You are hereEmpiricism and Ideal Fellowship
Empiricism and Ideal Fellowship
by Jeremy Lile
I'm selfish. In most talks, I address topics that I find interesting, usually something cultural or historical. I'm more comfortable in those areas. Synthesizing information from various sources is easier for me than finding a “practical application.” I rarely deal with what it means to live out our faith as Christians—a fault of which I am keenly aware. But perhaps it would be more accurate so say: I rarely do so in the speaker-audience format. My daily life certainly reflects my convictions, which I believe is part of Paul's lesson in Romans 12. However, it's never been easy for me to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write—especially about the practical aspects of Christianity. That did not change this morning.I'm selfish. In most talks, I address topics that I find interesting, usually something cultural or historical. I'm more comfortable in those areas. Synthesizing information from various sources is easier for me than finding a “practical application.” I rarely deal with what it means to live out our faith as Christians—a fault of which I am keenly aware. But perhaps it would be more accurate so say: I rarely do so in the speaker-audience format. My daily life certainly reflects my convictions, which I believe is part of Paul's lesson in Romans 12. However, it's never been easy for me to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write—especially about the practical aspects of Christianity. That did not change this morning.I woke up afraid that I may have exacerbated my fellow congregants in previous weeks by a litany of lessons on hospitality. Frankly, most people don't want or need to know that much about the ancient custom. So as I made my way to the kitchen and loaded up the coffee grinder, I began to contemplate just what I would talk about in a couple of hours. As the coffee started to brew, I placed my laptop on the kitchen table and commenced my Sunday morning routine. My brain is in neutral until I have my first cup of coffee, so I ease into the morning by doing things that require little thought—like feeding the dog, tripping over the cat, and checking my email. My inbox was filled with the usual overnight stuff: server logs and saved searches from eBay. After finding nothing of interest there, I poured my first cup and checked the status of Mick's blog entitled A New Kind of Knowing. There hadn't been any updates, but I reread some of my comments. Then it dawned on me: why not talk about how we are to interact with one another as Christians and why communication can breakdown? It's important to me. It's practical. It doesn't involve Matthew chapter 24 or hospitality.
What follows here is my attempt at the practical. It is a slightly expanded and slightly more detailed version of what was presented on June 1, 2008. It has not been proofed by anyone other than myself, so be warned. This article is provided as-is without warranty, expressed or implied. There may are grammar or speling errors. But if you don't like it, I will refund the purchase price...less shipping costs. Fair enough?
One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, for me anyway, is Philippians 2. It's not hard to get the gist of what Paul is saying—application is another thing. One doesn't need to understand Greek syntax or morphology. However, it is useful to be acquainted with one Greek word, and that is: ego. Yep, the pronoun equivalent to I. Philippians 2 is Paul's “There is no 'I' in 'team'” speech:
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. Philippians 2.1-4
For Paul, ideal fellowship includes mutual love and respect and also humility. Regarding someone else as more important than oneself is a lofty goal—especially when that other person is acting like a cantankerous know-it-all. . . Of course, as I'm sure Paul himself knew, most of us have worn that label at some point. But whether or not our charitable actions are reciprocated, we are not relieved of this charge. By acting on Paul's advice and behaving accordingly, we bring honor to God even in the midst of our disagreements. Jesus said something similar, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.” (John 13.35) This doesn't mean there won't be disagreements among his disciples. It doesn't mean one has to be a pushover either. But when one is truly acting in love, then one's ego is not part of the equation. It's not about you.
Disagreements and Saving Face
When disagreements arise, we often jump into self-defense mode—and any hope of meaningful communication is usually squelched. Our palms begin to sweat, our stomach gets knotted up, and we type with a fury that would make any high school keyboard instructor proud. We try to destroy someone's argument, but we give little thought to whether or not that person will be part of the collateral damage. But our actions are justified as far as we're concerned. Our views have been impugned. Our “ego” has been bruised. We have been invalidated. So, we try not only to save face but to prove someone else wrong—to protect truth. But our we really protecting truth or do we at some level believe that 'truth' subsumes 'I'?
