We need tools if we are going to take our own queries about God and the Bible seriously, but even more so if we are going to take the challenges of others seriously, and in both those scenarios we need tools to so that we can face these things with compassion.
There are a few tools that I use all the time in teaching students to study biblical texts but the main one is a simple task called ‘identify yourself’.
Most of us know that we are biased toward somethings – that our parents politics influenced us, that our social group influences us, that what we read influences us. But we rarely think about how we influence the things that we read or hear, how who we are influences what we receive from someone.
we bring ourselves to a text or a film or the news and we ourselves influence the meaning that we get from the text.
What I mean by that is that we all have a lens that we use when we read or view something. Its as though we are looking through a piece of coloured glass when we read, and so everything we see is tinted by that glass. That glass is made of all the things we know, experience, our past and our theology/ideals.
Because the Bible is considered the Word of God we think of it as something solid, immovable and pure, and so we often forget that we carry this lens with us to the Bible too. It’s how two people can read the same passages and interpret them differently.
We need to think about this lens not only when we read the bible but when we speak to people, when we try to understand their challenges and when we hear their experiences – how we judge others opinions is linked to how we understand ourselves.
What I get my students to do is to work out what they bring with them to a text or a conversation before we ever get into one.
The question to ask yourself starts here: What do you know influences your thinking?
I, for example, was brought up female. I am british. I am a Christian. I was brought up with left wing political views that I now still follow.
Those are kind of big obvious ones. Now ask yourself to go a little deeper. What else might influence how you react to the world around you?
For example: I am 42 – age definitely matters, our feelings change as we age, different things concern people in old age than those in their teens.
I am northern. I think being northern makes a difference to the way I think.
I am white. I know that being white makes a difference to my lived experience of the world – the best evidence of this is that I put it in the second layer of this description, because as a white person race is actually rarely something that is an issue in my life, I would guess that my Siblings of Colour do not get that particular freedom.
I’m a protestant Christian rather than a catholic, and from a Methodist background so issues like equality of women were the norm rather than a debate for me in my formative years.
My politics is not merely leftwing, but feminist and pretty socialist – I find it hard to not read and react to most things using these ideals.
I like heavy metal and sci fi and fantasy literature – these things can be pretty nerdy, and leave you feeling like a bit of an outsider when i was growing up in the 80’s/90’s. That feeling of being a bit of an outsider probably influences me a lit.
Do a list for yourself.
The reason for identifying these things is becuase they help us to lay down our presuppositions about the world.
To truly listen to someone else you have to realise not everyone sees the world through your lens.
Lay down your presuppositions.
Write them out. Pin them on a wall somewhere. I genuinely do this when researching- I write out what I think I know about a thing so I don’t forget where my experience/theology might be muddying the waters.
Once you know these things you can use them to explain or identify your position rather than assuming everyone understands where you are coming from.
Understanding our lens is especially important if we are privileged to be from one of the ‘normative groups’ in society.
If we are white, cis gendered, heterosexual, male, able bodied then we often find it difficult to hear complaints from marginalised people without feeling criticised becuase our experience is what we’ve always been told is normal.
If someone talks about racism in Leeds I am likely, as a white person, to say I haven’t seen any so think they are exaggerating, but the reason I haven’t seen it is I am not targeted by racists. If I do not acknowledge my whiteness and privilege and presupposition that race isn’t a big issue then I won’t be able to hear someone’s experience clearly.
Tool 1- Listen (or read) to learn
If you are in a conversation with someone about an important issue it’s worth asking yourself why.
Are you here to tell them what you believe? Then it’s not a conversation it’s a lecture
Are you here to get them to agree with you/to win? Then it’s not a conversation it’s a debate.
Are you here to engage with someone as a person and hear their ideas? Congratulations you are in a conversation but you need to listen as well as talk.
“listen to learn” is a phrase used in lots of different places now but it’s a good check when approaching both people and books/lectures/news. Am I listening to learn what’s being said or just to find things to respond to?
Listening to learn means we have to hear the other person’s opinion or idea or experience fully before we chip in.
It also helps with our next tool.
