A Path We Can Imagine

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As often as I think I am seeking other people out in order to get something for myself, the deeper truth is that I am hoping they will draw me out of myself. — Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

I began reading about Dorothy Day while a graduate student in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, in California. I had picked up a copy of the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, a newspaper published to highlight social justice issues in the Catholic tradition. It was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 and has been published continuously ever since. I was taking classes in liberation theology and social justice at Claremont, learning about the movements in Latin America by Catholic priests to educate the people and to teach them to read, using the Bible. Then later, when I came to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland to teach, I contacted the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, met Jim Wallis, the editor and co-leader, and became aware of some of the networks of Christians in the Metro area who were working with the homeless.

Eventually, I met Mitch Snyder, who was living and working out of a row house on Euclid St. in Washington, DC. He had been an adman on Madison Avenue before he dedicated his life to the homeless. He and some friends operated a soup kitchen in an abandoned garage across the street. My students and I would go down on Sunday mornings to cut up vegetables for stew and often we’d come back to hand out meals in the evenings. We continued to work with Mitch and his community over the years, as they advocated and cared for the homeless. Always aware of the official studied neglect by governments of the homeless, he fasted to the brink of death until the city capitulated and opened the DC Shelter on 4th Street in Washington. Many students worked and helped out at the shelter over the years.

My friendship with Mitch continued even after we were no longer actively involved in the community. One evening, he asked if I’d like to go up to Baltimore and meet Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests who had been in the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and who had worked for decades in the civil rights movement. When we arrived we were ushered into a row house filling with young people as well as grizzled veterans of the peace movement. As the sun was going down, light streaming into the windows, Phil Berrigan led us in a worship and prayer service for the homeless. For me, this was a golden moment, a revelation of the commonalities of Christian activism that begin with prayer and are sustained through worship.

My interest in the Catholic Worker movement had begun much earlier, when a friend from college decided to become a Catholic priest. We were graduate students together at Andrews University and unbeknownst to me he was taking catechumen lessons at Notre Dame University. The night before Easter Sunday he was baptized into the Catholic Church. We stood in for him as witnesses, since his family, staunch SDAs in Southern California, had rejected him and his calling. He felt his calling was to work in East LA among the barrios, the poverty and the gangs. His life, after baptism, was brimming with hope; his enthusiasm for the Catholic Worker movement and its mission to reach those in poverty led him to give up his comfortable upper middle-class life and to enter a vocation that was open to the Spirit’s leading in all parts of his life.

Witnessing his baptism and seeing his joy caused me to reflect on what had brought him from Adventism to Catholicism, from wealth to voluntary poverty. While he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, it was his single-minded direction toward Christian activism that stirred me.

Years before, as a teenager newly-awakened, I was keen to witness. I wanted to fix the spiritual errors that I saw around me and to confront those, especially in the Catholic Church, who I felt were perpetuating these errors. One of our high-school faculty, our Bible and history teacher, invited a Catholic priest to his home one Sabbath, so that some of us could learn more about Catholic beliefs and his friend’s faith. I confronted the priest with all the bravado and ignorance that a 15-year-old on a mission from God could muster. He graciously answered my questions, parried my thrusts, and generally treated me with respect and interest. I came away feeling that I had made a holy fool of myself.

While at graduate school at Claremont I took a course in Liturgies of the Church. We studied all the major liturgies and their history, from the time of Justin Martyr in CE 155 up to John Wesley’s “Service of the Methodists in North America,” written in 1784. One of the requirements of the course was to attend a worshipping community outside of our own faith for the semester. At that time, I was an active member of the North Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Claremont, but I easily found an Anglican church in Ontario and began attending their Sunday services also.

I was immediately struck by two things. One was the homily delivered each week (without notes) by the priest. It was literate, deeply Scriptural, and invariably opened windows into the life of discipleship. It brought together the liturgy, the Scripture, and current news in ways that set my imagination on fire.

The second thing was the compassion and respect shown toward the gay couple that attended from week to week. This was in 1977, not a particularly easy time for gays, and especially not the norm for the Anglican Church. But each week that they were there they were surrounded by people who obviously cared about them, who did not regard them as either a curiosity nor an abomination, and who did not shy away from sharing the cup with them during the Eucharist.

***

There is a sociological and communications theory known as Symbolic Interactionism that counts among its strengths the idea that “it is through social interaction that (our) identities are formed, maintained, and changed,” as scholar Joel Charon puts it in his Symbolic Interactionism. Founded on the work of George Herbert Mead and extended by Herbert Blumer and others, SI says that we form our self-identity through interaction with others. We are social beings, said Mead, and we shape each other through our interactions. That may seem self-evident, but Mead believed that it is only through what he called ‘role-taking’ that we can communicate, develop a self-identity, and become part of a society.

