The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

April 3, 2009

A Response to Walker Morrow #2

Dear Walker,

Again your thoughts in the Comments Section (see March 22 “A Response to Walker Morrow” Comment 3) are so thorough and stimulating that I feel the need to respond with a separate post.

I am struck by how much we seem to agree about and how minor our differences really are. The difference comes mostly in our interpretation of certain events, actions and people. This is critically important. We need to be clear in any human discourse that interpretation is taking place. Two people look at the same event, or person, or set of circumstances and come to different, sometimes radically different, conclusions about what is happening or has happened.
Not infrequently I have met with one partner in a marriage dispute. I listen sympathetically to her description of her marriage and wonder how can she bear living with her husband. Some time later, I meet the husband and listen to his description of the same marriage and wonder, how tolerates living with his wife. They are both describing exactly the same situation and coming to radically different conclusions.

There are times when I listen to conversations and it seems to me that the people are discussing a particular familiar object that I recognize quite easily. One of the people in the conversation is convinced the object they are discussing is a china cup. The other person is speaking as if the object is a watermelon. And I am sure in my own mind that they are actually talking about a table. The participants in this conversation view the world so differently that they do not appear to have any common meeting ground. It is tempting to walk away from the entire enterprise of human discourse in utter despair.

If we are ever going to persevere in any human conversation, we must acknowledge that we all speak from a particular viewpoint. You see a cup; someone else sees a watermelon; I see a table. Every viewpoint is a view from a point. And the point from which I start colours everything else about the way in enter into conversation. We see things the way we are conditioned to see things. We see things from the point of view we have already adopted or have inherited from our family, church, culture, or peer group. There are no absolutely objective perceptions. We all have prejudices. We all have blind spots.

I often tell the people in the church I serve that I do not ever want to belong to an organization in which everyone agrees with me. I need to be challenged by being around people who have different perceptions of the world. Having to live with people who disagree with me helps keep me honest and deepens and matures my perception of reality. If I walk away from everyone who disagrees with me just because we disagree, I condemn myself to a life of immaturity and superficial perspectives on life.

The story is often told, but bears repeating of the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. The first man grasped the tail of the elephant and announced, “An elephant is like a strong thick rope.” The second man felt along the side of the elephant and proclaimed, “An elephant is like a strong solid wall.” The third man felt the leg of the elephant and said, “An elephant is like a tree.” They were all touching the same animal but each man had only a partial vision of the truth. None was completely wrong; none was completely right.

The really important part of this story is that the vision of the whole would have been more adequate, and closer to the truth, if each of man would have been willing to contribute his perception to the whole. Indeed an elephant is a bit like a thick strong rope, a strong solid wall, and a tree. When each person contributes his insight, the whole is better than the parts.

This of course brings me to your thoughts on individualism. There is no first or second when it comes to being an individual or being “part of the whole.” We are all absolutely responsible for our lives, for our perceptions and for the choices we make in response to the way we view the world around us. But at the same time, we are all absolutely connected. We are intertwined as part of the human community.

We can deny the reality of our connectedness; we can fight against it, or pretend it is not true. But the air I breathe is the same air you breathe; it has already circulated through your lungs. There is something of you in me and something of me in you. We are connected. We are interdependent. The human community is profoundly impoverished to the degree that I deny my bond with you.

In I Corinthians 12 Paul uses the image of a body to speak about our interconnections. He says, “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.’” (12:14,15) He goes on to say, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (12:21)

Paul is saying, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are joined. The only question is whether we are willing to acknowledge, manifest and work at growing in our awareness of and exercise of this human bond. Are we willing to embody this deep inner mystical connection between human beings in some tangible form? This is what church is for. As frail as it may be, church is an attempt to give physical expression to the hidden inner reality of our bond as human beings created in the image of God.

There is no doubt that we in the church frequently fail to give a compelling and attractive image of what it means to be one humanity joined in Christ. We often look fragmented, broken, conflicted, and confused. But the human condition is broken. When broken people come together with their partial insights, one will see the elephant as a tree, another as a rope, and another as a wall. If we walk away from each other every time our partial views of reality clash, we will never know the elephant.
The elephant is far bigger than any one of us. As long as we keep holding together to the elephant and feeling our way around this mighty animal, we will be able to grow in our awareness of what the elephant is. When we are willing to share our different understandings of “elephant,” we will come closer to the reality we seek to know. When we walk away with our perception of the elephant as a tree firmly clutched to our breast, we condemn ourselves to a tragically partial vision of reality.

The question is not who is right or who is wrong. The question is, can I stay open to you. Can I listen to you? Can I respect you even though we are different? Am I willing to allow my life to be broken open more deeply by the collison of our differences?

The four most important words for human community are, “I may be wrong.”

Am I willing to accept that my view is not the only view? Can I see that, even though we may disagree or view events in a different light, your view has validity and my view is not the only way of understanding reality? When we demonize the “opposition,” we are all diminished. The fragmented world in which we live desperately needs to see a place where it is possible for people to be together in respectful, open, accountable relationship in spite of disagreements. The world needs to see that there can be a place where people are willing to put aside disagreements in the interests of a greater vision. I pray that the church may be this place.


Rob H said...

I like Christophers summary as quoted "The world needs to see that there can be a place where people are willing to put aside disagreements in the interests of a greater vision. I pray that the church may be this place. "

The Church allows us to individually regardless of our joint agree or to disagree discussion on the bible and its intentions for our lives.
Reason in my mind is that we have at least agreed we believe in an unseen presence that is real for us today as it was for the early Christians who actually saw the Son of God.

