I read about a church who, upon discovering that a member of their youth had come out to his friends at a recent retreat, immediately banned that boy and his family from attending their church.
My wife read this, too, and was upset about this. She said that if she heard about something like this happening, she would feel like she needed to say something to someone, maybe the church elders at that church, and tell them how unfair they are being to that boy and to their mission as Christians to support everyone and to love them unconditionally.
We all have been in situations like these, where you feel compelled to stand up for what is right, to voice your beliefs in hope they will do some good to that person or in the world in general. Of course, the other person is also acting out of their just as deeply held beliefs.
If you are wanting to change a person’s beliefs in order to change their behavior, you must get deep down to the point where that belief begins.
I told her that if she was hoping that there was a magic formula she could have uttered to show the man how wrong he was about this boy, she was wasting her time. I put a lot of effort in school trying to learn how to be more right than something else, or show them how they were more wrong than me. But I found that all the flawless reasoning in the world wouldn’t change a person’s point of view, and reason is a double-edged sword: I often fell under the noose of my own judgments.
I told her that anything she could have said would have only been effective at a surface level, a level far removed from the level needed to alter a person’s behavior.
Our beliefs are like tall, elaborately assembled towers swaying in the wind. They are assembled from the foundations up by a series of interconnected deductions, inferences, and extrapolations from a central premise at the bottom. The structure itself is rational, each piece compliments the other. But these pieces themselves are not beliefs–they are extensions of the belief itself, and changing them will not change the belief.
Anything she could might say to the elder that was contrary to the elder’s point of view would be, from the outset, almost certainly discounted as invalid, regardless of the soundness of her reasoning. We all are naturally defensive of our point of view, and if we’re honest, we should all know what I’m talking about here. When we know we are talking to someone who holds a different view than us, we instinctively fold in on ourselves, and decide before the conversation even begins that, no matter what happens, I am right and they are wrong. The most well stated testimony in the world would not sway a person in this state.
Perhaps she could have shown how the elder’s argument itself was not consistent, how it contradicted itself, how we are told to not judge other people, and he who has not sinned should cast the first stone. Indeed, the elder may realize that some assertion of his is not consistent with the rest of his structure. But he will see this as a flaw in his rhetoric, not in his philosophy. He will address the weakness in his structure later, so that he can fortify it to better withstand criticism, in hopes that it may be so firm as to club the next person’s tower with ease, and so convert them.
I said that if you want to change a person’s beliefs, you need to be able to get down to that foundation beneath all the argumentative trappings which stir up so much conflict, because it is on this foundation that all the rest of the arguments stand. And the thing about his foundation beneath all of our elaborate belief systems is that they are all ultimately based on an assumption.
We believe in gravity, because we have read about it, and things behave consistently with what we have been told. But in order to support these ideas, we first assume that gravity will go on behaving as it always has. We assume that past consistency will continue tomorrow like it did today and yesterday. This is a safe assumption, of course, but it is not as self evident nor as certain as we would like it to be.
Likewise, our beliefs about the most personal and ingrained issues are all based upon a host of assumptions which cannot themselves be argued into or out of. This is why the way Jesus answered some of those direct questions from his critics are sometimes so enigmatic and unsatisfying to us. When the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery before him and asked if it was right to stone her, as the law stated, he responds by writing in the sand and asking for the one without sin to cast the first stone. This was not a direct answer to the proposed question, but addressed the deeper issue beneath the law relating to the supremacy of loving our neighbors.
I believe in God. I spent a long time trying my best to be able to invariably prove to another person how I knew God exists, so that they, too, could know that God exists beyond a shadow of a doubt. What I found, after much frustration, was that this is not possible, and anyone who tells you differently is fooling themselves.
But I know God personally. I have seen God. I had a vision. I had a dream. I am standing right next to him now. I know for a fact God exists, someone might say.
But for me to believe you, I must assume that what you are telling me is true, that what you experienced was authentic, was not simply your imagination, or a side effect of your medication, or an exaggeration.
The only experience I know for sure is my own, and I find that believing in God becomes a way of affirming a host of complex feelings, convictions, suspicions, and questions I have, which are impossible to properly convey to another person, but if you were going to try, would come down to something to the effect of:
In my heart, I know that love always wins, that there is something bigger than myself, and that all things will turn out—not just as they will–but the right way.
This is my assumption which affirms all the other articles of faith and statements of belief which I recite and follow in my life, and which influence my other behaviors towards other people. I am conscious, too, of the lure of nihilism, of the whispers of doubt and fear that it is all some grand hoax. But I affirm the earlier belief because, at my core, my intuition tells me it is so, and the beautiful mystery this makes out of my life’s experience confirms for me it must be true.
So it is with you, dear reader, and with everyone else you encounter. I submit, then, that we must be aware of the immensity of the mechanisms at work when we fancy to try to change someone else.
I have found that the most transformational experiences we can have are those which expose us to new people and new situations. That’s why travel is a perennial boon in so many ways to so many people, including myself, as it gets you out of your comfort zone, and in so doing forces you to confront many of your assumptions about people, about lifestyles, and about yourself.
In my own case, I was most deeply effected by a colleague whom I had the great honor of working with for over a year–and who now has unfortunately passed away. Knowing this person did more to show me the real complexities and truths of the “homosexual issue” than years of reading philosophy and anthropology ever did.
This was someone I came to call a friend of mine, and he became a friend first, before any labels about his orientation, which actually came months later after I had already developed a relationship with him.
As time went on, I witnessed the crassness of other people, usually strangers, who would make their comments about homosexuals, and instead of being able to think about those things in an abstract way, I now always thought about my friend, and those statements became insensitive, shallow, and ignorant–if not outright hateful.
Without any direct argumentation, I changed my assumptions about what makes a person good and honorable, about what it means to label a person based on their orientation. In other words, I redeemed what had been a class of people into just people. And this is the new assumption upon which I base any questions others bring up about homosexuality.
An honest testimony is powerful, especially if it is not made into a club. As Christians, we are encouraged to do this. But, I would be skeptical as to how effective this lone admonishment will be in changing their behavior.
If you’re lucky, your witness will be one more chink in a growing crack in their foundational assumptions, or one more sprouting seed in an already fallow field.