On understanding belief through experiencing diversity

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

I am not a good debater. It is not because I do not have my own opinions or beliefs about the things that are happening in the world or the way the world ought to be. Rather, my lack of debating skills comes from the fact that I, more often than not, find myself wrapped up in the perspective of the person who sees the world differently than me. In these times of difference, I find that there is a deep part of me that desires to be able to intellectually empathize with this person, whoever they may be. When these moments of potential conflict arise, my initial instinct is not to dig my heels into my own position but to dive deeper into the lived experiences that have shaped the beliefs of the other person. I long to understand their story, but, even more than that, I long to see the ways our separate stories fit together in a larger narrative.

A few years back I was given the opportunity to speak during a forum on faith and sexuality. Very little guidance was given to me as far as what I was expected to talk about, so instead of trying to debate the interpretation of scripture or the nature of tradition, I decided to simply tell my story. I told of the heartaches and moments of joy, the awkward encounters and the quiet frustrations that shaped my struggle with my own sexuality. I was overwhelmed with the response I received. From the woman who shared with me her struggle over feelings of shame when her son came out, to the man who wept at the thought of how his actions had contributed to the suffering of others, I began to realize the immense power of story. Not only was it cathartic to share my story, but I also understood the way others were being transformed by that experience as well.

I am committed to building relationships with those from different religious and ethical traditions because I believe in the power of their stories. When we attempt to create succinct bullet points, lists, and formulas out of our beliefs, we often forget that those beliefs are the deep expression of stories both ancient and modern. In 1917, Vida Scudder published a collection of writings called The Church and the Hour in which she wrote, “If any say, as they will, that dogma is a dead thing, irrelevant…to the love of God, let them remember that most Christian doctrines are simply experience taken at white heat and crystallized.” In the same vein, I hold that any of the beliefs that people profess are immensely shaped by the stories that make up their life. Through dialogue and relationship building rather than divisive and argumentative debate, I am committed to listening to the stories of others because it is only in experiencing this diversity that I truly begin to understand my own beliefs.

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3 thoughts on “On understanding belief through experiencing diversity

  1. Mark,
    Reading your blog, I feel understood. I too, am not a great debater. This has been true my entire life. As I listen to another, my natural response is to seek to understand their position better. For many years, I belittled myself for this. I attributed my tendency to listen and ask question rather than debate a sign of lesser intelligence or knowledge. For the most part I now see this part of myself as a gift, though there are still moments when the old refrain starts up again. Thanks again for your re frame.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for articulating the power of the story, and the importance of sharing and hearing different stories. Novelist Chimamada Adichie speaks about the danger of a single story about a person, a situation, a country, or a community. The problem with acknowledging only one story is that it creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story. But when we choose to hear a story that is different from our own, we validate and affirm those experiences. I think this speaks to your longing to hear perspectives that are not your own, and that resonates with me as well.

  3. Mark, I absolutely agree with you on the power of stories. I have so many responses but I will relate just one. I recently spent some time at Kukuo, a camp for alleged witches in Ghana. I was there with a group trying to assess the issues these women face in order to try to address them in the future. Time and time again when we asked theses women what they wanted from us, what help we could give them, their answer was, “tell our stories.” These are women who cannot go home because that would risk violence and possibly murder. These are women who struggle everyday to merely secure food and water for the day. And their first concern was that they wanted their stories told.

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