"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, July 2, 2012

It Doesn't Matter; You Won't Understand

“It doesn’t matter…he won’t understand.” Wise words from a student during one of my last weeks of classes. Maybe tragic, defeatist, hopeless words…but wise nonetheless.

My English class was having a discussion about some aspect of marriage…comparing marriage customs or norms between cultures, I think. Then the topic of gay marriage came up.

When this topic comes up in my classes, I am usually extra attentive, due to my own curiosity about where people are at on this issue as well as an awareness that I need to be prepared to re-direct and protect, diplomatically navigating through a very thorny subject.

Some of you may know my stance on the matter, reflected in my recent signing of the OneGeorgeFox letter. Briefly, I’m probably barely liberal on the issue for being a twenty-something Pacific Northwesterner, and much more liberal for someone who believes in things like the Holy Spirit and that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

More forthright: I support gay marriage and don’t believe same-sex attraction is something of which one need repent. While I'm still learning about these things and how they all fit in God’s plans for humankind, I do sense that God prefers two gay people in love to commit to one another in lifelong fidelity rather than pursue some kind of reparative therapy, or suffer in isolation and shame, or live the harmful and soul-destroying life of promiscuity that can occur when you tell people they “can’t have” marriage because “it’s ours.”

I also don’t believe such a stance makes me unbiblical or shows my submission to the ways and whims of “the world” (as those on my side of the issue are often accused of being). My Christ-centered faith has led me to this conclusion. My relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Bible, and with people—real people, not just faceless, nameless statistics—has led me to this conclusion.

I’m comfortable with some disagreement with my beliefs; I’m a little uncomfortable with the assumption that those like me have abandoned Jesus, holiness, commitment to Truth, or are flaky, changeable, and people-pleasing rather than rooted and faithful.

That probably sounds defensive, doesn’t it? I’ll work on repenting of that. Maintaining a peaceful spirit is important to me, especially when it comes to matters such as this.

But back to the point of my post. Two of my students were arguing over this issue, a male and a female. The male was adamant about the wrongness of gay marriage, I think probably citing religion, its diversion from what is natural, and maybe just, to put it crudely—“grossness."

And by "grossness" I mean that visceral reaction I think many feel toward homosexuality that is often at the root of their rejection of it—not simply what is right or wrong, but deep-rooted prejudices, maybe influenced by years of thinking about the issue in one particular way, an opposition that often looks more like repulsion, maybe like what you feel when you contemplate eating a food you really don’t like.

After a few minutes of discussion, the girl—arguing for gay marriage, just looked up at me and shrugged her shoulders, saying something like “there’s no point, it doesn’t matter…he won’t understand.”

“He won’t understand.” “Won’t” here sounds like a prediction based on evidence, a perfectly suitable modal verb for this context. But “can’t” may have also captured her meaning, a word choice that would have reflected her feelings that it wasn’t just unwillingness on the part of her partner, but incapability. The idea he argued against was too foreign, too apparently false to even consider, even if to her it seemed credible, reasonable, compassionate, and right.

I’ve been teaching English long enough and the topic of gay marriage has come up frequently enough for me to notice a couple very general trends. For one, my female students are overwhelmingly more supportive of gay marriage than my male students. That means something.

I’ve also noticed that religious conviction is an oft-cited reason for rejecting gay marriage, whether my students are Christian or Muslim or other…but that where religion is absent from the lives of students, they find other reasons outside of religion to dislike gay marriage. That probably also means something.

When I have these discussions in class, my primary goal as an English teacher is English practice—learning how to articulate a point of view, respond to another’s, push back, challenge, affirm, etc, with the appropriate language.

But when I bring up complicated issues, I also know that I’m using my role as teacher to encourage thoughtfulness, reflection, consideration of one’s own opinions, feelings, biases, and a willingness to have one’s views challenged, maybe even come to embrace another’s views as one’s own, if they are good, beautiful, or true in some way.

But sometimes it’s just hard to hear another person, to really see the coherency or beauty or credibility of what they’re suggesting. We’re so entrenched in our views that it’s hard to imagine changing them without feeling like we’ve abandoned the right path, the way, the truth.

Talking about gay marriage is not like telling a friend, “this is a good movie, I know it looks bad, but you should see it” and having that friend respond with “well, I trust you, and I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try…okay then…I am now willing to see it whereas before I was not!” People don’t usually change their stance so abruptly.

In my regular perusal of websites, blogs, news articles, and Facebook threads, I see lots of argument, sometimes very heated, about gay marriage. And I rarely see anyone in one of these threads or articles admitting a change happening right then and there. They may have changed their views in the past, but mostly people are just trying to correct one another, prove others wrong and themselves right, and fight for “Truth” as they understand it. People on both sides of the issue.

I’ve come to realize that, despite my changing convictions on this issue, it is going to be rare that a well-crafted argument wins someone over to my side. Barack Obama recently came out in support of gay marriage, saying his views have “evolved” over time. And then some people seemed really critical of the fact that his views would change, as if that’s not a very normal, human thing.

But evolution of perspective seems like a very natural thing, to me. People do change, but most naturally this takes a long time. People need space, and time. People don’t seem to like to be pushed before they're ready. At least I don’t, I think. Nor does my wife (chuckle, chuckle).

I don’t really know if Obama was sincere about his journey, or if his actions were more politically-motivated. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, even if that draws accusations of naivety. But I get the process. Just like in nature, where change and movement happens slower than a snail’s pace (unless you’re a snail), people need time to process new ideas and challenges to their ways of thinking.

But it sure seems hopeless at times. Like my student, who realized her partner wasn’t really “hearing” her because he wouldn’t (or couldn’t), I realize it requires an enormous amount of patience with others when you feel convicted about something and hope others will one day share your convictions.

On this particular issue, all I feel I can do is endure in my convictions, continue to reflect, listen, and study, and let my “light” shine, persuading others not primarily with well-prepared arguments and pleas but with a life and heart that are continually being made more holy, more love-filled, and more obviously in relationship with and inspired by the God of Jesus—the God of Love, the God of Justice, the God of Peace.

My words here are not primarily about one issue, even though I’ve used the topic of gay marriage to explore this topic of “understanding.” But the larger questions I ask myself and end with are:
  • Am I capable of deeply understanding different points of view than my own?
  • Can I learn from others with openness while avoiding defensiveness?
  • Do I respect that others who I might hope will one day see things as I do need time...and that it may even be rude and disrespectful toward their process and journey to be overly pushy in expectancy of quick change?
  • And, how well do I balance the rootedness and firmness that I think Paul encourages via warning in Eph 4:14 (“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”) with the openness Jesus wished for his hearers but did not always see, as I think is addressed in Mark 6:52 (“…for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”)

It is good to be rooted. But maybe it is also important to put down the right kind of roots. I think humility demands as much. Truth may not change, but humans do…we learn and un-learn, discover and rediscover, grow and mature, possess illusions and experience disillusionment, are broken and repaired.

Playfully put: roots and readiness make a dashing couple. J


I’m not totally sure of its precise significance to this conversation, but Jesus’ “pow-wow” with his disciples after one of his famous parables in which he references Isaiah’s words seems relevant: Mark 4:9-12   9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"  10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.  11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;  12 in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'"