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Curate's Corner - June 2016

Curate’s Corner – June 2016

Do you like being right?

It’s a strange question, but I wonder how many of us actually ever stop to think about the value of having some of our strongly-held views and opinions challenged. How we lead our lives and make our decisions is largely determined by our opinions and our understanding of the world around us. These opinions and understanding are, of course, influenced enormously by our personal experiences throughout our lives. They are deeply ingrained in us, forming who we are and the way in which we see and understand life’s challenges and problems.

As the ongoing debate over whether to leave or remain in the EU heats up, we see daily examples on our television screens of politicians and other commentators giving impassioned speeches that try to persuade us in one direction or the other. Such speeches are inevitably based on strongly-held views and opinions that have been formed over the course of that person’s lifetime and career.

But who’s right? Who do we believe? How do we know?

I think to some extent we have a natural filter in our brains that blocks much of the commentary that we hear that disagrees with our deep-rooted views and opinions, and allows through much more easily those arguments that are more in line with our own position on such matters. This isn’t based on scientific research, just observation of our natural behavior.

We find it much easier to connect with views and opinions we hear that are in line with our own, that reinforce our position and make us feel good, than we do to listen carefully to those which contradict or challenge our views. It’s a natural human characteristic to want to have our own views reinforced and justified.

Having said that, most of us probably pride ourselves on having an open mind and taking on board different opinions. But do we really? Do we consciously seek opportunities to challenge our opinions and make sure they are appropriate and healthy?

I read recently that a television host for CNN, Christiane Amanpour, a British-Iranian journalist, commented that she relishes listening to views that contradict her own, because she wants to be confident of her opinions and would hate to miss an argument that undermines them.

This strikes me as unusual. I know most of us would say that we like to hear all sides of the debate, but actually to welcome having our cherished views tested is much rarer I think.

And of course religion is an area of our lives where we hold very deeply-rooted views and opinions that influence our entire lives, and the value systems by which we live them. It might seem odd for an ordained priest to advocate having our firmly-held beliefs challenged, but don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying we should be casual about our faith or afraid of standing up and witnessing to what we believe.

What I am saying is that I think religious views and matters of faith (not just Christian) are in danger of becoming labelled as intransigent ‘red-lines’ that cannot be challenged or questioned. The danger of this is that religion is slowly squeezed out of the wider debate, that it is no longer a voice speaking into the critically important issues of the day. Perhaps we’re there to a large extent already.

In the first letter of Peter (chapter 3, verse 15) we are reminded that we must “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is within you…” This passage is often used as a means of encouraging us to have our arguments straight so we can defend against those who seek to challenge our faith; to make sure that we can fight back against those who seek to ridicule or tear us down for our faith.

But there is more to this extract from 1Peter than the words above; it continues with these crucial words, which all too often seem to be forgotten or missed: “…yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” The world can learn a great deal from these words, and indeed if they were applied to all religions by those who hold more extreme interpretations of their given faith, the world would almost certainly be a more peaceful, loving place.

We are of course called to witness to our faith, and it is a vital part of discipleship that we do so, not just in words, but in who we are; in how we behave; in our attitude towards the stranger; in the decisions we make. But I believe that taking the example of Christiane Amanpour and actively seeking to hear views that contradict our own, in order to be confident of our opinions, is a model that is likely to bear the fruits of mutual trust and respect, and open up new channels of communication that might previously have been closed to us.

So let’s have the courage to engage in conversation with others; let’s relish the opportunity to ‘talk religion’ at dinner parties, that great British taboo, so we can test and re-shape our opinions, that we might be better equipped to fulfill that calling to witness to our faith with gentleness and reverence.

Fr Mitch