In our case we are left with his teaching and the Holy Spirit. It is enough regardless of our growth, age , education, experience to accept it as real.

Kind of like my support who accepts me for what I am , warts and all. Or a tripod, us, Christ and the Holy Spirit so we can walk in todays world alive in Christ.

As I work on getting to know you it is the Holy Spirit within me who will cause me to walk past the next step, past my fears or the unknown, to see you in Christs eyes.
It might take us a long time to perhaps agree but the more we relate the more Christ opens us both up.
My muse for the day....

Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher,
Once again, sorry to have taken so long to put together a reply. You know how it goes. Things always take longer than they should. I appreciate your taking some of your own time to put together a response to my earlier comments.
It's always strange somehow, how two people can look at the same thing, and both be so close to the truth in their interpretation. I think you're right - in many cases, we're all grasping some part of the whole truth, but we can't seem to grasp the whole itself. In the course of my personal philosophy, I've started to wonder if we can ever truly grasp the truth in its entirety, to be honest. Our perceptions are so subjective, and our reasoning so subject to error and bias, that I wonder if the truth is more elusive than we are persistent.
I think your illustrations of interpretation outlined the point quite well. I don't have the experiences that you have in working with mediation or counselling, but I have been in the rather odd position of knowing people on both sides of a dispute. And it is a very odd place to be. Because no matter which person is describing the events at hand which have led to the dispute in question, one sometimes can't help but wonder: 'really? That seems like kind of a strange thing for that person to be doing'. Maybe I just think too optomistically of people, but it seems strange that so many people could be capable of doing all of the horribly ignorant and petty and offensive things which they are charged with at times.
And sometimes if I'm in the position of taking a peek at somebody else's taking offense at someone's words or actions, it's not uncommon for the insulting behavior or words to not seem ordinary and reasonable enough to my own eyes or ears. I think you're right - sometimes it's all just about interpretation.
So from there, I guess the question becomes one of which interpretation one should go with. I tend to lean toward concensus. If ten people see a furry animal, and one person says it's a rabbit, and nine people say it's a dog, then I'm more inclined to think it's a dog than a rabbit. That doesn't mean that I can't look that animal up in a book or something, and find out that it was really a rabbit - just that my first instinct is to go with the group's consensus. And if it's a matter of two opposing interpretations between two individuals, then I guess the only thing for it is to take one at a time and see which one holds up best under scrutiny - and even that is easy to make mistakes at.
I don't think it's hopeless though. I think it's very easy to make mistakes, go with the wrong interpretation, or not think it through entirely enough. I'm probably guilty of that crime at times - hindsight is 20/20 and all that. I suppose it's just a matter of staying with it, and persevering and doing the best we can with what we have, always with that grain of doubt in the back of our minds.
And so I try and form my own viewpoint of the world, and religion, and politics, and all that fun stuff, and I'll try and hold it up to scrutiny here and there. And when a tough issue comes up, I'll try and dig out my personal philosophy and see how it fares when held up against grim reality. And hopefully I'm able to reconcile the two, or adapt my theory to fit the circumstances. And if I can't, then that must mean that I've got a little bit of re-thinking to do. But I think at the same time, one has to pursue the truth as much as one can, always seeking to find the most plausible explanation, and to find something even more plausible after that, constantly re-evaluating, and almost...evolving, I guess.
When it comes to individualism, I think again, that it's probably more of a difference in details. I think we agree in that as individuals, we are all responsible for our selves, our lives, our actions, our thoughts and perceptions and interpretations and theories, for the way in which we act, and the way in which we don't act. I think where we might come into disagreement is in how we as individuals work together in community. Or perhaps it's just in the way in which we phrase it. You call it connectedness. I tend to think of it as individuals in constant reaction to one another.
We're all responsible for our own actions - we agree on that. And we're all responsible for how we react to the world around us, our perception of events around us, and our perception of the actions of the others around us. I think it is that reaction, that back-and-forth between individuals, which makes a community. And this community can always grow, too - the more of us there are, the more reactions there are. And the more we get to know each other, the more the reactions change, becoming more and more indepth and personal. In that sense, I suppose I can agree that we are all connected. But I think it is a connection by our own choice. We choose to react, to interact, and this involves us in the community. If we were to choose to, we could cut ourselves off entirely, remove ourselves from interacting with the people around us. We would handicap our potential in doing so - it's hard to get things done when you don't have someone to help you. But I think it's possible - theoretically at least.
And I think church is a sort of...united front, I guess. I think ultimately that religion can be an entirely personal pursuit - seeking to reach God. And that a church, or an organized form of religion, is a sort of community effort, like a barn-raising, to accomplish something that we could do on our own, but which is usually easier when attempted by a large group of people. A merging and interplay of different viewpoints and interpretations, and a mixture of strengths and talents, all to achieve a common goal. I think that is what church is for, and I think that hymns and worship are a sort of bolstering effort to 'rally the troops', and energise this group of people who are attempting to find God.
I don't know - is that sort of what you described? I wonder if, again, we aren't using different words to describe a very similar thing. Perhaps the difference is really just in the details.
I agree - we spend too much time demonising the ones who disagree with us, and not enough time trying to find the truth. We should always be trying to pursue the truth, but that doesn't mean that that pursuit can't be tempered by a healthy dose of 'I may be wrong'. We can always be wrong, even if the answer seems painfully obvious. And even if we're right, what's painfully obvious to us may not be to the one disagreeing with us. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I probably show a little less of that temperence than I should, and a little less understanding. I guess it's just a matter of keeping onward though. I don't know that there's much else that we can do.
As always, it's been a pleasure.