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Man woman dialogue
August 4, 2021+Emily G. Wenneborg
+Faith & Religion

Faith Commitments Fuel Dialogue Across Differences

Many educators hope to use dialogue to help students bridge differences, especially moral and political ones. How can they best achieve these goals, especially for students who bring strong religious commitments into the classroom? Recent research by Rachel Wahl, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, provides valuable insights into the challenges and surprising successes of dialogue across differences — religious and otherwise — in a higher-education context. In early 2017, Wahl conducted philosophically informed ethnographic research on a series of voluntary dialogues between left-leaning, largely secular students and more conservative, evangelical Christian students. Through observation of the dialogues and interviews with participants, Wahl found that the evangelical students displayed a greater ability to listen to and learn from their peers across the political (and religious) divide than did their secular peers. She notes that American evangelicals can be perceived by those outside their faith as closed-minded and insular; in the context of dialogue across difference, non-evangelicals may assume that evangelicals enter into the dialogue only to share their beliefs and convert others to evangelicalism. Certainly the events of the past five years, including the prominent role played by white evangelicals in the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, reinforced the perception among some observers that evangelicals view difference (whether racial, cultural, or religious) as a threat to be opposed rather than a good to be embraced. Indeed, for many higher-education leaders, the theological — and often moral and political — certainties of evangelicalism may seem the very antithesis of the open-mindedness and commitment to inquiry they hope to foster in their students. However, Wahl argues that, far from working against openness, the religious certainty of the evangelical students who participated in the dialogues directly contributed to their capacity to learn from others. As she explains,

[Evangelical Christian] students’ receptivity was bolstered by one more unlikely source: their certainty. [The secular] students felt that they were being asked to put everything on the line through their openness to the persons and ideas they encountered. But it would likely not occur to [an Evangelical] student that they would be asked to question their core beliefs during a dialogue. … The stakes lower, they were freer to learn.

Referring to one particular evangelical student who participated in the dialogues, Wahl observes,

This capacity for receptivity contains what may initially seem to be an irony. It is her certainty that allows for her humility. She does not need to be afraid of others, because her faith is strong enough that it will not be shaken by their views. But this very faith directs her to meet with humility many other aspects of life. The strong ground on which she stands allows for a softening in other areas.

In fact, Wahl found that the evangelical students she talked with understood openness to learning from others as an expression of their faith, not a contradiction of it. Wahl directly relates this finding — that openness to others has become a core component of faith for these evangelical students — to the educational and democratic goals of dialogue.

Evangelical Christianity entails a commitment to a set of beliefs. But in a secular democracy, openness to diverse others is considered a crucial good. This tension is resolved for these students: engaging receptively and respectfully with unbelievers becomes a core principle of faith as well as a sign that one is secure in that faith. By learning from and loving people with different beliefs, they do not betray Christ but rather become more like him. Instead of undermining their capacity for belief, therefore, the inevitable encounter with secular worldviews allows evangelical students to deepen it. …

Hence [these] students’ faith commitments mean that there is something clear to which one can appeal, not that appeals will fall on deaf ears. To understand the world through an evaluative frame, in other words, does not constrain deliberative dialogue. Rather, it makes it practicable by providing people with a base from which to consider the possibility of reinterpreting their positions.

Given the importance of their commitments in opening these evangelical students to dialogue with others, it is worth considering what the nature of those commitments are. What specifically theological content of evangelicalism enables some of its adherents to learn from those with whom they disagree?

Theological Commitments

The evangelical students who participated in these dialogues derive their willingness to learn from others directly from their theological beliefs. Wahl quotes one evangelical student’s understanding of the nature of God in relation to openness to others, observing that this student “understands her self-formative aims as rooted in her religious beliefs, and her understanding of her religion leads her to prize humility, compassion, and service.” In the student’s own words, “God is such a mighty God, we don’t have to defend him. He can defend himself. And he can use me however he chooses and I’m open to that.” Wahl elaborates, “[This student’s] receptivity, grounded as it is in her religious understanding, is premised on the idea that she need not do all the work herself.” This theme, that evangelical students were not responsible for single-handedly changing the world — precisely because of their belief that God is already at work in the world — recurs throughout Wahl’s research on these dialogues. She finds a startling sense of freedom in this evangelical certainty in God:

[Evangelical students] typically believe that they do not need to engineer the change they wish to see in the world. …This freedom from the need to manipulate outcomes seems to make receptive learning possible.

Wahl contrasts the freedom, and resulting openness to learning, she observed in the evangelical students with the secular students’ sense of political and societal responsibility:

The secular liberal sense that individuals are responsible for bringing about a just society can undermine the willingness to learn from opponents at times when one’s principles are most directly threatened, while an evangelical Christian belief that God enacts change in the world can in moments of relative confidence nourish the capacity to learn from others.

