We humans are drawn to conflict.  As Jonathan Haidt puts it, “it’s more entertaining to watch people throw rocks at each other over the wall than it is to watch the slow, difficult process of dismantling the wall and understanding each other’s point of view”.[1]  But I strive to see connections.  As moderator of the Veritas Forum at New York University with atheist Jonathan Haidt and Christian Tim Keller, I was thrilled by the commonalities in what the speakers shared – and how those commonalities enabled them to talk across fundamental differences.

What did these two public figures, a Christian and an atheist, have in common?  A deep valuing of love – believing the best about the other.  Haidt defined charity as giving someone the benefit of the doubt.  Keller described an attitude of being “not too quick to posit motives” – a virtue he called patience.[2]

It is a good reminder to me of how I can practically love my students. I teach a discussion-based course on culture and psychology. It’s a large class for this type, but I try to learn names quickly.  Like most instructors, I notice who speaks up, and who doesn’t. But I was an extremely shy child, so I try to look beyond verbal participation and to observe other signs that students are engaged: eye contact, attentiveness, and enthusiasm in small group activities.

In my class this semester, there was one student who seemed particularly disengaged: head down most of the time, always sitting at the back, not taking notes or engaging with classmates.  After class, he always left immediately. I assumed he was uninterested as best, disengaged for sure, and maybe even distracted.  I get it.  It’s a required course.

But, inspired by moderating the Veritas Forum on morality in a pluralistic society, I decided to include a class session on culture and morality – questions that felt risky to raise with my class of predominantly liberal, postmodern-minded, morally-relativistic students.  My mysterious student had clearly done the readings.  He brought up an astute point that I planned to say, if no student had observed it. When I emailed him after class to thank him for his contributions, he shared that he usually struggles with anxiety yet he felt empowered to speak up during that class.  What sweet irony that the topic that encouraged him to speak was a subject I was nervous to bring up!

But the main point in this story is this: I didn’t love that student. I didn’t believe the best about him. Instead, I assumed disengagement from what may have more accurately been attempts to deal with a mental health condition. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to a student’s behavior. Or that we shouldn’t let an individual’s previous behavior inform how we interact with them moving forward. But we must begin by believing the best. By separating our judgments from our observations, we can become aware of our assumptions about why our students may be acting the way they do, and take the time to listen.

The second commonality between Tim Keller and Jon Haidt deals squarely with living in a diverse, pluralistic society. When engaging with others who may have a different perspective than you, speak their language. Try to persuade from within the other person’s framework.  Of course, that assumes you understand the other person’s worldview – which requires the loving act of listening.

One might think that at a place as progressive as NYU, tolerance would be overflowing. But as Nicholas Kristoff put it his 2016 OpEd entitled, “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” the idea that liberals accept everyone is a myth: “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us,” writes Kristoff, “as long as they think like us.”[3]  Or as one of my students put it disparagingly, “We can only talk if we all agree.”

But as a Christian, my moral framework requires me to love across difference.  Jesus’s command is clear and his example uncompromising: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [4]  He conversed with the religiously self-righteous and dined with despised outcasts. If I want to love as Jesus loved, I must be tolerant of the intolerant as well.  And that means creating a space in which all voices can be heard and respected, even those that make us uncomfortable. This is not license for hurtful attacks or condoning ignorance. Christian ethics is grounded in defense of the disempowered.[5]   But there is a difference between safety and comfort.  Our classrooms should be safe, but may not – in fact, I would argue should not – always be comfortable.

Purveying the scope of human history, Jonathan Haidt defines five categories of moral “taste buds.” And while we all have taste buds, we don’t all like to eat the same things. Liberals rely primarily on the foundations of harm and fairness.  Conservatives draw on not only these two, but also notions of group cohesion, institutional integrity, and sanctity. To speak to someone, we need to know what they are focused on. That need not change our moral framework, but it allows us to communicate empathically, in terms our friends can understand.

Again, this is a biblical ethic.  The apostle Paul wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”[6]  Paul spoke the language of the other, without compromising his message.  Looking at the world through another’s eyes doesn’t mean we will lose our vision.

Research shows that one of the key characteristics of instructor effectiveness is when students know their teacher cares for them.[7]  We can love our students by believing the best about them. And we are more persuasive when we understand another’s perspective deeply enough to speak their language.  For Christians, this is no surprise.  It flows from the heart of a loving God, who gives us a secure identity in Jesus to love without boundaries.  Love is the best argument.

What to watch next:

Tim Keller on Pluralism & Christianity

[1] Haidt & Graham (2007). When Morality Opposed Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize

[2] Based on John Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?_r=0

[4] Matthew 5:44.

[5] e.g., Proverbs 31:8-9; Micah 6:8.

[6] I Corinthians 9:19-22.

[7] Willingham, Daniel T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?