Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! ..."

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

For Christians pursuing academic careers, listening constitutes a spiritual task. As researchers, we are called to understand a broken and complex world. We are also expected to answer difficult questions. The two are linked: our ability to listen properly will mediate our capacity to provide meaningful insights into the world’s issues. Here, I understand listening not simply as the immediate capacity of hearing others, but also an awareness and openness to broader relevant issues (including the pressing questions in our own research field). The ability to listen properly will enable us not only to untie the complexities of our own subjects but also to discern God’s wisdom on contemporary issues. The British theologian John Stott stresses that

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.

(1992, p13)

I believe that “double listening” is a task for Christian scholars. We are called to be sensitive to modern issues while preserving our attention and obedience to God’s word. Here I will focus on the importance of listening to the world’s issues with love and sensitivity, and in a subsequent post I plan to address the need to listen to God’s Word.

The ability to listen to people’s voices is a biblical mandate. From the beginning of the biblical narrative, God is presented as someone who hears people’s cries for help and is deeply attentive to the world’s problems. In the context of slavery and oppression:

The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

(Exodus 3:7; see also Genesis 18:20-21; Psalm 34)

There are even warnings against shutting our ears to people’s cries. “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:23). Listening was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry. He heard the cry of the poor, women, children, the mentally ill, and the wrongdoer. In one instance, He asked a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), revealing a deep interest in the man’s life story, hopes and problems. He considered critically the present issues of his time and showed compassion, love and sensitivity. As he once said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

I believe these are strong reasons for adopting a more sensitive approach to listening in our own research. This can take diverse forms: we may develop research questions that will enable the participants (or those who will benefit from our study) to voice their concerns and expectations. We may also need to be deliberate about asking whose voices we are privileging and whose we are ignoring. Like Jesus’ ministry, empathy should permeate our relationships with research participants, colleagues, and the public.

At the same time, Jesus regularly withdrew to listen to the words of his Father (see Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12-13). We are also called to be like him in both ways. My experience of doing a PhD in social psychology has taught me much about the need to listen to people’s voices on relevant societal issues. Listening to cries for justice, equal opportunities, adequate health and social care is paramount, particularly in a world of superficial interactions and noise in which many voices are systematically drowned out. For instance, in my own research, I explored older adults’ views on well-being in later life, particularly in community settings, and realised that this group has been consistently overlooked in policy campaigns and frameworks of care. Their voices are hardly heard!

Progressively, I became aware that listening to their concerns would be a spiritual task. Their views, experiences and hopes would be venues for spiritual, political, and psychological change.

Finally, John Stott (1992) highlights that

[Double listening] is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and to Christian mission.

(p29)

I believe (double) listening is also indispensable to Christian scholars. In the context of academia, it may enable us to tackle relevant issues in a creative and transformative way.

Thanks to my friend Jess Hope (PhD student in History, University of Cambridge) for proofreading and for helping me to think more deeply about double listening in research.

Reference

Stott, John (1992). The contemporary Christian: an urgent plea for double listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

Bruno Medeiros recently completed his PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Originally from Paraíba in Brazil, he is interested in the social psychology of health and community.

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