Tag Archives: risks

Embracing difference as a spiritual discipline

We Christians have not been known, especially in recent years, for our ability to embrace difference…but what if we were?

A few weekends ago I listened to a podcast on the enneagram, the typology of nine interactive personality types that supposedly traces back to the desert fathers, and have been fascinated ever since.  But while I have loved learning about my type, where I’m prone to stress and poised for growth, what I’ve loved most about the typology is the window of empathy it has given me into the way I view my friends, family, and co-workers.  The enneagram, at its best, celebrates the differences that make us human, and instructs us not to try to change but to further understand and know one another.

But what about when people are really, really different from us and those differences confront what we think we know about ourselves, our culture, and even our faith?

As an anthropologist, I’m not only attracted to, but trained to appreciate differences in all their human forms.  When I meet someone who tells me about a different upbringing, worldview, or belief system, my ears perk up, and my intellectual curiosity sparks.  “How fascinating,” I think.  Tell me more,” I often blurt out instinctively; I listen and wait and expect…to grow.

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JingPo Christians in Yunnan, China.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

This robust respect for difference is entangled with one of the controversial, central tenants of anthropology–the notion of cultural relativism, or the belief that you kind of have to know a bit, well a lot, about another culture to understand it and to see and understand how they value what they value.  All cultures contain truth and integrity, but we rarely stop to pay attention and try to see things the way others might see them.

As I mentioned, this tenant is controversial because it’s really challenging.  Especially in the course I teach on disability, it’s almost impossible for our ableist and intellectualist-coded minds to stretch ourselves to consider disability as yet another element in human diversity.  When I assign a provocative chapter that references the very title of our course, “Disability as Difference,” students are wont to collapse the tension, to find the differences of disability clearly lacking or deficient, or at the very least, to assimilate the disabled to be “just like us.”

We human beings are simply not very good at seeing difference as valuable or even neutral. We’re constantly shaping, skewing, explaining, and evaluating differences (and different people) that we come into contact with everyday.

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The great Buddha at Lantau, Hong Kong.

But what if we added to our spiritual disciplines the act of allowing space for difference and even appreciating difference before we try to so hard to reform it, judge it, or rehabilitate it?

I think Christians especially have been afraid of the costs of such a foray.  We are afraid of where an appreciation for difference may lead us–astray from our Christian beliefs, our Christ, our God, our truth.  But if we are so easily lead astray from our faith when we value the differences of others, do we not serve a God who is small to begin with?  If our faith falters at the very introduction of contradiction, tension, and diversity, is our faith not flimsy and perhaps very worthy of being discarded?  Might we find a more robust faith, as Jesus did, in accompanying and learning from those who are different from us?

As an anthropologist who has learned so much from others about God precisely because of this openness toward difference, I seek a faith that is deep and profound and hearty because it is constantly probed and reevaluated and tested by what I am learning.  At every angle, when I exclaim, “That’s fascinating,” and sit at another’s feet to listen, I may risk something, but I also stand to gain so much.  I find this openness to difference, this grappling with diversity, to be a spiritual discipline because God is nothing if not miraculously incarnate and yet profoundly different from us at the same time.

But often we forget that truth.  

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Family out at a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt.

We presume God to belong to us, to be just like us, to be ours, to be with us and for us.  But I think God wants us to read scripture against the grain, to consider the rich diversity among its pages and in our lives, and to explore with abandon, making ourselves profoundly open to others and to God in unlikely and unexpected people and places.

We can’t do that if we’re afraid and closed off to those who are different from us, though.  We can’t grow if we don’t allow difference to disrupt our neat beliefs and convictions.  We can’t truly know God if we confine ourselves to that which is similar, expected, and narrow.

Do you do this in your life?  How do you embrace difference as a spiritual discipline?  How has it enabled your faith to grow, even if it has been tested and tried?

My husband often talks of how our seminary professors challenged us to discover a second naiveté after the faith of our childhood failed us and here Cornel West talks about a healthy atheism. I’m really interested in exploring how vulnerability like this to difference, especially, can help us to grow in our love for one another and God.

 

 

That little pause

I’ve probably let you know in spurts that sometimes it feels like summer, the presumed magical pause for many of us, has been on overdrive over here.  With summer teaching for me, makeup medical appointments for Lucia, and moving for the three of us, it’s easy to see where the time has gone.

I’ve been blogging about this book draft that I’m eager to get out to publishers, and I’ve been a bit critical of myself along the way.  You see, I wish I’d had it out to publishers like in June.  That was really unrealistic, but you know how when you just want to get something off your plate and out into the world so you can move forward with other tasks and ideas?

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Photo credit: Terry League.

But yesterday, with the last class of the semester complete, no meetings on my schedule, and lovely light ahead of me, I had a free morning.  And instead of cramming it with burdened and anxious writing, I let my mind wander.  A colleague of mine had suggested another scholar who could be an interlocutor for me on the ideas of vulnerability, kinship, and need that are shaping my book.  And so I sat there for several hours without an agenda–I read and I wrote, dialoging back and forth with this other scholar about my ideas, without an end in sight.

And it was good.

It was good to be creative, to let go of the aims and simply pursue the thoughts and the ideas and trust that they would matter.  I think I eventually ended up with some insights that will help revise the little parts of my introduction that need revision.

But maybe not.

And the strange math of the week is that I still feel that I’ve accumulated something really valuable.  It’s the type of wild exploration that I’ve been begging my students to risk doing, despite the confines of their cramped summer semester.  “Dare to dream big,” I’ve said.  “Go for that big idea, take risks,” I’ve goaded them in their writing.

But I’ve got to live by my own wisdom.  I’ve got to carve space out for these creative pauses that excite, entice, and beckon without ulterior motives.  It’s the stuff of believing in the creative process, I think, but also believing in yourself.  Trusting yourself to manage this precious time that you’ve been given and valuing that good ideas need room to breathe, that a lot of the best stuff seeps out of us when we’re willing to work for it, wait for it, wrestle with it, and knead it a bit.

Another thing that I’ve been telling my students that I think goes hand in hand with these pauses is urging them not to turn in upon themselves and cower when the world rejects them.  I’ve told them that their worth can’t come from these things they think or produce or accomplish but rather who they know, trust, and love themselves to be.

And suddenly it makes sense to me.

If I truly believe that, too, then I’ll value and allow myself that morning in a coffee shop to simply think and wander because I’m not the sum of my accomplishments or my successes, but rather an artist whose thoughts and wisdom and goodness need to be lived out daily.  While I tell my students stuff like this all the time, I think it’s been a long time coming for me to admit that I’m a bit of an artist when it comes to words and ideas–that I’m a thinker and a dreamer, someone who likes to spin and sew and create with thoughts.

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Light pouring into my empty office in our new house.  My photo.

So thank you, dear students.  It seems I’ve learned something really valuable from you this semester.  It seems I’ve been reignited with the fire and excitement that comes from thinking.  It seems I’ve been given the freedom to explore again rather than put everything I do to a purpose, a publication, a deeper success.

And that feels good.

Thanks for giving to me this small, sweet truth.  And I’ll do my very best to honor it with a pause every once in awhile and believe in myself just a bit more.