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Classroom Dialogue As Embrace
Marion H. Larson, Bethel University, MN
Larson, Ph.D., is Professor of English
Discussions about religion need to show respect for different perspectives by allowing students to retain their deepest beliefs while also urging them to be open to new ideas. Theologian Miroslav Volf’s image of the embrace provides a model for such discussions, and strategies from educators Peter Elbow and Robert Nash give ideas for classroom implementation.
Much of the violence in today’s world has been sparked (and continues to be fueled) by differences in religious belief. Recognizing this, Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes that while the problems of the twentieth century could be traced to what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the color line,” our century “will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (xv). Given the reality of the “faith line,” colleges and universities need to find ways to promote interfaith dialogue and prepare students to interact respectfully and responsibly as citizens in a religiously pluralistic world.
How might we promote respectful dialogue in the classroom? We must explore theoretical models as well as consider practical strategies. This article looks first at the image of embrace developed by theologian Miroslav Volf. Volf’s metaphor of the embrace is valuable because it goes beyond mere tolerance, encouraging the development of empathy while at the same time respecting individual differences of belief. Then I present classroom strategies developed by educators Peter Elbow and Robert Nash that might be used in implementing Volf’s vision of the embrace.
Tolerance and Empathy
In the face of difference and disagreement, it’s common for humans to want to exclude others. Volf points out that exclusion can take many forms (Exclusion and Embrace, 75-6). Exclusion can occur quietly—through minding one’s own business, avoiding different perspectives by interacting only with others with whom we agree. Exclusion can occur emotionally, fueled by exclusionary language such as “us” and “them.” Exclusion can also occur through efforts to assimilate the other, insisting that she become “like us” or, more disturbingly, when we seek to eliminate the other altogether.
Recent decades have demonstrated the horrible cycles of violence and retribution that exclusion can foster. Because of this, pleas for tolerance are natural. Particularly in situations where exclusion has erupted in acts of violence (physical as well as verbal), learning to tolerate others represents progress and can become an initial step toward mutual understanding and even reconciliation. Many students (and faculty) could stand to practice remaining neutral amid disagreement, learning to put up with even those ideas and people that we might find distasteful, working to cultivate “generic openness” (Bennett 47). To help promote tolerance, some faculty avoid controversial topics whenever possible, hoping to keep students from saying or writing something that might offend others. Others develop and enforce various ground rules for classroom discussion.
But tolerance isn’t enough. In fact, it’s possible for a tolerant discussion to be little more than monologue disguised as dialogue: Because open conflict is avoided, it appears that people are listening to each other, that they are approaching new texts and ideas openly (Buber 18-19). Really, though, participants may just be speaking to themselves—or to others in the room with whom they already agree. Such a mindset doesn’t help get at the root of violence and disagreement, and it doesn’t encourage us to see how and if our own perspectives toward others might be problematic. It doesn’t acknowledge the many ways in which humans are interconnected and the ways in which coming to know is a collaborative venture. At times, tolerance can even foster exclusion because, says Volf, “They will remain ‘they’ and we will remain ‘we’” (“Ethnic Cleansing” 247). When this occurs, tolerance even becomes what Diana Eck describes as a “passive form of hostility” (193).
So tolerance is an inadequate goal because it allows people to remain too distant from each other. Empathy—marked by a person’s efforts to see the world from other vantage points—initially sounds like a better goal. Such acts of seeing help promote emotional connections between people, and these connections are crucial in overcoming exclusion and promoting peace. We need to push our students and ourselves beyond mere tolerance, because if we don’t work to be changed by what we read and discuss together, then we’re not doing our job. But while it’s crucial to learn to see and feel from another perspective, it’s equally important to approach difference in a way that doesn’t result in losing oneself. We and our students each seek to be true to ourselves and the truths to which we are deeply committed, so if we overemphasize empathy and insist that students abandon or ignore their beliefs, then we may do them violence.
Volf: Interpretive Hospitality and Embrace
Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf knows all too well the horror that can result when difference becomes an excuse to exclude. In addressing this problem, he argues that unbounded acceptance of the other is both impossible and undesirable; similarly, he rejects mere tolerance. Instead, he advocates the formation of what he calls a “catholic personality” which he defines as “a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way” (“Vision” 199). A catholic personality, while welcoming others and seeking to be enriched by contact with them, doesn’t indiscriminately absorb all ideas and influences, though. While we sometimes define ourselves by what we have in common with others, we also define ourselves by “what distinguishes us from [them]” (Volf, “Living” 13).
