Suspension of (Dissing) Belief

I came across a quote by the 13th century Persian mystic Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muḥammad Balkhi (whom we commonly refer to as “Rumi”) which began thusly:

Out beyond ideas of
wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

It started me thinking whether or not there was actually some way to sit for a period of time with people whom you think are absolutely wrong & simply be with them, to listen and understand without judging or evaluating (activities which we surely must do at some point, particularly if we find that someone is sexually attracted to underage children!).

I know that if I were a relativist, this would be a (almost said “relatively”) simple exercise, as long as someone did not presume to believe that something was ACTUALLY true!  And though I may belong to the tribe of Moral Absolutists (though qualifying myself as someone who believes in “graded absolutism”), I tend toward the view that while there are certainly absolute truths, I am not someone who has taken hold of all of them correctly and so I have to maintain a degree of humility toward other perspectives.  However, this makes the prospect of “dialogue” a bit more difficult.  People who believe certain things are true seem to want to PERSUADE others to believe the same thing that they do.  However, often in conversation where there is deep disagreement, this seems to lead to an inability to truly listen to and attempt to understand a different perspective, but rather becomes merely an exercise waiting one’s turn and thinking of one’s own argument while the other person is speaking.

For instance, if I were speaking with someone who absolutely did not agree that a child in the womb was a human being in any sense of the word, it would be difficult to listen to their views and ask clarifying questions, without responding with my perspective at all.  Yet there is something in me, the part that was intrigued by the Rumi quote, that wonders if this actually might be a good exercise.  Proverbs 18.13 says that “he who answers before listening–that is his folly and shame.”  James, the brother of Jesus, commanded that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1.19).  Maybe delaying our response and simply sitting with someone would be a way to practice these ideas.  After all, do we really think that we are going to convince another person to believe differently by cutting down their points as they are speaking?  Would they be more willing to listen to our ideas at a later time if they felt like we were truly making the effort to understand where they were coming from, without needing to immediately “correct” them?

This sort of ideological “suspension of belief” reminds me of a film I saw in the early 90’s called “A Midnight Clear.”  Without going into too much detail, it is set during winter in the Ardennes forest during World War II & contains a moment where American and German troops encounter one another, prepared to go to kill one another, but instead end up in a snowball fight and singing “Silent Night” together.  It’s an incredible scene, but makes the tragic ending of the film even more poignant, as the fighting later resumes…

Maybe this is the thing that is so difficult.  Seeing the enemy whom we want to defeat as a person, with deeply held beliefs, passions and feelings just like we do…I want to think more about this, but it’s a start.

ELIJAH ADDS: Great post and I wholeheartedly agree.  I once received advice from a mentor and professor of mine while in college, Ken Berding, which pertained primarily to relationships.  His advice was generally this: that when in a dispute or discussion find an object like a pen or something you could hold in your hand.  One person has the right to speak first–we’ll call him Alfred–and Alfred holds the pen while speaking.  The other person (whom we’ll call Beatriz) may not speak while Alfred has the pen.  When Alfred has made his case he passes the pen to Beatriz.  At this point Beatriz must repeat the case that Alfred has made according to her understanding.  If Alfred does not believe that his expression has been properly heard he may take the pen back and clarify.  When Beatriz finally expresses Alfred’s point(s) to his satisfaction she holds onto the pen and can now articulate her response. If only we entered a debate with such respect and humility.

But in our culture to be changed when faced with a challenge is shameful.  When two people debate in our culture no one wins, for neither party has become enlightened and neither party has been heard.


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