard and welcomed before cured or fixed, the church might actually reach the next generation.

But also, by making their voice and words become my priority, I was able to earn the right speak freely of my own beliefs. Because I valued the person first.  I welcomed them into the divine presence. By doing so, and not simply trying to fix an atheist, or person of another faith, I am able to hear and learn the legitimacy of their concerns. And perhaps, we each will draw each other towards a more authentic center of being. Perhaps the skeptic can help the church by exposing our idols. (Like the limiting idol of certainty.) And thus move us closer to the divine presence that centers all things. Mutual listening creates mutual vulnerability. Could there be a holier ground than this? A greater soil to grow a loving relationship?

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