A person with a catholic personality practices interpretive hospitality when interacting with others. This hospitality includes approaching others’ ideas charitably, taking time to read and listen carefully, seeking to understand as fully as possible, and being open to the inevitable changes that occur when really encountering others. When we practice interpretive hospitality, we “visit each other’s homes and exchange gifts as we do so” (Volf, “Your Scripture” 43). Such hospitality requires a form of what Volf calls “double vision”—an attempt to see both “from here” and “from there” (Exclusion and Embrace 251). It’s natural to see “from here,” says Volf. This means seeing “from our own perspective, guided by our own values and interests that are shaped by the overlapping cultures and traditions we inhabit” (Exclusion and Embrace 251). It involves reading “the beliefs and practices of others through the lenses of our own tradition” (“My Own Voice” 1234). This step is essential. Too many people aren’t willing to take the time to learn about and listen carefully to the voices of those who don’t speak their own religious language.
But dialogue won’t accomplish much if we aren’t truly hospitable—which includes not just seeking to give a gift but also being willing to receive one. Being hospitable means going beyond trying to understand others from our own vantage point. It also includes seeing “from there,” an inversion of perspectives in which “we enter sympathetically into others’ efforts to interpret their scripture” (Volf, “Your Scripture” 43). In addition, we pay “receptive attention to their own story about who they see themselves to be” (“Living” 19, emphasis added). Seeing “from there” also includes listening to “how they perceive us as readers of our own scripture” (“Your Scripture” 43, emphasis added).
The mutual giving and receiving inherent in hospitality are conveyed vividly in Volf’s metaphor of embrace. An embrace, says Volf, has “four structural elements.” They are “opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again” (Exclusion and Embrace 141). Open arms begin the embrace by signaling that “I do not want to be by myself only” (“Vision” 203). This demonstrates a person’s willingness to embrace, showing that one sees others as potentially enriching friends (“Living” 16). Openness shows the other that I have “created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other” (Exclusion and Embrace 141). In creating this space, opened arms also issue an invitation to the other to enter (Exclusion and Embrace 141). After opening one’s arms, the willingness to embrace is next signaled by the second element—waiting. This waiting reminds both parties that there is no coercion involved in an embrace. It is an invitation that may be refused (Exclusion and Embrace 147).
The third movement of an embrace—closed arms—requires what Volf describes as a “soft touch,” so that the other isn’t crushed and so that the inviter’s boundaries of self remain intact. In relation to others, “we are both separated and connected, both distinct and related” (Exclusion and Embrace 91). Because of this, we can’t remain ourselves unless we maintain some sense of boundaries between self and other, but we can’t become ourselves unless we allow ourselves to develop deep bonds with others that will shape us. The third movement of the embrace captures this potential tension. “Closed arms,” says Volf,
are a sign that I want the other to become a part of me while I at the same time maintain my own identity. By becoming part of me, the other enriches me. In a mutual embrace, none remains the same because each enriches the other, yet both remain true to their genuine selves. (“Vision” 203)
After the embrace, the arms open again—the fourth movement. These open arms “let the other go” and at the same time “signal a desire for the other’s presence, create space in oneself, open up the boundary of the self, and issue an invitation for the other to return” (Exclusion and Embrace 145).
A Classroom of Embrace
The central idea captured by Volf’s image of embrace is that of entering into the perspective of another without losing sight of one’s own. Krista Tippett, creator and host of public radio’s Speaking of Faith and author of the recent spiritual memoir by the same title, describes that same balance when she asserts that “it is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others” (3). Two possible teaching approaches that can promote this kind of perspective can be seen in Peter Elbow’s “doubting game and believing game” and in Robert Nash’s story approach to expressions of belief.
