History as a “Ministry of Listening”

As I mentioned yesterday, public radio journalist Krista Tippett recently appeared at Bethel University to speak about her book Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit. One of those conversations inspired yesterday’s post on what historians mean when they ask the question “Why?” of the past. Today I want to reflect on Tippett’s larger purpose, as the host of an award-winning radio program and podcast that “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”

In her talk last Friday, Tippett described her work in the terms she had used last August with Katelyn Beaty of Christianity Today:

I was once speaking at a Lilly Endowment thing, and someone said that they considered my work to be a ministry. That is the word that at least publicly, I would hesitate to use as a public radio host. But the way I think about it, and privately, I do, is: There’s absolutely ministry in what I’m doing; there’s absolutely a sense of calling in it. It’s simply a ministry of listening rather than of preaching.

Tippett, Einstein's GodIn that interview, as at Bethel last week, she emphasized the role of the German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in helping shape her sense of being called to a “ministry of listening”:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great voice for us now as somebody who under totally different circumstances watched the essence of Christianity sit uncomfortably with the structures. He talked a lot about how if you’re never listening to your neighbor, at some point, you won’t be able to listen to God either, and that is the death of the spiritual life.

To me, there is a deep virtue in listening that probably would be a good thing for some of us to excavate in theology in years to come.

“Ministry of listening” is such a winsome phrase: unexpected, humble, and evocative. I heard it for the first time Friday, and immediately felt my mind make connections…

First, to the nature of God. If we are called to listen (“Let anyone with ears to hear…“), it’s possible because we’re made in the image of One who listens. “But truly,” sings the psalmist, “God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.” As does his Son, who, from childhood, listened to people as often as he taught and preached to them. And when we can’t even articulate what we need, want, or feel, God hears his Spirit intercede on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.”

No doubt this connects back to my post last week on Parker Palmer’s description of “functional atheism.” Listening requires patience, humility, and yieldedness: the very virtues most likely to be crowded out by “the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we [not God] are the ones who must make it happen” (Palmer’s words). And there’s very little point in bringing prayer into the classroom — as I called on myself to do more often last week — if I have no desire or ability to listen for a response.

But Tippett’s notion of a “ministry of listening” also made me think of my particular calling as a historian. Indeed, listening is one of the skills our department has emphasized as being central to our larger objective of cultivating wisdom in our graduates. Important as we think it is that our students learn to write and speak well,

…we also want students to recognize that communication does not travel in one direction alone. They should also have the skill of listening, cultivated in part by treating courses as conversations in which students must pay attention to the voices of peers, professors, other scholars, and women and men from throughout history.

McKenzie, The First ThanksgivingThis theme of history as a kind of conversation is present in my two favorite recent explorations of how Christians practice history: Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History; and John Fea’s Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. While I don’t think it’s unusual for historians to conceive of their work as listening to (perhaps silenced) voices from the past, I am struck that both authors want us to be open to the ways that historical listening transforms us.

For McKenzie, the study of the past invites students of history into conversation, with partners living and dead:

At its best, contemplation of the past invites us to join in a grand conversation about what T. S. Eliot called “permanent things,” eternal questions about purpose and being and the dilemmas of the human condition….

So, what might that look like? I think it will involve two things, primarily, and I think they’ll make sense to us if we take seriously the view of studying history as entering into an ongoing, living conversation. First, we will listen courteously and attentively. By this I mean we postpone simplistic judgments while we strive to identify and, more importantly, to understand the moral values shaping the men and women we encounter in the past. In the end we may not agree with those values—to understand is not necessarily to approve—but we will have learned much more about the past than we would have otherwise, and we will have practiced charity, to boot. (p. 54)

This is all in service of recovering an understanding of education as something more than “the accumulation of knowledge or the mastery of skills,” honorable objectives but different from the “drawing out” by which education “changes who we are.”

Fulton, From Judgment to PassionAnd if this kind of education is to change us, then listening to others means that “we will allow our conversation partners to ask us questions, especially hard ones about the values we hold dear.” Likewise, John Fea emphasizes that the historian’s desire for empathy requires not just attentiveness to what others have to say, but openness to the possibility that we’ll be changed — converted, even — by the conversation. He quotes historian Rachel Fulton, who believes that empathizing with the medieval Christians she studies constitutes

a refusal of self as potentially mutable, of the possibility of conversion in the encounter with an Other, for what is conversion if not the willingness to look at the world through another’s eyes, to see the lens of another’s reality—and to accept it, if only momentarily, as one’s own. (quoted in Fea, p. 59)

But what makes historical listening a ministry, rather than simply a personal discipline that helps form us as individuals?

Fea suggests one answer. In a chapter on incivility in American society, he warns that “until the American people develop the discipline of listening to one another, we will remain stalled in our attempts at reconciliation” (p. 120). So how will Americans develop this discipline? Fea returns to the question in his epilogue, in which he calls on Christian historians to take “the time to leave the ivory tower, hitting the road and meeting with people in all kinds of settings, and bringing knowledge and serious Christian thinking to real places and communities” (p. 166). He offers a proposal for a “Center for American History and a Civil Society,” whose participants would

teach people that sometimes understanding, listening, practicing hospitality, and exercising humility—virtues that one learns from studying history—may lead to a more civil, just, and benevolent society. (Why Study History?, p. 170)

(John has also written about this proposal at his own blog and at The Anxious Bench.)


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