Role-taking relies on imagination, a central characteristic of humans that makes it possible to put ourselves in the place of others. The ones who influence us the most are our significant others; they may be parents, friends, role-models, heroic figures, people we emulate or admire. They may even be people we fear. We imagine how our actions will affect them, and we imagine what they might be thinking, feeling, and understanding in certain situations. It’s impossible to ever take on another’s role with complete accuracy, but it’s essential for everything that we do as human beings to try our best. As we grow more capable of it we become more understanding of others, better communicators, more able to anticipate the expectations of others so that we can conform, rebel, choose, and exercise our will in relation to others.

Mead called another group of people our ‘generalized other,’ a combination of several significant others who make up a group or a community, a society of sorts that we visualize as we act. We might think of ‘my friends,’ or ‘my family’ or ‘my church’, or even ‘my generation’ and ‘my country.’ Another term for this is a reference group, a group of significant others we hold in our imagination.

While we need to take others into account in almost everything we do, there are two exceptions to this: those who are extremely selfish and those who hold extreme power. Those who are almost totally self-centered may regard others as simply objects to be manipulated, and those who have extreme power may actually do so. Of course, by provoking fear or anger in others, such people can expect retaliation in kind, which generally reinforces their selfishness. As long as their power is intact they are personal hurricanes of chaos. They lack the imagination and the social intelligence to take the role of anyone but themselves.

Symbolic interactionism gives us perspectives through which we can actively and consistently see ourselves and others in a new light. It provides a consciousness which can be turned to great good or to evil. We can learn to empathize with others or to manipulate them. It means that we go through our days with eyes wide open, continually attempting to see the world—and ourselves—through the eyes of those we are communicating with.

As a Christian, a person attempting to live in grace by faith, it helps me to visualize and imagine the lives of others. It helps me to learn from those with whom I interact. To try to see the world through the eyes of a person in the LGBTQ+ community or to try to imagine how a Protestant asking a Catholic about sexual abuse by priests must seem to a Catholic — those are exercises of the imagination worth attempting.

***

In recent years I have been teaching at two universities, both embedded in the history of the renegade order of nuns who came to America from France and established colleges for young women in the early 20th century. My friendships with colleagues at both schools have opened my eyes to larger issues of justice, education for the disadvantaged, and the power of a constant witness to Biblical activism in the nation’s capital. In a way, the ripple that began at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame on that Easter many years ago has finally lapped against the shore. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whom I have gotten to know at Trinity, were once as young as my college friend. In their lives of devotion to scholarship, service, and compassion, I imagine the trajectory of my friend, now lost to me these many years. He moved me to question how fervent was my faith; the sisters’ lives are testament to a steady will in a singular direction.

These kinds of moments might have come to me in other ways. Perhaps because of temperament, inclination, opportunity, and curiosity I leaned this way instead of other ways. I needed work, they opened their doors, it turned out well for both parties. Going forward, I did not have a long-range plan. We rarely do in life. Nor did I determine to follow a specific course to meet people who understood and practiced faith in ways different than mine. Rather, I found myself responding to intuition, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the openness of God to “strangers,” and the curiosity that searches out how others worship and come to know God.

The experiences that we have and the people we meet may seem random, but there is reason to believe that the paths we cross with others can be seen, in time, as part of a larger pattern. God has a multitude of ways to meet us in unexpected places and to reveal the moments of grace we need in the midst of the mundane, the sublime, and the tragic.

Photo: Inbal Marilli, Unsplash.com

Almost Thou Persuadest Me

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‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’ — Acts 26:27-29

Paul, canny fellow that he was, rarely missed an opportunity to speak freely and to testify about his conversion from domestic terrorist to revolutionary preacher. In this episode, appearing in chains before Festus the governor and King Agrippa II and his wife, Queen Bereniece—who also happened to be his sister—Paul charges in where angels fear to tread. Evangelist that he is, he asks a question and quickly answers it: ‘I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa? You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice: ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ But Paul will not be diverted. In a rhetorical jujitsu move, he deflects the criticism and extends the offer to everyone within earshot—the whole court. Agrippa doesn’t bite, but as the party moves offstage they are heard giving Paul a pass. “He doesn’t sound all that bad.”

Paul is now inside Agrippa’s head and who knows what the result will be down the road?

We can speculate why Agrippa reacted the way he did with the aid of a communication theory that analyzes attitudinal changes for persuasion.

Social Judgement Theory says that when we hear or read a message we immediately assign it a location on the attitude scale in our minds. This is a subconscious sorting of ideas that occurs at the instant of perception. In other words, it’s a reaction rather than a considered response. We judge every idea by comparing how far away or close to our present point of view it is. That present point of view is called our anchor point.

Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif, the authors of the theory, believed that our attitudes can be understood as an amalgam of three latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. The latitude of rejection is the range of ideas that someone sees as unreasonable or unworthy of consideration. And the latitude of noncommitment is the range of ideas that a person sees neither as acceptable nor objectionable. Carolyn Sherif said that as persuaders we need to know the location and the width of each of these latitudes in order to know what it will take to persuade that person.

Another important concept in Social Judgement Theory is what the Sherifs called ego-involvement: the importance of the issue to us. High ego-involvement means you have a lot invested in the position, that you feel strongly about it, and that you’re likely to reject most challenges to it. The greater the degree of ego-involvement the harder it will be for attitudes to change and to persuade those persons to shift their position.

There are three characteristics of people with high ego-involvement in an issue. First, their latitude of noncommitment is almost zero. If we really care about an issue we’ll tend toward the extremes of either zone of acceptance or rejection.

The second feature of high ego-involvement is that the latitude of rejection will be large. We’ll see things in black and white. If we thought about it more we might see something we agree with—but our quick inferences judge even mild statements as something to be rejected.

The third characteristic is that people who hold extreme opinions often take criticism personally. Extreme positions and high ego-involvement go together. It’s a matter of identity: if you attack my position then you’re attacking me.

All of this describes how the Sherifs pictured the cognitive structure of a person’s attitude. But what is the process that is triggered when we read or hear a message?

Muzafer Sherif said we compare our anchor point to all incoming messages and judge accordingly. Messages that we reject we push even farther away from our anchor point so we don’t have to deal with them. Messages that we agree with we snuggle up to—even if they may not have all that much in common with our anchor point.

These two effects are called contrast and assimilation. Messages that we reject we sharply contrast with our anchor point. Our reasons for drawing the contrast may be that we don’t like the speaker or the issue is too complex for us, or we are impatient, bored, or tired. And sometimes messages that are intended to persuade us through fear or force we will reject even more decisively in a boomerang effect. We are more often driven to attitudinal positions than we are drawn to them.

But messages that we like we may judge closer to our anchor point than they really are because we find the speaker attractive or the message reinforces what we’ve always thought. We won’t embrace it fully, but our position will shift incrementally. We will assimilate it into our thinking.

The authors thus believe that the greater the discrepancy, the more the hearers will adjust their attitudes. Nevertheless, we don’t leap from one extreme to the other. Change, if it comes, takes place in small steps, incrementally.

Most of these changes occur below our awareness, yet they powerfully shape attitudes and actions. From the outside, we may see no change in a person until suddenly the tectonic plates slip, and a major quake takes place. What looks impulsive and momentary may have been building for a long time. Persuasion is a gradual process. It’s also a social process that has the most lasting effect on us as a result of the influence of those we care about.

What advice do the Sharifs have for us if we want to persuade people? We need to find a message that is right on the edge of their latitude of acceptance. If there’s a small step from rejection to wary acceptance, that is much better than the boomerang effect. Don’t ask for too much at first; accept them and reward them for small steps.

Some things have become clear in the testing of social judgement theory One is that the greater the perceived expertise of the speaker the wider the latitude of acceptance. Credibility makes a difference, and credibility is a combination of honesty and expertise.

A second thing is that ambiguity often persuades better than clarity. We might think of it as emphasizing the general over the particular in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, some people are simply hardwired for dogmatism on every issue. Their minds are made up. There isn’t much point in trying to shift them because they are probably rooted in place.

This theory has some interesting implications for our communication with others, especially as we apply it to how we talk about spiritual matters and as we examine our own position within a faith community.

Through the years, as I was teaching courses in communication theory and persuasion and propaganda, this theory stood out because of something I had read years before by Ellen White, a 19th-century American writer, about conversion. She was talking of Saul’s “Damascus Road” experience, a Biblical story that has become synonymous with a traumatic and instantaneous change of heart and life. She said something to the effect that Saul would not have become Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart.

SJT illuminates the forming up of our attitudes and how those attitudes trigger our decisions and actions. It could also rattle our thinking about the effectiveness of mass evangelism techniques. I believe it calls us, instead, to speak one-to-one, to be thoughtful, and to be sensitive to the time it takes a person to reflect on profound ideas. Most of all, it recognizes the freedom God gives us to respond to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, all in good time. Kairos, Paul would call it—the right time.

Photo: Justin Veenema, Unsplash.com

Practicing Conversation

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“It is not enough to relate our experiences: we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport.” — Michel Montaigne, The Art of Friendship

“This is only my opinion, but. . . .”  Lately, whenever I hear that in the classroom, in a conference, in a faculty meeting, or in casual conversation, I want to tear off all my clothes and start screaming. Since that is against most social norms and my better judgment, I signal my displeasure by the merest arching of an eyebrow.