In many respects, Volf’s description of the double vision needed to see “from here” as well as “from there” mirrors what Peter Elbow calls “the doubting game and the believing game.” Elbow suggests that we need to help students both “scrutinize with the tool of doubt,” seeking to be “as skeptical and analytic as possible” (play the “doubting game”) and look to “find hidden virtues” in ideas we disagree with, trying “to be as welcoming as possible” (play the “believing game”) (15-16). Promoting alternating periods of doubt and belief, says Elbow, is “methodological, provisional, conditional” (17). When we engage in the discipline of doubt, we don’t ask ourselves or our students to “throw [an idea] away forever.” Instead, we’re learning “to find weaknesses even in good ideas” (17). In trying to doubt an idea—particularly an idea with which we agree—we work at “extricating or distancing ourselves.” Trying to express this idea in “clear, impersonal sentences that lay bare the logic or lack of logic” helps assist the disciplined practice…of doubt” (19). Similarly, when we engage in the discipline of belief, we don’t seek to be converted by this idea permanently. We simply take time looking for possible strengths, trying to “imagine and describe someone who sees things this way” (20).
To assist the “disciplined practice…of belief”—particularly a perspective with which we don’t agree—we ought to use “the language of imagination, narrative, and…personal experience” (19).
The four elements of Volf’s embrace are captured by both Elbow’s practice of doubt and his practice of belief. From either vantage point, we open ourselves to possibility. We wait long enough to live with an idea that we might not have previously considered. We wrap our arms around an idea, allowing it to become part of us while at the same time maintaining our own distinctness. Having inhabited a perspective and allowed it to inhabit us for a time, we open ourselves again—to let go of this idea (or parts of it) and to signal that we are open for future interchanges.
Openness can be promoted and an embrace fostered if we approach people’s accounts of religious belief and experience in the same way that we might approach other stories, says Robert Nash, each of which features “unforgettable characters, momentous events, and luminous ideals” (“Faculty Member” 82). Approaching statements of religious beliefs as stories doesn’t mean that the professor is suggesting that these beliefs aren’t true. Instead, it enables students and teacher together to set aside such considerations, at least temporarily. Learning to see each religious narrative as a story (rather than as an argument) helps open students to finding strengths in the accounts they might initially reject as well as helping them come to see possible weaknesses in the accounts with which they most readily agree (Faith, Hype, and Clarity 32). How might such stories be assessed? A religious story can be evaluated aesthetically (as one might evaluate a novel or short story) or philosophically (as one might evaluate any ethical or metaphysical claim). In reading a religious narrative or in listening to one of its proponents, we might begin by seeing it as a story with “a set of distinctive characters, a plot, a climax, a lesson to teach, lots of description, and a unique setting” (Faith, Hype, and Clarity 32). More specifically, Nash suggests that we might ask questions like:
Does the story touch our lives in some ways? Does it hold together? Does it accomplish what its author might have set out to do? Does the story transport, or entertain, or excite, or edify us? Does it help us to see the ‘real world’ in a more imaginative way? Is the lesson in the story clearly rendered? Defensible? Plausible? Realistic? Useful? What do you think of the author’s use of religious language? (Faith, Hype, and Clarity 33).
In today’s pluralistic and often violent world, Diana Eck says that we must either “dialogue or die” (xviii). These words may sound overly dramatic, particularly for those of us who spend our lives in classrooms where the only violence we encounter is an occasional verbal outburst and where the only danger we face is an idea. But the perspectives we help shape, the approaches to difference that we model, and the means of communication that we foster with our students really can make a difference as we help prepare students to participate productively in “difficult, potentially explosive, and potentially vibrant encounter[s] of people with strong and very different commitments” (195). We promote dialogue when we create classrooms in which we and our students take time to doubt (even those ideas that we are convinced are true) and to believe (even those ideas that we are convinced can’t be true). We also promote dialogue when we create classrooms in which we foster listening to our own stories and the stories of others. True dialogue, says Volf, is a form of embrace, an act of hospitality in which we “open our ears to hear” and “use imagination to see” (Exclusion and Embrace 252). Having done this, we “take the other into our own world,” working to “compare and contrast the view ‘from here’ and the view ‘from there.’” At times we will reject one view and embrace the other, or perhaps “find some compromise between the two.” Regardless of the outcome, though, what “we must do as we take others into our world is let their perspective stand next to ours and reflect on whether one or the other is right, or whether both are partly right and partly wrong” (Exclusion and Embrace 252). If we can help our students (and ourselves) learn to do this, we will be doing important work indeed.
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