Sometimes the biggest thing that gets us into trouble, I would suggest, is presupposing a person’s position on something. Despite having been gently reminded of the dangers early in my field assessment, it’s still something which catches me out now and again (and again, and again). These pre-judgements are based on all sorts of factors – a passing comment, another person’s opinion, an assumption based on insubstantial rumour or gossip, an overheard discussion. These things often become the sum of what we think we know about someone before we’ve even had a chance to speak to them directly. And, of course, it then colours how we hear whatever they have to say to us. (I suspect there’s a legitimate lesson for Biblical interpretation in there as well.)
One of the pleasures of a Christian community and, especially, a reflective community, is that you can throw ideas around and test them against different understandings. There is a danger though that when we participate in that, our opinions are not seen as being put out to be tested, but being up for challenge, vehemently. And thus our presuppositions come into play. We hear with bias and we respond gracelessly. We attach labels, all too often with superglue.
I had a conversation with a person one evening during the conference which was heading towards a bit of a fankle until we stopped and cleared away the presuppositions. That’s not to say we suddenly saw eye-to-eye on everything, but what we did discover was that we had very much more in common that perhaps we had previously realised. Perhaps the significant thing was that we were both prepared to step to the side of ourselves for a while and listen to the other. Not just the ‘I hear what you’re saying’ listening, but the genuine ‘I want to understand you’ listening.
But there was more to be had from the conversation than just the satisfaction of knowing a bit more about someone. What I (we?) got was a bit more of the excitement that can be found when we hear of how God works in others. Whether it’s sharing experiences or sharing ‘academic’ insights, there’s always the sense that God is so much bigger than anything we can think of.
Our presuppositions not only put inaccurate labels on people, they also put God in a box. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do during Candidates’ conferences is take time to really know others and through them, learn a lot more about God.
But it’s also fun to play ‘the game’ – the one, that seems all too prevalent, of pigeonholing people. The ‘fun’ part is to play the game by confounding expectations and refusing to accept the label or fitting neatly into the pigeonhole. I’m looking forward to the next 4 conferences and continuing to play the game with spoilers. Maybe we’ll stop playing the game and just start talking.