Jack Scott often says, “Truth has nothing to fear from the light of day.” Truth will be truth whether an “opponent” acknowledges it or not. Truth will be truth with or without our vehement defense. Once we let go of the misguided notion that truth stands or falls with us, we are free to explore the expanse of biblical theology without fear of damaging our self-image. We are also free to interact with others in a new way. When we let go of I, we can put Paul's words into practice and “treat one another as more important than [ourselves].” When this is our genuine aim, we can discuss 'truth' without rancor.
What happens when disagreements arise? Do we seek first to defend ourselves or are we motivated by love, respect and humility to seek an understanding of both the person and his views? The former is the easy road. The latter is less traveled and more challenging, but it is often more rewarding as well. There is a technique that can help us live out Paul's ideal fellowship as we interact with one another, online or otherwise. But first we'll need to talk about perception in interpersonal communication and how it can impede dialog or even create conflict.
Perception and Interpersonal Communication i
What we perceive with our senses is necessarily selective. We are constantly bombarded with input. Compared to a computer, I'm an abacus. All of us are that way to some extent. Who noticed the “Funny Stuff” column or the “Related Links” box when this page loaded? They were both there, but I would guess they went unnoticed because you weren't looking for them.
What we perceive is also limited by motive. If a single guy goes to a party hoping to meet a girl, he may not remember that there were fifteen guys in the room, but he will more than likely recall the number of pretty girls. Similarly, if I stop by the convenience store to buy a loaf of bread, I probably wouldn't be able to tell my wife what was directly across the isle. The input we process is manageable but incomplete. It is also filtered by motive. So, perception is selective and, to some extent, subjective.
Once we have this selective information, we organize it and use it to classify others in four main ways. First, we classify people physically. Are they tall or short? Fat or thin? Second, we also arrange people by social roles such as occupation or even class. Interaction (behavior) is a third category. Is the person friendly or combative? And finally, we assign certain psychological epithets such as generous, nervous or insecure.
Such categorization helps (or hinders) us in a couple of ways: it allows us to form impressions and to predict future behavior. In other words, we make generalizations about people who fit into certain categories. For example, you probably have some impression of people from “the church of Christ.” While your perception may not include all four categories above, there are probably certain “behaviors” or “ psychological” descriptions that you would assume to be true for members of this group.
While categorization is helpful, it also has a tendency to “totalize” a person. In other words, this way of thinking is narrowly focused in that it doesn't encompass the entire person or even all the important aspects of his personality. For example, I can categorize Don Preston as a minister, a Mustang enthusiast, a husband, a father or any number titles, but none of these—individually or collectively—reflect the totality of the person Don Preston. There are things about Don that I do not know, so, obviously, my perception of him is limited. All of this should be fairly obvious, but the affect on communication may not be as clear. Problems arise when we attempt to use our selective and categorized perceptions to interpret others in a communicative context.
There are a number of things that can affect the interpretive process. We tend to view people that we like in a more positive light; we give them the benefit of the doubt. So, I side with my wife rather than her boss. But these people don't get a free pass just because we're involved in a relationship. The level of relationship-satisfaction may have a negative effect on how the other person is perceived. Say, for example, my wife and I had an argument before she went to work. If the issue remained unresolved, anything I say that afternoon could be filtered through the negative feelings left by the previous conversation. So, past experience also comes into play when interpreting our perceptions. Knowledge is also a factor. Continuing the same completely hypothetical example—say my wife gets to work and vents to a coworker. If my wife should seem a bit snippy later that day, her coworker would interpret that behavior based on her previous knowledge of the situation: I was wrong and acting like a jerk. So, the coworker wouldn't take the snippiness personal.
But these are not the only things that can influence our perceptions. Add to the above: differences in our senses, age, health, fatigue, hunger—not to mention mood, our self-concept, cultural and environmental influences, and various social roles. When it comes to perceiving others, there is a lot to consider. In fact, what we do perceive might say more about us than the other person.
We have inherent perceptual limitations that are to some extent subjective. As if that does not make matters difficult enough, logicians tell us that induction can only lead to probable conclusions. (Just because so-and-so was in a sour mood for six days does not guarantee that the same will be true on the seventh. Of course, it is possible that so-and-so was in a fine mood all six days. He simply may not like you. Or perhaps he didn't notice you because you didn't speak to him.) So, it is quite possible—if not probable—that we perceive others incorrectly. Considering what we've seen up to this point, when two people involved in an exchange jump to wrong conclusions or make faulty assumptions about one another, it shouldn't be much of a surprise. But how do we mitigate erroneous perceptions?
