What's Tony Thinking

Listening, Sin and Grace


What does listening have to do with big theological words like “sin” and “grace”?

A lot, according to Paul Zahl. We continued our webinar on Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, last evening. One of the things I appreciate about Zahl’s book is that it really is about everyday life and relationships.

For example, Zahl gets at the Christian doctrine of original sin by considering listening. Here’s Zahl:

“A prime example of original sin is the way people listen, or rather do not listen, to each other. When you are on an airplane, a train, or a bus, don’t you overhear conversations between two people, sometimes two friends even, when everything that is stated by the first person becomes the opportunity for the other to bring the conversation back to himself or herself?

“One person says, ‘I was sick last week,’ and the other replies, ‘You know, I was, too,’ or ‘I’ve been pretty healthy this summer.’ ‘I had a summer cold, I couldn’t believe how nasty it was.’ ‘I don’t get summers colds,’ the other answers, ‘anyhow, colds don’t bother me.’ ‘Well, at least I didn’t have to lose any days at work,’ the first person says. The second person counters, ‘I haven’t lost any days at work this summer, either.’

“What is happening in this conversation? The two people are taking turns talking. That’s all there is to it. They are taking turns talking about themselves. This is routine in almost all human interchanges . . .

Sometimes the topic is harder, more painful. Zahl uses the example of a person speaking of her recent miscarriage, which prompts the second person to launch on a forty-five minute account of their own such experience.

“Do you see the point about original sin?” queries Zahl? “If you do not believe in original sin or find it uncomfortable or just plain morbid, listen to any conversation, not to mention your own. You’ll be amazed at the evidence. Listening to another person without hearing their words entirely in reference to yourself hardly ever happens. Everything I hear is just an excuse to bring attention back to me . . . Grace is listening to another person without bringing the conversation back to you.”

It is a good illustration of a big theological concept, “original sin,” drawn from everyday life. Earlier Zahl defines original sin as “the universal tendency in people to look out solely for themselves to such an extent that when they are on the defensive they become violent and libidinal.”

David Augsburger, in his book Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, writes of the other side of the coin, the grace of listening:

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”

People think theology has to be abstract and rarified. Not really. It is about ordinary life.

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