We need to do better than weaponized “listening”

I appreciated Doug’s post on his experience with gay kids. It very much tracks with what I’ve seen. While I hear a lot of complaint from affirming straight and gay about churches that maintain theological positions and polity practicies that are not affirming or celebrating of SS relationships there is nearly zero interesting in they themselves participating if the church changed its mind and its position. While it is true that the position and posture DO keep some (often allies) out of a non-affirming congregation or denomination, the motivation to participate in church runs on different tracks from the position itself generally. This is why you will find non-affirming Christians in affirming churches, and affirming Christians in non-affirming churches and denominations. To make this a bit MORE complicated for many people non-affirming functions as a major articulated reasons why they “deconstruct” from Christianity. It is an example or an illustration of a deeper worldview difference, but that worldview difference is much more important than the symptom (non-affirming) that is being identified.

At the heart of deconstruction IS a worldview difference of which this issue is simply a salient symptom. It is a whole hierarchy of values, assumptions about what the world is, how it operates, etc. It has deep roots in the massive shifts that have been going on in Western culture for centuries and most of that “coding” is beneath the conscious layer and not necessarily subject to conscious control. Human beings, I believe, are quite a mysterious creature that has, if I can use a computer analogy, a deeply integrated local/distributed platform approach to sense-making. In some ways we are like the internet-of-things that is deeply impacting our lives. If you have a smartphone you might imagine it is a “stand alone” product, but that is hardly the case. While the hardware seems distinct it would be useless without the software that was developed by a vast group of people over a significant period of time. Layers and layers of code have come together to make that thing work. It is also the case that your smartphone is constantly checking in with servers around the world for a whole host of signals that you never see. All sorts of things are being checked, updated, changed, etc. behind the scenes that you don’t notice. If you put your phone on “airplane” mode a lot of things still work, but if you were to keep it there for days or weeks or months or years you would quickly be done with it because it would seem broken. It needs the updates of services and code that it is fed by the Internet. It is made to be part of a much larger story.

Our coding is old, vast and vastly more complex than that of your smartphone. Similar to your smartphone no individual really has a handle on it. It’s sort of taking on a life of its own but on a scale that dwarfs that of your smartphone. Whether you believe in a God or just recognize (as Jordan Peterson prompted thousands to do) that the most reasonable way of conceptualizing the totality of these interactions is by talking as if there is a conscious, all wise, all power AGENT at the center of this matrix, the emergent manifestation and most reasonable way to relate to that manifestation can be possibly best represented as Christianity does in “God”. There are, in my opinion, significant consequences for adopting a mere “as if” posture with respect to relating to “God” as merely a concept, but I’ll not go into that in this forum because most of you give yourselves over to this God willingly to relate and participate communally with Him which I think is the most reasonable and effective approach.

Back to the topic.

Your smartphone gets its updates through the Internet which is data that has been formatted in ways that bring order to the utter complexity of reality. There are protocols by which the data flows so that both client (the phone in your pocket) and server (the computers connected to your phone in server farms around the world) can make sense of the communication. When your phone receives a “packet” it has to listen. In order for that packet to become assimilated into the programming of your phone, and all your interactions and data with the phone in your pocket make that phone and its content unique, those packets must be processed.

For the last few decades there has been an emphasis on listening and that’s a good thing. Your phone needs to listen. But listening alone does nothing for your phone. All those packets are buffered and would sit on your phone and not change the operation of your phone. In order for that to happen that data (which is often compressed) needs to be processed and applied to the uniqueness of how the phone in your pocket has evolved with its unique history in the world.

There needs to be listening but there needs to be processing and that processing usually means, in our cases, that people have spaces to do that processing where there is listening and speaking.

Human beings are far more complex than that smartphone in your pocket. We are constantly developing tricks and hacks to try to get our way with other human beings. “Listening” has gone from a pretty helpful observation to a rather weaponized tactic in our ongoing struggle. I’m not saying that anyone here on Voices is doing this, but if you listen to messages out there it has basically become the opposite of what it really is.

If I am angry or frightened by what I see happening around me I want to talk at the world to have it change to be more in accordance with my desires. This is very common human behavior. It’s part of the reason that “as if” is so limiting. I need to be immersed in the relationship. The difficulty is that other people feel the same way so there is a lot of talking at. When this is done in public the dynamics get even more dramatic. Watch the Presidential “debates”. We quickly see that this process has limited utility.

Here’s the difficulty. The kind of communication involved in updating actually involves talking and listening and part of that is for data correction. Did I receive that packet correctly? How many bits were there in it? Did I miss anything? That sort of thing happens all the time in computer communication because any errors are catastrophic for programming. We humans are far more durable (thank God!).

“Listening” has become a meme for “talking at” and an imagined submission to another. Good things between human beings get corrupted all the time and this is an example.

So we do need to listen to each other, and we do need to process and lots of negative and unhelpful dynamics will be present, but along the way, if people can be durable and patient little helpful packets slip through and progress is made.

Dividing institutions, buildings, etc. can be part of a process. That happens in couples who get divorced only to remarry sometimes, or to sometimes marry others. So often many of the imagined fixes add complexity and problems, again, not dissimilar to distributed computer operations.

Be quick to listen and slow to speak is the Biblical injunction and it is a good one. We LEARN to listen. Even it isn’t something that comes easily to us. We also need to learn to process, weigh, evaluate, and speak. That’s why we do Voices. That’s why we do a lot of things.

I’m discouraged at where we are as a church on many levels, but I am not in despair. I think that if we can do the listening, talking, processing thing better we can make progress. Progress is almost always slow, incremental, surprising, and even disappointing, but that’s the path.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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