Well, it's the presidential campaigning season again. (Did it ever leave?) We can look forward to lots and lots of people looking for every little out of place detail and technical error to show their opponents as crazy or moronic, as well as lots and lots of portraits of the other side as the ugly cousin of the Wicked Witch of the West. It's interesting to watch, however, because I think the tendency to paint someone whose ideas we don't like as a bad guy is our way of not dealing with what he or she actually says. In other words, we have an almost subconscious tendency to paint someone as a lunatic, jerk, idiot, or dupe when we don't want to like what they have to say. This is our way of protecting ourselves. It is the way of the ad hominem fallacy, the fallacy that never allows us to learn what we may feel is threatening toward us. As long as we can put someone who says something we don't want to deal with in a particular box, we can view them as unworthy of a hearing. This happens no matter what side you are on.
In contrast to this, we look over the faults, the technical mistakes, the background and affiliations, etc. of people with whom we agree. We actually let them speak. We consider the context of what they are saying. We let them actually finish a sentence without thinking the words, "idiot," "jerk," "lunatic," "fanatic," etc. We're not trying to find fault with them, because they are no threat to us. Our defenses our down, and because they are down, we can actually have a real conversation with them.
Both of these tendencies are a bad thing in my mind, and I'll tell you why. First, the way we deal with people espousing ideas we don't like does not allow us to learn anything beyond what we want to believe. It may be that these ideas will change our lives dramatically, and that is precisely what we're afraid of if we allow them to speak their piece.
Second, the way we deal with people espousing ideas we do like only entrenches us in our positions further without considering the other side. This isn't all bad, but it could very well lead to brainwashing rather than a well thought out position.
In other words, this tendency to protect ourselves from the "other side" makes us, not only dumber people, but worse people, since an unthinking person is an unthinking doer, and that is a dangerous thing in a world where we should be believing what is true and doing what is good.
If iron sharpens iron, clashes, sparks and all, what do cotton balls do for one another? They only comfort already held opinions, but if those opinions are wrong, tragically wrong, we will never know it. Alas, the only one who was going to offer us hope of believing otherwise has been banished to the basement, where all ugly cousins go.
Now, there actually are a lot of lunatics and morons in the world, so I'm not saying to listen to everyone; but I am saying that we need to listen to people in context. Let them speak, and think about what they are saying critically, whether they are friend or foe.
I say this because a lot of people will never listen to what they need to hear. I used to tell my wife that all of the people who really needed to hear a particular sermon seemed like they were never there for that one that might have changed their lives. It's that book you should have read, that church you should have attended, that conversation you should have gotten into, that may have changed your life for the better forever, but it will never be. After all, that book was written by that moron, that church is a bunch of crazy (or legalistic/judgmental) people, that guy is too much of a jerk to get into it with him. Iron never touches iron. A blade is never forged. We are naked on the battlefield.
Maybe it's we who are the morons who won't listen, the intolerant jerks who can't have a decent conversation with anyone who doesn't keep a certain distance from our deeply held ideas or lifestyles, the crazy people for not taking the opportunities to really learn what God has wanted to teach us our whole lives (and if God wants to teach something life changing, and you don't want to hear it, you are crazy).
In the end, it's politics as usual. You might be nice to that guy to his face, but you would never dare get into that conversation with him. Iron might cause sparks. And besides, what's so good about a sharpened sword in a war anyway? Mark my words, our tendency to "protect" the self from a threatening idea is a strong one, but it will leave us all with a life filled with "what ifs" and "if only's." There are more than a couple proverbs that say things like, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy" (Prov 27:6), and "It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools" (Ecc 7:5). I think that paints a great picture of what we should be seeking in our relationships, i.e., not always comfort and flattery (i.e., uncritical encouragement) in what we are pursuing in life, but criticism, correction, reformation. This can only happen when we have faith, rather than fear, in determining who or what we allow to speak to us.
Above all of this, I encourage you to listen to the voice of God in Scripture. If anything gets the brunt of this, it's the Bible. Here is where God might actually speak to us, and change us forever; but here is also the most assaulted means to communicate transforming truth to its recipient I have ever seen. The Bible itself is treated like the opponent rather than the ideological friend, and hence, we attempt to protect ourselves by trying to find errors in it, taking it out of context, slandering its morality as lunacy, and its practices as unloving, or just diminishing its role as God's communication to us. This allows us to ignore it. And if we can ignore it, the ignorant self can move on. It can continue to swim in the gutters and believe itself in paradise. And the Word which would have put it in paradise? Well, that was never heard, because we never allowed it to be spoken.
If we do allow the Bible to speak, it is only on our terms, through the people that aren't going to challenge where we're at (at least not to a point of change). The Bible can be mediated through a series of filters, so that its message, which was originally toxic to the self, is now as harmless as thunder without any lightening. It's just a noise from afar, but has no ability to touch me and do any real damage.
But we need to learn, precisely, because that is what disciples of Christ do. They are learners of Him. He is their guide into life. He is their ultimate belief that is critical of all other beliefs, and because of this, there is no need to fear. The only fear is fear itself (yes, I know, I stole that one), because it prevents us from becoming the true humanity God created us to be. And that, My Friends, is truly something to be afraid of.
Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life. (Prov 4:13)
A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. (Prov 17:10)
A man who tells his friend whatever he wants to hear is setting up a trap for his steps. (Prov 29:5)