Humility, Tolerance and Dialogue

(Today’s article is by guest writer Ed Kelly, Jr. For a brief bio of Ed, see below.)

The United States has been for several years saturated and plagued with polarized thinking. This should be evident to anyone who has watched the news or attended any civic community meeting.

What is polarized thinking? Polarized thinking is black and white thinking where there is no gray or everything is perceived at the extremes. It is the tendency to see things as only two categories- all or nothing, good or bad, right, or wrong. It is the view that there are only two opposing possibilities: I am right, and you are wrong! Polarized thinking says my preferred values are everything and yours are nothing and results in seeing people as enemies and name calling instead of focusing on content and discussion of ideas. In his book, On Human Nature, Edward O Wilson suggests that our brains are hard wired to dichotomize – to classify people into two artificially sharpened categories. Our brains are hardwired to think “us versus them.” [1]

But I believe that there is a solution to overcoming this evolutionary survival mode that has been ingrained in our minds. It is not an easy remedy. It will take a reprogramming of our minds and much practice. There are three key principles that we need to consider: tolerance, humility, and dialogue. Each of these three principles are inextricably linked together as one cannot have dialogue without the other two principles. Dialogue is rooted in humility and tolerance.

William Isaac, in his book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together,[2] defines dialogue as a conversation in thinking together. He begins with a short history of the early Greeks and how they saw dialogue as the cornerstone of civic practice. The Greeks had a gathering place called the polis – the root of our modern English word politics. The polis was the physical space where civic conversation or dialogue took place. This dialogue was considered the foundation of democracy. Reflecting on that idea and the recent U.S. Presidential election process, I am left with the implication that yes, we had an election but our democracy in this country was certainly limited since we had extraordinarily little dialogue, honest conversation in thinking together. And going forward into this new year – we need dialogue more than ever before if our democracy is to continue and flourish.

Socrates is called the Father of Western philosophy. We often picture philosophers as people who have isolated themselves from others and are deeply into self-reflection. But Socrates reveals to us that the search for truth, the search for reality, knowledge about ourselves and the world, cannot be made without dialogue. It is in dialogue with others that we best discover truth. Some may find that concept difficult to grasp but I hope you will think about it.

How do we have healthy dialogue?

First, we need a strong dose of two attitudes, humility and tolerance, which are key principles of the Spiritual Naturalist Society in that we recognize that there a wide diversity of paths and much we can learn from each other. Humility is the root from which tolerance and dialogue grow. It is only out of honest open humility that we can have dialogue. Humility is what DT Strain referred to as

…the core of Epoché practice…the recognition that we are imperfect in our ability to know all things. Consistent with the Stoic’s approach to control, we recognize that how much knowledge we have at any given moment, is not something over which we have ultimate control. It also includes the recognition that our feelings and our intuition are part of our faculties as limited human beings, and therefore subject to bias and error. [3]

Humility means I admit to myself that I do not have all the answers and that I am open to learning from others. Humility means I no longer consider my perspective the only perspective.  Humility as taught by Buddhist’s Thich Nhat Hanh is recognizing I do not exist by myself but only in others. [4]

Tolerance flows from humility. I recently came across an interesting tenet of the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids Michigan:

We believe in tolerance of religious ideas. The religions of every age and culture have something to teach those who listen. [5]

That made me stop and examine how much I listen to others. Our tolerance for others can be measured by how much we actively listen to them. One of the keys to stopping our own polarized thinking is to begin to develop the art of listening. Listening is something we are not trained or taught to do; we are taught how to speak but not how to listen. It is a skill that takes practice. Two core practices that William Isaacs talks about is respecting and suspending. Respecting mean we must allow the other person to have a different point of view. This should be an obvious but in the heat of discussion we often forget. I think it is related to the intention of dialogue. What is the intention or purpose of dialogue? Is it to seek answers to think together or is it to push our answers and agenda on others? Too often the intention is to try and change the other person’s view. Respect means I listen to understand the other person’s view. He or she is a human being worthy of listening to and learning from. Respect then leads to suspension. To listen we need to suspend our beliefs and opinions. Suspension is not easy because we all have mental filters (cognitive biases) that prevent us sometimes from fully listening. Dalai Lama explains why your thinking needs to be unbiased:

to analyze something effectively, you need to be unbiased! If you are prejudice so that from the onset you are committed to one side of the issue or the other, then when you analyze, the results will be twisted. You need to start within an attitude free from seeing one notion as good ands the other as bad, and instead be willing to entertain the possibility that either notion could be good or bad. By analyzing without bias you will be capable of seeing advantages and disadvantages.[6]

With practice we can work through these biases. One of the reasons we react when someone says something that goes against our already developed beliefs is our attachment buttons. We all have these attachment buttons: the  opinions and beliefs that we hold so deeply. And when someone pushes that button, it leads to momentary blindness and we react. Suspension means the work of detaching ourselves from our beliefs so that we can listen and understand the other person without the baggage of our own beliefs creating the fog of conflict. When we react, answer in a critical way, it affects the other person who responds in similar fashion resulting in the contagious nightmare of chaotic rancorous bickering.

It is only when we cultivate humility, tolerance, and listening with respect and suspension can the “we” of dialogue begin. Only when we understand each other’s ideas can we begin to think together.

The heart of true dialogue is listening – letting go of your own beliefs and directing your energy to thinking together and away from polarization.

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

[1] Wilson, Edward O.  (1978,2004) On Human Nature.  Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
[2] Isaacs, William (1999) Dialogue: the Art of Thinking Together. New York, Doubleday.
[3] Strain, D.T. Epoche.
[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, (2017) The Other Shore. Berkeley: Palm Leaves Press
[5] Buehrens, John & Church, Forrest (1989, 1998) Chosen Faith, Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press
[6] Dalai Lama (2009) Becoming Enlightened. New York: Atria Books/Simin & Schuster

BIO: Guest writer Edward Kelly Jr. lives in Red Oak, Iowa, with his wife Rose. He was a Fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher for 20 years and in 1995 began a journey out of fundamentalism through the influence of such writers as Paul Tillich and James Barr. He has a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) and is now a Humanist Chaplain and Celebrant.

2 thoughts on “Humility, Tolerance and Dialogue”

  1. Gregory, two great questions – probably great ideas for another article. But in the spirit of dialogue and in the context of this article with the definitions of terms that I presented:
    1. Limits to toleration? Yes, in a democratic society, there must be limits to toleration as Philosopher Karl Popper points out in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies- “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them…We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” Using the dialogical technique of understanding where the other person developed his ideas- helps to understand Popper’s view. He saw and was deeply troubled by the Nazi and Fascist movements of World War II. The problem is where and when in a democracy, like ours (US) that values free speech and also diversity at the same time, to limit toleration.
    2. When does Humility become relativism? This would require an entire book to answer. First it depends on how one defines relativism. But allow me to answer- to open the dialogue with- There is nothing in the nature of the humility and tolerance that I have presented, that requires me or you to say that all beliefs, all religious practices, and all social practices are equally admirable. But it does require at least for us to dialogue and be open to listening to the other. How else to we form ethical rules to live together in peace? We have also learned from the studies of cultural relativism- the insight that many of the practices and attitudes that we may have thought natural and absolute are only cultural products. That insight should help us to value diversity and open up our minds to other views.


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