I’ve had some interesting conversations lately with – what shall I label them? – nonbelievers. By nonbelievers, I mean people for whom religion, at least as we traditionally think of it, is not a part of life. Some of these nonbelievers self-identify as atheists, others as agnostics or some odd mix, still others don’t even bother with self-identification. Many of them read this weekly blog – and they are welcomed.
I find these conversations stimulating, especially when the other person allows me to ask questions. By questions, I don’t mean conniving statements ending with a “?” mark. I mean questions that vulnerably reveal that I want to understand that other person better.
The discussions generally start with everyday stuff – work or some other context that brings us together. Along the way, a tangent surfaces shifting the conversational stream into a different channel for a few minutes.
For example, you and I are processing some social concern, hunger or poverty and how best to deal with it. Not one of those obnoxious political fights where we dig trenches and stalemate it out World War I style. No, honest discussions about what really should and can be done.
I sense in you a sincere desire to meet basic human need and solve intractable problems. And so I ask further, What motivates you to do so? Usually your initial answers are broad, safe, beauty pageant kinds of responses. The type designed to avoid trench warfare.
But I pick up that you are less threatened by me than that you didn’t pack those cue cards in your pocket this morning. So I give you opportunity to explore further as I pursue with another question. My questions are designed to understand because that is really my motivation – understanding. I frankly want to know what motivates you.
I am intrigued by what water source a non-faith person such as yourself draws from when you dig your motivational well. My hypothesis is that all humans are hardwired to want to do good by others, that this communal, altruistic impulse is what in part defines us as human beings. Where that impulse comes from is a matter of faith and science, an expansive conversation we’ll leave for another time.
When I lived in China, I had equally fascinating conversations with Muslim Imams, Communist Party officials, run-of-the-mill people on the street for whom faith was a foreign object, and foreigners like myself who brought with them garden varieties of faith perspectives. Some of the best discussions I had were with certain Party types, idealists who really wanted to meet the needs of their most vulnerable constituents.
One-on-one over tea and under a disinterested wall clock, Party Type and I would chew on the deeper meaning of life. Invariably I’d walk away profoundly impressed with the thought processes going on in the mind of that other person. Hopefully, they’d walk away with my questions continuing to stir up old silt in the ponds of their souls, so muddied by everyday concerns.
Honest confession. I’d rather talk with nonbelievers who have actually dug philosophical wells than with believers who have never learned to think. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of believers who have discovered that they were created with a brain for a reason. Sadly though, there are far too many exceptions. And I would rather keep such exceptions exceptional in my engagement calendar and on my Facebook threads.
I’m not saying I prefer intellectuals to those less intelligent. People who have actually contemplated the deeper meaning of life are not limited to one IQ class or level. No, in contrast, some of the shallowest people I have met – believer or not – are intellectually brilliant in the ways we usually score such things. One’s IQ level and the ability to reflect are not linked, not by a long shot.
When I am asking the question, Where do you find your motivation?, the last thing I want is for you to peel off your bumper sticker and slap it on my ear. Away with your driveling soundbites! Let me see inside your soul. Help me understand what sources your wellsprings. For, in doing so, you allow me to understand you better and you offer me deeper insight into the universe we share.
In the more recent conversations, the dialogs didn’t go down this tangent very far. There were more immediate concerns on the table, after all, such as actually getting food to hungry people. Yet I walked away hungry to understand more about this other person, you.
You are not a person of faith. Fair enough. You are deeply concerned with those in need. Good. You are actually doing something about it. Even better. Why? What compels you? You say that doing right by your fellow human being is what is important in life. But what makes doing right by our fellow human being important? Where does altruism fit into the messy scheme of life?
My quest to understand these wellsprings is not just an evangelistic ploy. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been accused of employing such tricks by people who really don’t know me. Sure, I’d love to introduce you to my faith source, Jesus. After all, there is a reason, a compelling one, why I devote my life to him. But any such introduction is to be made only on your and his terms, not mine. Most certainly not to fill some monthly proselytizing quota.
No, my hunger to engage your perspective is both less selfish and more personal. On the former, I honestly want to know what fuels your passion. I value your drive to make this world a better place to live and the better I understand that drive the better I am able to encourage that passion and work alongside you.
On the latter, I want to understand my own faith more fully. Over a lifetime of Jacob-style wrestling (inside joke for faith-type readers), I have learned to draw from a profoundly deep well-source. The more I draw, the more I discover how much more there is to draw – and I could use another lifetime or two doing so. Maybe even an eternity.
In that process, I have also discovered that there is so much to learn from engaging people with other well sources. What you tell me about your faith – or non-faith – can give me keen insight into my own, especially if you do more than slap bumper stickers on people, the aqua equivalent of drinking water out of a street-side gutter.
As I have walked away from these recent conversations with you, I have found myself thirsty to know more about you and your wellsprings. Since I cannot imagine finding a source any greater than Jesus, I am fascinated that others such as you have. At the least, engaging such dialogs will make each of us even thirstier. And thirst, Jesus said, is a very good starting point on the path to living and doing right.