On Building Bridges

Christians and nontheists at Theology on Tap ‘Christmas Mythbusters’ panel (left to right): Taylor, Meredith, Paul, Sarah, Daniel, Brian, and Kurt.

Lately a number of incidents, along with my own concerns, have caused me to think more about how to better reach out and communicate genuinely with those across large divides. SNS is a community for naturalists so our published content assumes the reader is a naturalist or considering it. Therefore, that kind of interfaith (or inter-political, etc) dialogue is not itself a part of our mission directly. Nevertheless, each of us must live in a diverse world and how we deal with others is absolutely a part of our life practice. So addressing how best to live in this for the individual spiritual naturalist is squarely a part of our focus.

I live in a community that is roughly compatible with my own views and, like so many of us, most of my friends and associates are in that ballpark as well. So, it can be easy for me to sometimes forget that certain groups of people even exist – to the point of amazement or having my ghast flabbered upon hearing some of their views or opinions. But understanding, listening, and mindfully responding in wise and effective ways to differences of religious, economic, or political view is so important in the current climate of seemingly insurmountable divisiveness.

That’s why many of us have been racking our brains, trying to figure out some way to get through to one another. I was reminded of this recently as Thanksgiving approached and we saw all these articles about how to deal with family differences at the table. Fortunately, my extended family members all instinctively know to stay away from politics during Thanksgiving, but I’ve been amazed at some of the horror stories I’ve read about.

While that makes for a more pleasant holiday, we all can’t continue to simply huddle in our respective tribes and ‘avoid the topic’. Isolation breeds ignorance, and that leads to suspicion, fear, hate, and anger.

That’s why I was pleased to respond to an invitation from Sarah Stone, who runs an event called “Theology on Tap”. They meet in a church in Montrose, which they turn into a pub of sorts by bringing in craft beer. They usually have a panel of people and discuss various issues of interest. Sometimes they invite people of different views for a kind-spirited dialogue.

The panel I was part of included three Christians and three non-theists of various sorts. I represented the Humanist and Spiritual Naturalist variety. Our topic centered on Christmas myths and issues, and our various perspectives on its meaning, history, place in society, and ways of practicing around this time of year. It was interesting to see what kinds of deep topics arose.

The community there was very inviting and friendly to all of us and I commend their efforts to reach across divides – this is the kind of thing we could use more of (on a side note, I would be remiss not to mention the Dinner Dialogues put on by Interfaith Ministries in Houston, in which I’ve participated and which are also an excellent example you can search about).

I cannot pretend, however, to have come up with a method or answer to address some of the more extreme differences in these heated times, and these are what keep me concerned and dwelling. Our society has many group differences which aren’t nearly as pleasant or have nearly as many gracious folks as the event I attended – on any side. I have not always been a perfect example by any means.

But if I were to venture some guesses, I think one important element might be a willingness to be “more gracious than our conversant deserves”. And, by “deserve” I mean what our immediate impression may be, wrong or right. I think some degree of thick skin, letting things slide, or being nonreactive can allow us a lot more freedom to explore effective responses. This is hard, or course, but this is the kind of thing we can get better at through mindfulness practices and self understanding.

There was a very powerful example of this a friend shared to me recently. It was from a site called boredpanda.com. It shows an online conversation started when an angry parent wrote to a non-binary model named Rain Dove. The parent’s child had decided to identify as another gender and the parent was being very hateful and calling this sick “thanks to you”. Despite the parent’s very aggressive and insulting attitude, Rain Dove remained calm and expressed compassionate concern for the parent. Eventually, the parent began to change and before long was accepting of advice for being helpful to her child. You can read the discussion here.

It would have been so easy to get upset at the initial dialogue, but this was a great example of how powerful and transformative it can be when our focus is placed in other areas.

That brings up a second strategy, which is to remember, expect, and accept that your conversant will not always (or even mostly) return the same to you. If we make their equal response a requirement for our outreach, I don’t think the math of this works out to any progress for anyone. Further, we need to remember that not all members of a group are necessarily the nefarious examples who might be willingly spreading falsehoods or hate for political or economic reasons. Most may simply have become convinced by them. Or, they may even be right about some things you have yet to acknowledge or respond to adequately.