How did we come to this point in common discourse? Why is it that when we edge ever closer to subjects of significance and weight, points that ought to be argued, elements of life that divide and conquer people, we retreat with a disarming smile into a cloud of unknowing?

The rules of engagement in these battles are followed to the letter. First, the disclaimer: “This is only my opinion. . . . “ Translation: I’m sorry if you take offense at anything I say, but everyone has the right to their own opinion.” This is followed by the actual opinion, which varies in its relevance to the discussion, but usually reflects the unconscious prejudices of the opinionator. Finally, there is the idemnification clause, intended to protect against the disagreeable opinions of others fired at point-blank range: “You may disagree, that’s okay—everyone is entitled to their own opinion—but I’m just saying. . . .” Then the speaker usually lapses into passivity, content to have said his piece, but uninterested in any extension of the argument unless it challenges his right to express his opinion.

This signals the death of dialogue and the throttling of democracy, which relies on the free exchange of ideas. But how can ideas freely circulate when they come walled about with petulant assertions designed to shore up fragile egos? We have lost the art of “conversation,” a word which can be traced back to its Latin roots in the idea of living in company with others, literally, ‘to turn about with.’ Another ancient root, a scriptural meaning, relates conversation to a ‘manner of life,’ or a way of being, never merely as a means of communication. It signifies a willingness to trust one another, to extend to others the means of grace whereby genuine learning can take place. It assumes that conversation takes time, that it evolves, and that it is so much more than mere assertion.

Robert Grudin places this squarely in the realm of liberty and calls these conversational skills the ‘arts of freedom.’ In a fascinating meditation entitled On Dialogue, Grudin says, “Once gained, moreover, the arts of freedom must be kept fresh by thought and action, taught to the young, bequeathed down generations.” Otherwise, he warns, the posturing demagogue and the ravenous mass-marketer “will turn liberty into its own caricature, a barbarous fool driven by fear and greed.”

It might seem a long leap from a classroom discussion to the foundations of democracy. We must also be wary of blaming the end of civilization on the young and restless. But Grudin, a professor of English at the University of Oregon, believes that these arts can and should be taught. “The operative pedagogical philosophy is that skill in these arts will enable people to make decisions and follow courses of action beneficial to themselves and society. In other words, people can learn freedom. Freedom is useless without a rational and emotional instrumentation that gives it substance.”

What I often see in classroom discussions is more a clash of egos than an exchange of ideas. Many times those who speak up are so eager to claim their point of view as theirs that the point—if there even was one—is lost.

Teachers don’t help much either. When I worked in faculty development I saw many syllabi which laid out elaborate rules for classroom discussions. I was struck by the pervasive fear which ran through the assumptions behind these rules. Students had to be protected from the sharp edges of differences between them: once you entered the classroom there were no races, genders, or cultures. Reference to these social categories was taboo: each person was simultaneously an individual so autonomous that she perceived reality in exclusively personal terms and she was a member of a massive, amorphous, egalitarian lump. No doubt the intentions were that no student should feel discriminated against—something no one should have to suffer—but the effect was to limit discussion to the confident few who wielded their vorpal swords for sport. These parts of our identity help make us who we are and we ignore them at our peril. They come back as labels and epithets if we don’t take their influence into consideration.

We learn with each other: that’s what conversation is. We are social beings, which is to say we find out who we are through interaction with others as well as reflection by ourselves. Self-awareness and self-reflection, though, are learned behaviors, brought about through practice in hearing about ourselves from other people as we dialogue. When we don’t practice at listening before we speak we panic when spoken to. Our desire to be known for ourselves rises up and before we know it we are chanting the mantra of the blindingly obvious: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. . . .” Whereupon we deliver our opinion as a verdict rather than an invitation.

I once went to a conference for men held at a large hall in downtown Washington, D.C. It was led by Robert Bly, a poet and self-styled men’s mentor, who had just published a book entitled Iron John. It was a manifesto on being a real man without becoming a slack-jawed, brutish jerk. During the course of his presentation he gave some time for statements and questions from the floor, but placed some conditions on the speakers.  They had to keep their contributions to three sentences in the interest of time and they could ask questions—but any sentence that was not a question had to be a simple, declarative sentence. It was issued as a challenge: say what’s on your heart without hedging it about with qualifiers. I took it as a request for open, sincere, and rugged conversation.

Nobody could do it.

Virtually everyone who spoke danced about their subjects, adding implied questions, footnotes, self-referential phrasing, and jargon. Bly was disgusted and berated us for our narcissism.

I have often thought of that experience for it revealed some principles I’d like to live by. We need to think before we speak; we need to listen to others; we need to give each other grace so that we have a space in which to learn from each other. That’s not my opinion, that’s my invitation.

Photo: William Stitt, Unsplash.com