The culture of the United States of America is dominated by a problem solving philosophy of speaking boldly, acting confidently, and persuading forcefully. It is deep in the soul of this culture to take the narrowest interpretation of the Genesis story of creation–in effect, that God put humans in the garden and told them to go forth and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28). The spirituality associated with this approach wants to fix things, to eliminate confusion, to re ”member” disjointedness, to eradicate dysfunction. It wants to bring order and structure to chaos and mess, and it wants to do it now. This is an important orientation, and it has helped the human race pull itself out of many problems.
But, there is a dark side to this approach in the challenges of life. We can speak boldly, act confidently, and persuade forcefully before we fully understand a situation, prior to having all of the facts, antecedent to exploring different options of action and the unintended effects of those actions. We can swagger into problems and try to ramrod solutions that actually make our situation far worse. As we can see with the U.S. Congress, our society is gradually reaping the whirlwind of this kind of unchecked thinking and acting.
For centuries, many Christian leaders assumed that the faith tradition was primarily about speaking boldly, acting confidently, and persuading forcefully. Unfortunately, churches have often created an unholy alliance between an exaggerated form of this problem-solving orientation with its understanding of missiology and evangelism. In its most dramatic forms, the alliance aided and abetted the colonization of other cultures, the domination of entire peoples in the name of God, and some of the most troublesome examples of human arrogance getting forged into public policy.
But, there is another orientation to solving problems, thankfully, though it is in short supply at this moment in U.S. history. This orientation calls not for subduing the earth but cooperating with it and harmonizing disparate parts through a slower process of analysis, discernment, and careful action. It resists the urge to act, even in times when others are panicking. It sits on the human need for bringing order to chaos until the chaos is fully understood, and learns to live in messiness as a necessary step toward solutions. The operative human capacity for this perspective is listening.
One of the proponents of this alternate perspective is Rev. Eric Law, an Episcopalian priest of Chinese-American ancestry who has dedicated a good part of his adult life to helping people of faith learn how to deal with the world’s growing cultural diversity. Law suggests that one of the most consequential interpretations of the entire Bible has been Christianity’s tendency to interpret the events of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) as a “miracle of the tongue.”
This interpretation of the passage seems to support speaking boldly, acting confidently, and persuading forcefully. But, pondered Law, “what might have happened and what might churches look like today if the Pentecost event had been interpreted as a miracle of the ear?”
Law, who will join the School of Theology and Ministry’s Search for Meaning Book Festival on February 15, 2014, notes that a listening posture leads to a different understanding of the world, and different kinds of responses to the problems of the world. This orientation requires a certain level of comfort in paradox. It is guided by the principles of speaking carefully, acting sparingly, and persuading collaboratively, and requires above all else the capacity to listen actively, a skill most Americans have a difficult time mastering.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has a fundamental self-identity as a listening organization. The school is grounded in the modern ecumenical movement, which tracks back to the World Missionary Council held in Edinburgh in 1910 that eventually gave birth to the National Council of Churches, and the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council. Like the Missionary Council and the Vatican Council, the School is constantly trying to learn to listen, to step back from the mess of our changing times, to question broadly – both those different from ourselves, and especially questioning our own hearts and minds, particularly our assumptions. There is a deep spiritual tradition emanating from this tradition rooted in monastic sensibilities–to wait on solutions and actions by first waiting on God, waiting on the surfacing of our own deepest desires, waiting on clarity in understanding an issue, and waiting on the consultation and perspectives of others.
Like many seminaries or schools of theology, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry spends time in class and internships trying to teach students how to listen. But, this is a lesson one can forget easily, so since its origins the school has tried to hard wire listening into our daily operations. We listen closely to students throughout the year, of course, not only through course evaluations but, through meal conversations, and in one-on-one discussions with faculty, faculty administrators and staff. But, we also force ourselves to listen to each other. Faculty members are required to have lunch together every Thursday (precisely in order to keep our practice of listening to one another as colleagues working in a complex, demanding, and rapidly changing profession). Through the lunches, which usually do not deal with work issues directly, we re-learn each week to listen to each other as humans on a journey of faith to God and authenticity, and not just as co-workers. In our many regularly scheduled meetings – for curriculum, formation, faculty searches, and special projects, this humanizing time together makes all the difference in the quality of our deliberations. Staff members have similar meetings and conversations, listening to the unique perspectives and information coming to each person in his or her administrative role.
All in all, this is lots and lots of talking. God knows it must take a higher toll on the introverts among us than the extraverts. But, there is another layer of listening in the School of Theology and Ministry that brings a level of energy and creativity that is rather unique. Each year the school engages about 150 outside consultants.
From our Executive Leadership Board to the Outreach Teams of our 13 denominational partners to planning groups to degree program consultations with local leaders, to internationally famous theological experts, the school has layers and layers of people tell us what they are seeing in their parishes and organizations, their communities and the world. We trust these people because the more we listen to them, the more we reality that they voice to us the needs of the People of God at this moment in time and place.
When you experience the programming we do at the School of Theology and Ministry, from our degree and certificate programs to the Search for Meaning Book Festival; from the Faith and Family Homelessness Project to the Faith and Values Lecture Series; from our efforts to engage the local media to our many Interreligious Dialogues and our annual State of Church in the Pacific Northwest; you are experiencing the fruit of scores and scores of conversations over days, weeks, months and years, and very careful listening.
When you listen this close you can speak boldly, act confidently, and persuade forcefully and avoid the dark side of this orientation. But, this only works if you never forget that you have to keep listening. Eric Law is right. If we believed more in the miracle of the ear than the miracle of the tongue we would have a very different kind of world.
~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD