By Louise McEwan
Respectful sharing of ideas aids quest for meaning
I would be exaggerating if I called it “hate mail,” but
a recent email from a reader was definitely on the nasty side. The reader
was emailing me in response to a column I had written on using inclusive
language to speak about God.
After quoting from the creation of man in the Book of Genesis, the writer
of the email commanded me to give up my opinions. While I thought this
was rather imperious of him, and demonstrated a false notion of moral
superiority, his email illustrated one of the points of my column: androcentric
language for God perpetuates the stereotype of male superiority.
I appreciate reader feedback, even when a reader disagrees with my point
of view. I enjoy hearing different opinions; they make me think about
my own. Generally, when readers contact me with an opinion, they are
interested in sharing ideas in a respectful manner. They know what I
think from reading my column, and I get to know what they think from
reading their emails.
The respectful exchange of ideas promotes conversation. Through conversation
we moderate our attitudes and reevaluate our opinions. Through conversation
we develop a broader understanding of issues, of the world and of our
place in the world.
The media often invites us to “join the conversation”; we
can post our thoughts online and comment on the opinions of others. Frequently,
in these online “conversations,” people express intolerance
for the opinions of others, and comments are sarcastic and insulting.
The public discourse social media seeks to encourage often ends up being
little more than people spouting off in an attempt to foist their views
If I learned anything from raising teenagers, the quickest
way to shut down communication is to claim moral superiority on a position
and adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude. A consistent application
of the “my way or the highway” style of communication effectively
limits one’s own intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth,
and does nothing to create meaningful dialogue.
Meaningful conversation requires that we remain open to worldviews, beliefs
and opinions that differ from our own. When we are willing to listen
and consider different points of view, conversation becomes a tool that
promotes individual growth and fosters the advancement of human society.
Communication occurs when persons exchange views with civility and tolerance.
An example of what I consider to be a good conversation took place earlier
this year at Oxford University. Oxford hosted what was billed as a debate
between Richard Dawkins, often described as the world’s most famous
atheist, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Philosopher Sir
Anthony Kenny, who described himself as agnostic, chaired the discussion.
The topic for the event was “The nature of human beings and the
question of their ultimate origin.” Given the disparity between
their beliefs, and the strength of their convictions, I expected to see
a political-style debate between Dawkins and Williams. I expected a contest
and, as with all contests, I expected someone to emerge as the winner.
Of course, given my own belief in God, I was hoping the archbishop would
be more the persuasive of the two.
My expectations and hope, however, never materialized. The event was
less of a debate and more of a conversation. Neither party attempted
to prove the other wrong, or to persuade the other with scientific argument
or Christian apologetics, respectively. Instead, the men exchanged ideas
and during the exchange found points of agreement. Notably absent from
the demeanour of the participants was any sense of moral superiority.
Both appeared to be conscious of their own limitations, and the limitations
of human understanding when confronted with the secrets of science and
the mysteries of faith. The men, and the audience, shared a genuine desire
to learn. The mutual respect and humility of the participants engendered
an intellectually and spiritually stimulating conversation that came
to its conclusion all too quickly.
The best conversations continue long after the participants have gone
home and the room has fallen silent. Unlike online conversations where
comments are “closed” and removed, and unlike emails that
can be quickly deleted, we archive in our mind ideas from good conversations.
The best conversations are useful tools that aid us in our quest for
understanding and meaning; they influence us in ways that sarcasm, intolerance
and plain nastiness never will.
Trail, B.C. resident Louise McEwan is a catechist and
former teacher, with degrees in English and theology. She blogs at
www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org@gmail.com