I received a question from a reader of this blog. From our discussions it appears to me that the reader does not hold to strong religious beliefs but feels it is fine for others to do so. He has a long time friend who has strong religious beliefs, though not stated explicitly, I think is an enthusiastic, evangelical Christian. The reader says that they have had a great friendship for years with an agreement of some sort to not bring up religious matters. Of late his friend has started trying to influence his beliefs. The reader is now troubled that the rules of the friendship have changed but also troubled that by confronting the issue he will do harm to the friendship. The reader asks, “What do I do with a friend who is trying to influence my religious beliefs when I don't desire this?”
Respect and Courtesy Change with Intimacy
It is one thing if a stranger is trying to convert you, it is quite something else if a friend or relative is trying to convert you. A stranger has no bonds of commitment with you except that of common courtesy and respect you should show to all people. It is funny that when you love someone though, by communicating disrespect and familiarity, you may communicate intimacy with someone. I have known some husbands and wives to maintain formal tone with each other. These are usually formal people. I have never known brothers to even think about maintaining a formal relationship. So it is with close friends and family that the rules of what constitutes a private matter and what is up for group discussion is in dispute.
I am a student of such relational tensions and I am convinced that the most common way people deal with such tensions is to shoot each other with verbal darts. Both parties know what the areas in tension are and seek only to say things that would be helpful in maintaining their dignity that they are standing up for their beliefs. While each party in the relationship may hope that they can influence the other side to consider their beliefs, what each party realistically expects to achieve is self respect, that they have not been a coward in discussing their own beliefs. So the belief is stated in a short and poignant way for the sake of self dignity not true persuasion.
The second way I see people attempt to convince a friend regarding his beliefs is through discussion. Often times if beliefs clash this turns into debate, sometimes debate gives way to heated debate and finally arguments. As a student of such tensions I know some people who thrive on a good debate while others cringe at even the suggestion of debating on such a personal subject as one's beliefs. For someone to be comfortable at debating a subject it takes a certain amount of self-confidence and for the debate to not degenerate into an argument, that same person must have respect for the other party in the debate. Often people do not possess self-confidence, and if they do, they don't have respect for their friends and family. It is rare to find both of these qualities in someone. Those who are most self-confident often have the least respect for others and those who have the most respect for others do not share that same respect for themselves. To make a good debate work, these qualities must be alive in both parties.
The third way I see a few people deal with persuading their friends and family is through a monologue that drowns out all voices but its own. This is a variation on the first method of shooting verbal darts at the other party but this time it is a continuous volley that is designed to not only maintain self dignity but also keep a safety buffer between the lonely person who is in this monologuing. (I think it was pointed out in the movie The Incredibles that monologuing is the Achilles heel of all evil villains.) Hopefully the none of you who are reading this have degenerated into a persuasion monologue. Probably not since you are taking the time to read this far. When a person monologues they usually have few friends and their relatives avoid them if they can.
Listening, A Rare Art Form
I am also a student of the art of listening but I think an unsuccessful student. I think unsuccessful because I bring my own agendas and insecurities. As I have gotten older, I have more insecurities but less agendas. Listening on a relational level means one is able to say, “I have heard my friend's point of view so that he is assured that he and his beliefs are respected.” The temptation here is to listen in order to quite your friend's point of view rather than hear it. The difference is intuitively noticed by body language, tone of speech and responses.
There is the temptation to think that the American etiquette of not bringing up religion or politics is a transcendent value. It is in fact not. American's, from a pragmatic point of view, deal with religious pluralism by not discussing it. In reality this is a temporary solution always. Sooner or later if one take his religious views seriously so that it affects the way one lives, there will be some sort of public statement about religion, even if it is that there is no one religion. While we stave off the inevitable discussion of religion and values, we as Americans live in our private lonely lives. Or we could deviate from this value and listen to one another. Lonesome, private and disconnected lives are the staple of our social existence. It is not because we don't express ourselves, it is just because we don't listen to anyone else.
So I'm proposing that true respect and spiritual growth comes from listening. Even if you don't adopt the views of your friend, you have weighed them seriously. You have touched a life. You have kept a friend. I would be highly surprised if you listen to them with respect, courtesy and true engagement of the intellect that they would then find it a condition of the friendship that you adopt their point of view. I think instead your friend will appreciate the weight of the consideration that you have given their view. I have found friendship with people whose views were quite different from mine. One of the best friendships I have had was during college a Muslim friend named Imad from Kuwait. I lost contact with Imad after college but I listened to him and I think he to me. I am not a Muslim and he is not a Christian. I am richer for having heard what he had to say. I hope he is richer for having been my friend in college.
Approach the Change With Optimism
I think one of your concerns is that your friend has changed the rules of your friendship over time. One could be a pessimist about this and say that your friend did not act in good faith. He in fact has been waiting for quite some time just to pounce on you years later. I seriously doubt this. I think more preferable is the more optimistic position, that your friend has changed and grown. He is not at the same maturity level that he was years ago. There is a conviction that those who believe in revelation usually share. That is that they feel a conviction to share their faith. It is often a source of great frustration, fear and guilt to not the share light that one has obtained. It is a duty for Christians to share their faith. Few wish to offend, but I know I have often offended others when I have attempted to share my faith. My guess is that your friend does not seek offend you but has read in the Bible that he has an obligation to share his faith. While those types of motivations are mostly negative, the best motivations to share one's faith is simply like one beggar telling another where a free meal can be found. It is not a source of power or achievement but simply help to the other beggar. I hope it is not that case that your friend is seeking to dominant you by sharing his faith with you. Even if there is an element of power play in the relational dynamic, I think he would be embarrassed if he looked in the mirror saw himself as domineering. If he is being domineering, I would just be honest about it. Explain that dynamic of the friendship respectfully and with great patience. If he does not hear you, perhaps he needs to grow more as a friend and you can help him grow in that way.
Tags: communication - Ethics of Privacy - listening - lonesome - privacy - Friendship - respect - Christian Witness - Muslim Christian dialog - question