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.


This is my [hopefully not too] awkward first post. While I’d like to write about the Gospel or something more strictly theological (since politics have been invading every facet of American existence for the past 21 months), I am choosing to write about the current American President, George W. Bush.

Comedic persona Neil Hamburger once told a joke during a stand-up routine that went something like this: ‘Hey, is it just me? Is it just me or is George Bush the worst president in the history of the United States, huh, am I right? The anti-Bush crowd during this routine—not unlike the national crowd, which according to at least one poll is composed of 70% of Americans—cheered at this rhetorical question. Hamburger continued, ‘Which makes it all the harder to understand why his son, George W. Bush, is in fact the best president we’ve ever had.’ This punchline was followed by a wave of ‘boos’ from the displeased crowd.

It seems possible that we live in a ‘post-Bush’ culture, one that ignores the fact that he exists or at least looks forward to the day when he will cease to. Though I would not consider myself as a fan of Bush’s presidency, I find it perplexing that our culture is so infatuated with hating him. Perhaps we don’t realize that Bush is ten years younger than John McCain, which means that we potentially have another decade or more of Bush in the public eye.

He’s a truly fascinating person. If you’ve not seen Oliver Stone’s W., I suggest you do. It’s a well-crafted caricature of Bush’s adult life and the various people who have surrounded him. I left the theater with a far more empathetic attitude toward the man (the person, not the politician), who is portrayed as a simple guy, caught up in a wave of dirty politics. The guilt of the Bush Administration is really shifted toward Dick Cheney in the film. That may be a cop-out.

But in addition to the empathy I gained toward Bush the man, I was also filled with a sense of mourning; mourning for a man who has been painted as a villain in our culture by not-as-much-fault-as-America-thinks of his own. It seems as if he is already numbered among the deceased presidents of our generation—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan—yet has been painted with more dishonor than Herbert Hoover. He’s still in office until January, yet we replaced him with an over-publicized bout for the seat of the 44th President of the United States nearly two years ago.

Any conclusion or resolution? Maybe we ought to not view those in the public eye as demigods. Maybe we ought to not expect our political leaders (any other person, for that matter) to make the perfect decision every time. Perhaps his failures are indicative of a more corrupt and insidious political system.

The Greatest Novelist of the early 21st Century?

As fascinated as I am by economic theory & Christian belief (ok, maybe not fascinated), I thought I might write something more aligned with my deepest passion:  literature.  And since this seems to be the place to say the things that seem of greatest significance to me, I will share my thoughts with you as if they truly did matter.

I believe I may have discovered a writer who will be remembered as one of the greatest novelists of our generation.  He certainly has joined the ranks of my favorite contemporary authors (just for shits and giggles, other favorites include David Lodge, Paul Auster, Ian McEwan and Tom Perrotta, as well as the late John Gardner and Italo Calvino).  His name, dear reader, is David Mitchell.  Have you heard of him already?  I am finding out about him 9 years late, but perhaps you run with more literate crowds than I.

If you are not familiar with Mr. Mitchell, I will introduce you to his works in the order in which I have read them (all within the last 3 months):

Black Swan Green…a “coming-of-age” novel which captures both the common human experience of teenage angst and reveals a singular story of beauty and depth that could only be told by a budding poet with a speech disorder (which he personifies as “Hangman” in a brilliant conceit) in early-80’s Britain.  I was stunned by Mitchell’s originality of language and his masterful revelation of the uniquely fascinating consciousness of his narrator, while often finding myself lost in the sea of characters and details into which he pulls the reader.

Ghostwritten…so Mitchell’s ability to uncannily depict the inner essence of a character?  He does it with NINE different characters here (one of which seems to be a disembodied consciousness who parasites off of various hosts) in a variety of global settings, depicted pitch perfect (well, I guess I can only assume that, not having been to Okinawa, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, etc.).  This was his first novel.  Genius right out of the starting gate.

number9dream…at first, I thought this would be the novel of his which I liked least, beginning with a fantasy sequence ala cyberpunk meets Walter Mitty, only to discover that this was the method of revealing his narrator–through a series of what have been called “alternate realities” that help the young Japanese protaganist escape from inner pain at losing his sister & never knowing his father.  It probably will remain a lesser of his novels, but still more capably executed and intriguing than most of the fiction around today.

Cloud Atlas…the masterpiece (for now).  Utilizing a variety of different literary forms (journal, letters, mainstream fiction, memoir, interview, oral storytelling, etc.) in a palindromic structure, Mitchell once again tells stories from a range of geographical settings, but now also from a variety of historical periods (1800’s to well into the future), again, all feeling spot on.  His vast imagination and attention to minute detail, along with the intertextual trick of bringing in characters from his other novels (which he does frequently), make this an encyclopedic work unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

This guy is amazing.  It’s often a demanding task to read his work, but the quality of his writing will probably insure that future literature “seminar” classes will be devoted to him, if not to EACH of his books.