Of course, such confidence and the openness that results from it could flow from sources other than the religious commitments of evangelicalism. But in the cases of the evangelical students whom Wahl interviewed, the source of their openness was their theological beliefs. The point is not that all of us have to approach dialogue from the same perspective or for the same reasons, which would in effect defeat the purpose of dialogue across differences. Rather, for any given dialogue participant, the particularities of why and how they enter into dialogue matter, and for these evangelical students, those particularities include their theology.

Contextual Considerations

Of course, as the above quotation indicates, the contextual specifics of the dialogues that Wahl researched certainly affected the willingness of the participants to learn from others, as well as their relative concern with the state of broader society in that moment. Wahl recognizes that, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, the evangelical students (who were generally conservative socially and politically, even though not all of them had voted for Trump) may have felt a greater sense of security and cultural and political power, while the secular students (nearly all of whom had voted for Clinton) “felt powerless to direct the country according to their principles of justice.” Moreover, the evangelical students, whom Wahl describes as “younger undergraduates,” perceived that the “older graduate students” who were their secular partners in dialogue “had more education, more political knowledge, and more experience articulating their claims.” Recognizing these differences and in some ways looking up to the secular students may have contributed to the evangelical students’ greater receptivity to learning from others. A further contextual factor influencing the course of the dialogue was the educational approach of the particular Christian university attended by the evangelical students. According to Wahl, this university

makes receptivity to others a central educational aim, and their students’ responses to dialogue reflect this ideal. Moreover, while students may harbor the long-term aim of converting the people they meet, they believe that the means to change another person is to first understand and love them. I argue that this orientation produces a key democratic good: citizens who wish to remain in relationship with and learn from people they oppose politically. …

But woven throughout the [university’s] curriculum is the intentional formation of Christians who can love and respect others, hold their commitments with humility, and dwell in uncertainty. These aims are rooted in curricular practices: from the beginning students are instructed in the art of listening and in how to relate to their fellow students. Some professors even suggest to students that they take notes not only on what teachers say, but also on what their peers express. Such activities are meant to send a message: Everyone deserves your careful attention.

Certainly, a different institution with different priorities and practices would have different effects on students’ willingness to learn through dialogue; for example, some subtraditions within American evangelicalism might place greater curricular emphasis on doctrinal purity or preparation for political activism than on humility and openness to learning from others. This is not to say that evangelical Christianity has no effect on students’ openness to engaging with others, but rather that we need to pay careful attention to the ways that the beliefs of evangelicalism, as well as other religions and nonreligious worldviews, are mediated through and embodied in particular communities of learning.

Lessons for Dialogue Across Differences

So, what lessons can educators and dialogue facilitators draw from Wahl’s observations of the deliberative dialogues that these evangelical and secular students participated in? Wahl’s research can encourage a shift in how students’ deepest commitments are perceived. As noted above, educators may view students’ prior commitments with skepticism or mistrust, especially if those commitments are conservative and/or religious. And indeed, some students (from all backgrounds) will find their preexisting understandings challenged or altogether shaken by their educational experiences. But this need not necessarily be the goal. Instead, educators can look for ways to draw on students’ deep commitments as resources to facilitate dialogue, openness, and learning. Of course, this will require knowing something about the commitments, traditions, and values that students bring into the classroom. Educators need to grow in religious literacy and respectful understanding, too. One good place to start is the resources developed by Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project. Another important step is to learn more about the assumptions of methodological naturalism and to consider when and how it might be advisable to relax these requirements. Even so, Wahl’s research indicates that, in terms of changed minds, the results of dialogue may be meager and not immediately apparent: “[N]o student abandoned their deeply rooted sense of what is good and right.” This suggests another key takeaway for educators: a realistic, modest assessment of the goals and potential of educational dialogues. Yet Wahl did notice students shifting their understandings and perceptions in areas that were less core to their belief systems — especially regarding the nature of those who saw things differently than they did. While hardly world-altering, these shifts do matter, and if they add up over time, can lead to more significant changes in attitude and belief. With this in mind, educators may seek to foster dialogic spaces in which participants can try on new ideas without immediately accepting or rejecting them. A more patient, less instrumental approach to educational dialogue across differences can support students in gradually broadening their perspective as they respectfully reflect on others’ viewpoints. Significantly, Wahl found that students were most willing to be persuaded when they did not feel that persuasion was the goal of their fellow dialogue participants.

It may be, however paradoxically, that it is precisely such understanding-oriented interaction that is persuasive. While the secular students worried that the dialogue was useless, the evangelical students were persuaded when they felt nobody was trying to influence them. [Evangelical] students’ assumptions and commitments inspired them to become receptive, but it seems to be their sense that other students responded in kind that enabled shifts in their understanding.

This finding regarding certain evangelical students may be less surprising if we reflect on our own willingness to change, and the circumstances that make it easier for us to do so: warm, noninstrumental relationships; a sense of overall security; and time.

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