The Vulnerability of Listening

The Vulnerability of Listening

I was listening to an interview with Krista Tippett this week on the Nomad podcast. Krista Tippett is the host of the NPR radio show and podcast On Being. During the interview, Krista said that vulnerability is at the heart of listening. To genuinely ask a question and engage in an authentic conversation, you have to be willing to accept that the answer might change or affect you in some way.

Krista Tippet talked about how after a decade of holding interfaith dialogue on her show she has become more rooted in her own faith tradition (firmly Christian but unsure where she falls denominationally) while simultaneously growing in sensitivity and understanding toward others. Her wide base of listeners testify to the same.

Our culture in the U.S. loves to draw firm black and white lines. Most people don’t care so much about your story, your questions, your approach, or the particular way you operate in the world. They just want to hear whether or not you identify with their particular tribe. Are you a republican or democrat? Conservative or liberal? It actually doesn’t matter if you live it out or not, simply saying or posting on Facebook that you are part of a given tribe or not is enough to satiate most.

I know I’m painting with broad strokes, but I’m sure you can all relate to some degree. There are many who assume that interfaith or ecumenical dialogue somehow leads to compromise, the conclusion that all is valid, that truth is subjective, or that it somehow water’s down each party’s beliefs. In my own experience, and in just about every account that I’ve heard from others, it is quite the opposite! It strengthens one’s own perspectives while cultivating compassion and understanding for those different from us.

In the interview, Krista referenced a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. It is a powerful statement worth quoting in its fullness here:

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

I’ve learned a lot from listening to others from different faiths, denominations, and perspectives—and I feel more deeply rooted and stable in my own faith having done so. This is something that I want to grow into further. I hope to live a life of understanding and compassion rather than one of fear and condescension.


Fellow pilgrims, here are some questions that we might consider:

  1. How much of my speech serves to build my own ego and rally the cries of my tribe?
  2. Do I really listen to others by allowing space in my own heart to validate and respect them? Or do I immediately try to figure out how to categorize, label and place them in a certain tribe?
  3. How can I patiently lead an ear instead?

Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Antigua, Guatemala

1 Comment

  • kkells85

    November 8, 2014 at 2:42 am Reply

    I always enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for such good thoughts. This is something that I have been reminded of recently, the importance of listening.

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