Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 4: Beyond Tunnel Vision

Image result for public domain image of tunnel

“The meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.”
                                                                Robert Wright
                                                (As quoted in Religion Gone Astray, p. 155)

Our opening quote today could equally be applied to countless topics far beyond the scope of religious literature-- from music and art to diet and exercise tracts. As I have pointed out in previous blog entries, we see the world as WE ARE. To help clarify what I mean, here is a great teaching story I heard from my father at a very early age:

A man walks into a bar, orders a drink and starts chatting with the bar tender.  “I just moved here for a new job. How do you find the people in this town?” he asks.

The bartender wipes at a wet spot on the wood.  “How were they in your town?”

“Rotten.  Stab you in the back in a heartbeat.  Cold.  Not good people at all.”

“Yup, same thing here.”  The bartender excuses himself to serve a man sitting a couple of seats down the bar.

The first man watches him go and then hears the other diner ask a similar question to the one he had posed.  And again, the bartender asks how people were in his own town.

The diner replies, “Oh, they were great.  Easy going, always willing to help in a pinch.  Good solid folks.”

“Yup, same thing here,” the bartender replied.

“What!” the first man cried, leaping to his feet.  “You just told me the folks here were rotten, and then you go and tell this fellow just the opposite.  Watcha doin’, fishing for tips?”

“Nah,” the bartender replies with a grin.  “I just find people are pretty much what you expect them to be.”

Part of learning to understand who we are, so we can see others as they are, is identifying our own form of tunnel vision.  Now this very human "narrowing" of the mind sometimes gets a bad name for itself, implying that we are not “educated” or “fully informed” or that we are stuck in our own little corner of reality.  The hard truth is, most of us do not possess ears that hear or eyes that see the whole picture of the faith we practice or even the entire truth of the world around us.  However, What we place in our tunnel deeply affects the relationships we have with others and even with the unconscious parts of ourselves.

If we choose to hold that Muslims and Jews are in the “wrong” religion, that homosexuals are not equally the children of God, that violence is a perfectly acceptable tool to “get our way” and is sanctioned by our scripture, on and on, we lock out our ability to meet and see the human being our labels and judgments obscure. And sadly, we limit our own ability to work on positive traits within ourselves like unconditional love, compassion, and kindness. In the end, the people we choose not to know are not injured by such tunnel vision—we are.

It’s entirely possible for tunnel vision to be loving, non-judgmental and filled with light.  
And I would say it is a positive place to start because it encourages healthy relationships with others.  Robert Wright, in his New York Times editorial about reading and studying the entirety of scripture goes on to say:

“Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these (violent or homophobic) passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.”

At some point, however, the tunnel must widen. How can we say we “know” music if we have never allowed ourselves to experience the whole spectrum of this art?  Notice, I didn’t say “like the whole spectrum”.   Think about what you listen to, day in and day out.  Have you ever tried to listen to different kinds of music? How did that feel? When we say we “hate Polka” or “dislike Country Western”, what does that mean? How often have we actually just sat and listened to these forms with an open mind and heart? And here is the very interesting part: do you know someone who loves kinds of music you don’t? How interested are you in their hobbies, their work, their favorite sports team? What are their children like? What gives them hope for the future?  What do they most fear? Are you able to stay open to them, even love and enjoy them, though you don’t share musical tastes? This is what interfaith dialogue is like sometimes—we have to sit and hear the entire spectrum of religious experience long enough to be in relationship with another, even when that spectrum introduces us to ideas never glimpsed in our own tunnels.

When topics like homophobia, the role of women in religion, the dark side of institutionalism, elitism and what-not arise, we may be pushed well outside of our particular tunnel. I am advocating that the relationship we have with other PEOPLE is always more important than the tunnels we all inevitably create as part of being human.  Are we able to stay in dialogue, listening deeply? Are we able to see the comfortable and uncomfortable issues that arise without objectifying the person or people we are speaking with? In other words, can we place our shared humanity first and our own opinions and viewpoints second?

In a few weeks, the Three Amigos will visit Alpena, Michigan.  The challenge I make to all my readers is this: can you see the men more than their roles? What questions might you ask if you were making friends with them, rather than just evaluating them as “Priest, Rabbi or Iman? Because if you can challenge yourself to think in this way, you open yourself to others in your community who are not exactly like yourself, and in so doing, you make your tunnel a great deal more spacious and delightful to live within.

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