“Be careful. Seminary could be your cemetery.” There was always a twinkle in his eye when he gave me sage advice on the steps of the church. But not this time. He was serious. And this was not exactly how I wanted to start my academic ministry experience. But I was undeterred. Shaken, perhaps. But I went to seminary anyway and gave it all I had. I didn’t understand where he was coming from then, but I think I’m starting to get it now.
Most people live in fear. Now they would never call it that. They don’t have nightmares. They aren’t looking for a place to hide. But fear is unconsciously guiding their daily lives. Some fear is easy to see−an abusive relationship, uncertainty over a lost job or chronic illness, violence. But other fear is hard to recognize. How do you know what you’re unconsciously afraid of? Start paying attention to what you avoid. How quickly do you change the channel when it lands on that news network? Who can walk by your car in the city, making your reach to lock the doors without thinking about it? Have you ever taken the long way around the office just to keep from having a conversation with someone? Which family members do you cringe to invite over because they’re so loud about their opinion?
You see, we’re afraid of disagreements and uncomfortable encounters, so we avoid them at all costs. We’re not even aware of it half the time. We’ve been conditioned to avoid religion and politics in polite conversation, and as a result we’ve forgotten how to talk about those subjects politely...or maybe even altogether. It’s much easier just to block someone out than to engage the difficult conversation. It’s like life has become a Facebook feed where we pick and choose who we listen to. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding something crass or blatantly inappropriate on the internet, but the problem comes when we lose the ability to talk to anyone from the other side in real life. Just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them. We, as a society, must learn better the art of healthy disagreement.
We create an echo chamber when we only see what we want to see and only listen to what we want to hear. It doesn’t matter if you do this on purpose or not. Eventually, you forget that there are other ways of seeing the world, and you stop growing personally and interpersonally. It’s like being stuck in the social mud. You can create an echo chamber with anything, including supporters of a particular sports team, cohorts who share your profession and jargon, or people who share the same hobby or passion. But most people create an echo chamber for politics or religion, and they might not even be aware. There’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, but it becomes a problem when you start to look down on those people.
You see, it’s a slippery slope when we start to see people who disagree with us as “evil.” That’s how the seeds of dehumanization are planted. People cease to be people in our minds once we associate their entire identity with an idea. We all know that there’s more to a person than their opinion about a handful of ideas, but how quickly we forget when they disagree with us! If God is only at work with people who think exactly like us, then that’s a sad state for the world. God is not the god of the echo chamber. God transcends those arbitrary divisions we create, and we can too. All it takes is learning how to make friends.
The renowned sociologist Peter Berger says “The most important vehicle of reality maintenance is conversation” (Berger 102). It turns out that we need disagreements and doubts to really see ourselves honestly. When you make a friend outside of your political persuasion or religious affiliation, it changes two things: your view of where they’re coming from and your view of yourself because “If people keep on talking with each other, they will influence each other” (Berger 2). Research has shown that “When people gain a new friend who is religiously different, they feel more friendly toward that religious group as a whole” (Berger 106). Now I’m not advocating all of us walking around with religious labels for everyday interactions, but once you have a positive relationship with someone, there ought to be a healthy way to approach religion and politics in conversation that doesn’t end with one party storming off. It starts with how you see others, and the truth is that we are all beloved children of God, so we ought to be able to see each other as such. To do so is to change our point of view, to learn to “regard no one from a human point of view” because “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21 NRSV).
The truth is that God is bigger than our religion, and we’re all trying to figure it out as best we can. I for one need as much help as I can get, so I say let’s “fight the good fight” by standing up for civil conversation before we all forget how to speak.
Source: Peter L. Berger The Many Altars of Modernity. de Gruyter, 2014.