Communication isn't impossible, but it can be taxing at times due to the factors outlined above. The lack of paralinguistic cues in online communication doesn't help, and this deficiency even leads to miscommunication. Emoticons are a poor substitute for voice inflection, tone, volume or facial expressions. But we can employ a simple technique that helps create an environment conducive to productive dialog.
If we believe that our perception of others is limited and subjective, then we should seek clarification before cracking our knuckles in retaliatory preparation. Perception checking isn't complicated; it simply causes me to stop and think about what I say before escapes my mouth or fingers. While I'm organizing my thoughts, I first have to deal with my own self-defense mode should it come up. I think about my motivation and what I would like to accomplish (Paul's ideal fellowship). Then, I structure a response in such a way that the other person does not feel threatened or accused. I don't want to provoke someone else to adopt a face saving strategy. This helps both people stay focused on the conversation rather than self-preservation.
Perception checking involves three parts:
1. A description of the behavior you noticed
2. Two possible interpretations of the behavior
3. A request for clarification about how to interpret the behavior
It's not rocket surgery, but there is usually a significant difference between this approach and simply saying the first thing that comes to mind. I'll borrow an example straight from the textbook. Say you told someone, "Good job." And his replay was:
“Come on now. Tell the truth.”
What's your first reaction? “He thinks I'm lying!” What's next? You go into to defensive mode—which puts the kibosh on any hope of productive dialog. Not only that, but the focus has been hijacked; it is no longer the issue but the ego.
A simple rewording of the reply, keeping perception checking in mind, can keep things on track. Also from the textbook:
“You said you really liked the job I did (behavior), but there was something about your voice that made me think you may not like it (first interpretation). Maybe it's just my imagination (second interpretation). How do you really feel?” (request for clarification)
That's a big difference. The second example defuses the situation rather than escalates it. Notice too that the use of both emotive language and accusation were avoided. The 'truth' of the matter can be discussed with this approach.
Some readers may wonder why I haven't mentioned any scripture since the introduction. But take another look. The second example, the one involving perception checking, reflects Paul's advice in Philippians 2. It's humble. It says, “I don't know all there is to know about you, so I need some help.” It is not “motivated by selfish-ambition.” The motive is understanding the other person's intent. So, instead of attempting to save face, the other person is treated “as more important than [oneself].” It reflects a concern for the “interests of others.” How different our conversations could be if we consistently followed Paul's advice.
On that note, I will offer an example from a recent discussion here—the one that prompted this paper. On the aforementioned blog, Sam Frost defined 'choice' (behavior). But rather than stereotyping Sam and arguing against my own assumptions or past experience or other sources, I offered a couple of interpretations of what he said: It seems like you're saying this or this? Then, I asked for clarification. Sam was kind enough to reply and no one got upset.
But the whole thing could have gone much differently. I initially saw (my perception) what looked like a conflict between Sam's definition of 'choice' and that of Gordon Clark. If I had been seeking my own interests (motived by selfish-ambition), I could have tried to make an issue of that perceived discrepancy. But I would have looked like a dolt when he clarified his view (my perception was faulty). Then, I would have felt the need to save face (self-defense mode). It's all down hill from there. Communication is cut off and even the relationship could be in trouble. Sorry, Paul.
Again, when one is truly acting in love, then one's ego is not part of the equation. Perception is limited, even unreliable. Our deficiency in this area coupled with a failure to regard others as more important than ourselves can lead to miscommunication and strife. But genuine openness, humility and perception checking tend to defuse our built-in defense mechanisms and create an environment conducive to productive dialog. And so, even in the midst of disagreement, the world will know that we are his disciples. If the aim is communication in the spirit of fellowship that Paul described, then destroying someone's argument to one's own glory is a hollow victory. Acquiring knowledge and then beating each other over the head with it is not what the Good News is all about. Of course, Paul says it much better:
Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Romans 12.9-18
That is my prayer for all of us. Let us not cause the way of truth to be maligned by the manner in which we defend it.
Oh, and if you would like to know my take on “pursue hospitality,” just ask. I have plenty of material.
The following sections on interpersonal communication are summarized from: Adler, Ronald B., Lawrence B. Rosenfeld, and Russell F. Proctor II. Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication. 8th ed. Sea Harbor: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 95-115.