Tool 2– Don’t centre yourself
If you hear a question or experience or challenge to your beliefs try really hard not to start your reply with “but I…”
Not only is “but…” dismissive as it implies they have missed something, (or that worse form “yes but” which contains the most basic acknowledgement that you heard them before moving on to your own thoughts) but the use of “but I…” shows that you automatically think your opinion is most important.
Now, it may be more important…but take a moment to check if it is.
We need to learn to listen before we respond.
Check our lens…did we hear what someone said or did we immediately put it into our terms?
Check our language – did we just say I when they had asked about their situation?
Check our next point before we say it- Is ‘my’ experience really relevant right now? Could I ask my next question/make my next point without putting myself in the centre? (This is especially important when talking about issues such as racism/sexism/homophobia/disability if we come from the more privileged group.)
Not centring our own opinion allows us time to properly hear and engage with someone else.
Tool 3- Have compassion- you are speaking to a human.
I have spent many hours having ‘discussions’ about women in ministry with men where they have said some very derogatory things without noticing. For them, this is a moment of intellectual sparring, or a debate to be won. But for me the things they said directly impacted what I thought about myself, my relationship to God, my identity as a christian. It wasn’t the points that were being made that hurt the most (I had heard them many times) it was when someone talked to me as though the issue wasn’t important and my experience was just another fact to be brushed away.
Too often if we are in a place of safety we talk to people without realising that for them it might be a genuinely emotional issue. With a lot of ccurrent debates in faith and society this is the case- abortion, LGBTQ rights, climate change, equality- these are rarely emotionless. Your conversation partner shouldn’t come away wounded becuase you forgot to have compassion.
Don’t get angry if someone gets upset, do not tell them they are too emotional. We call this ‘tone policing’ and it mainly happens to women. Often issues of faith are personal and deeply connected to us.
Ask someone why it stirs them so deeply and if they can help you understand.
Tool 4- identify what the real challenge is before you make a defence
All too often we find we are defending against an attack that wasn’t made. It details the original discussion and usually happens becuase we don’t know ourselves like we should.
At the beginning of this post I identified myself so I could show yyou what lenses I read texts or evaluate arguments through.
It’s also useful becuase it tells me what I’m likely to be sensitive about.
in my last blog post I talked about how we often defend an ideal us instead of listening to what someone is saying. This is where knowing your own lens helps…you can identify where you are not hearing clearly and instead hearing an attack on one of your identifying characteristics.
For example when I speak about patriarchy and you say ‘but I’m not like that’ you have let your maleness get in the way of hearing the true challenge. I’m not challenging all individual males, I’m challenging a structure.
If a friend asks if the Bible has been used to justify slavery and my reaction is to say “I don’t think Christians agree with slavery, they aren’t all racist” I’ve misheard the challenge and jumped to defend myself.
We need to make sure we hear the true challenge in someone’s question. We need to listen to their experience and not assume it is a personal attack. This also will mean they don’t have to apologise for their emotions becuase we will have shown we think they are valid by not jumping to our own defence straight away.
Tool 6- listen again.
I tell my students to read a biblical text, then read it again, then read it again before they ask a question or tell me what it’s about.
When someone challenges a belief, when we read something confusing, when life throws up a question….maybe we need to listen to it a few times before we move on.
It’s taken me 10years to know what the real challenge my illness threw up was.
The Bible throws new challenges every times I engage with it seriously.
I thought I understood what campaigning for equality was until I worked with homeless people.
We need to take time to listen to what someone is really saying.
So take a breath, and pause before you talk. What did you hear? Ask for clarification.
Tool 7- Ask questions instead of trying to know it all.
Most of us with UK education’s have been taught that the best position is being right.
Our politicians certainly don’t want to ever admit to a mistake.
But if you’ve never encountered someone who holds a particular opinion and you can’t fathom how they could believe that….well why not ask?
Normalise not knowing things but wanting to learn.
Secret extra knowledge just for you
come closer…I’ll tell you a secret that you might have not heard…secret deep knowledge I learned at university.
It’s ok to get things wrong.
To change your mind.
It’s ok to realise that what you once thought is not quite right.
Most big issues in life are hard to understand. The Bible is definitely hard. Politics is painfully hard. Finding things hard to grasp is usually becuase they are hard to grasp not becuase you are deficient.
Get to know your own bias and heart
Be ok with not knowing the answer.