Therefore, we need to be able to make the motivation of our actions stem from something other than reciprocity. I think we need to begin with the motivation of loving all beings.

It may seem unimaginable to say we love someone or a member of some group who seems to be doing very harmful and bad things. But the important thing in this is to remember that loving someone is not the same as passivity or inaction against them or their aims. It may well be that duty calls us to act in opposition to those who are doing wrong – but this does not require our hatred. Try to imagine an ideal mother’s love, and how she would feel even if it came to a point she had to turn her child in for the protection of others. This can be a key to understanding how we can love someone even while acting vigorously against them.

And, while the display of love can be very powerful in reaching others, we must also be ready for the fact that they will often not understand us. They will often see the necessary vigorous action as being sourced in hate, no matter what we tell them. They will often see our ‘hatred of their acts’ as hatred for them. They will also rightfully witness many in our own group who do genuinely hate them, and presume we are like this as well. When we are engaged in a practice of trying to cultivate loving-kindness, it can be especially hurtful to have someone claiming you are hateful. But in these times, we must remind ourselves that it is not for reputation or approval that we act, but for higher purposes. We can only try to genuinely be loving in all our acts and hope that the sincerity of that can get through to people, even if we must simultaneously resist harmful actions.

But perhaps the hardest thing I’ve found to come to terms with is the seemingly insurmountable gulf when it comes to different understandings of reality itself. By that I don’t so much mean different religious worldviews – we’ve all been dealing with that a long time. I mean the different sources of ‘facts’ we each have and the increasing divisions between various groups’ basic understanding of the world. This is a huge issue that is not going away any time soon. In these times, we must focus on what we can control.

At the very least, we can watch our own “information diet”. We should seek to understand how the internet creates “reality tunnels” for all sides, based on our previous behaviors and often suspect algorithms. We should make an active effort to listen to opposing sources and views, so we at least know what their arguments are and what they think. We should resist that pleasurable urge we get to read reinforcing sources only (you know it when you find yourself merely thinking, “yeah!”, “yeah!” to everything).

Importantly, we should not get our only understanding of them from the straw men than our favorite sources may be describing. There is no ‘perfect’ source so we should use variation to help us see different angles to begin piecing together a larger perspective. Also important: as we read the ‘opposing views’, we should try to be mindful of the animosity we are feeling about what we’re reading. Then we can turn it around and say, “I’m really feeling aggressive about this. Even if it is ‘justified’, could this strong emotion be keeping me from understanding why they think this more deeply?”

An SNS member and good friend recently made me aware of a website called allsides.com. They are a bipartisan group that tries to present a spectrum of views. For the stories they cover, they give perspectives from the left, the right, and the center. They also have analyzed many major media sources for bias and created a handy chart that shows where they are on the left/right spectrum. This isn’t to say that the center is always the “most correct” view, but such charts can be a helpful guide in glancing about. I have recently decided to alter some of my routine sources in order to have a wider intake.

I know all of this is easier said than done. I think all of the above should sound reasonable to most anyone. Yet, I suspect people reading this might think it’s something we always want the other side to do, but the speaker doesn’t really intend to be that way themselves. I have to admit, I am hoping this can reach ‘the other side’. But I also really do plan to reflect on myself, and I know there are many times I’ve seen things said and written by people on one of my “sides” that has been off or not fair, etc. It is probably also a good idea to look for opportunities to praise your conversant for the things you agree on, and to look for chances to correct things coming from your own side. By that same measure, we really need to throw out the idea that if someone on our ‘team’ makes a point helpful to the other, that it’s some kind of betrayal. I don’t think genuine love can exist without a genuine effort of fairness and integrity.

I would love to hear more suggestions and thoughts on this, and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and Happy New Year!


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2 thoughts on “On Building Bridges”

  1. Daniel – enjoyed being on the panel with you. Several folks in my circle had kind things to say about you after our interaction. Appreciate the thoughtfulness you bring to these discussions.

    • Taylor, thanks so much for your kind words. I appreciate the chance to share time with you and everyone 🙂


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