Saturday, July 2, 2016

C S Lewis and intellectual hospitality: learning to listen to the opposition

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, is shutting down, so I will gradually be posting my articles from there in this venue. This is probably my favorite, so I'll begin with it. 

C.S. Lewis at Table with Dante and Zeus: Pushing (Against) the Limits of Intellectual Hospitality

In 2014, Diana Pavlac Glyer gave an address at the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge. She spoke on "Intellectual Hospitality"—the importance of listening carefully to the opinions of others, and treating those with whom we disagree with kindness and respect.

Glyer, Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in California, is one of the foremost C S Lewis scholars. She is best known for her 2008 book The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, and has authored and contributed to many articles and chapters in scholarly works. She is also a highly sought-after speaker for conferences.

Glyer began her address describing the "great works approach" she uses in her classes at APU. She explains this is more about how we read the "great texts of the world" than what we read—not merely a list, but learning to listen and taking the time to understand what the text is saying. This involves reading the works themselves – avoiding summaries and commentaries.

This approach is certainly needed in the atmosphere of hostility in which we find ourselves in America, where polarization is becoming more and more the norm. We too often argue with out-of-context snippets, soundbites, and memes, rather than actually trying to understand what the opposition is actually saying. Glyer quotes from C S Lewis' book An Experiment in Criticism.

We read in order to remove our gaze from the mirrored face, to deliver us from solitude. I suggest we should be concerned with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore, also, the attitudes, feelings, and total experience of others. ... What is the good of listening to what anyone else has to say? Unless you contain in yourself the sources that can supply all the information, all the entertainment, all the advice, rebuke, and all the merriment you want, the answer is obvious. ... If it is worthwhile listening, or reading, at all, it is worth doing it attentively. Indeed, we must attend even to discover if something is worth our attention.

Professor Glyer recounts at length how her students in her class of Lewis's Mere Christianity learned to listen to each other as the course progressed. Mere Christianity is about the commonality shared by all Christians summed up in his words, "The death of Jesus Christ has made us right with God." But he also talks about the various rooms within the house of Christianity where life is lived. We choose which room (Catholicism, Episcopal, Baptist, etc.) to enter, and this should be based on our search for truth, not merely what we feel. Lewis encourages us to enter a room and not linger in the hallway. However, once in a room, he gives this advice.

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors, and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers all the more. And if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Lewis is not talking about differences in preferences, such as music styles, buildings, etc. He is talking about truth. How do we treat those who disagree with us in matters of truth?

A June 2014 Pew Research study shows the trend in America is not from conservative to liberal, or from liberal to conservative, but away from the middle toward both ends of the spectrum. They also found the two extremes are growing more and more hostile toward each other. Glyer quotes the study.

Growing ideological uniformity on both sides is leading an increasing number of Americans to see followers of the other Party as a threat to the nation's well-being.

The problem is, with all the choices we have on cable television and the internet, we tend to surround ourselves with those who agree with us and isolate ourselves from the opposition (except for shouting matches on social media). When was the last time you actively listened to, or tried to read with an open mind, someone with whom you fundamentally disagree?

For once, take yourself away from the ideological bubble and take time to listen to Professor Glyer's address, which is embedded above. In this age of growing hostility, may we learn kindness and understanding.

"My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." James 1:19-20 NIV

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