An Ethic of Listening

In times where the “cancel culture” goes both directions (a cultural reaction of taking offense and rejecting someone due to their biases and assertions), it takes maturity to listen with hope, love, and faith. We listen with hope knowing the Redeemer. We listen with love for our neighbor. We listen with faith that God will give us wise, gentle, humble, courageous responses in the appointed time. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, all things are beautiful in their appointed time, there is a time to speak, and a time to remain silent. 

"It takes maturity to listen with hope, love, and faith." ~ Jeremy Chambers Click To Tweet

In an era of non-listening, coercive manipulation becomes expedient. Even the church is tempted to resort to manipulation instead of offering the dignity of a listening ear. Consider the beauty of patience and servanthood that we see in Jesus.

He could have proclaimed himself innocent in many instances when others had condemned Him, yet he knew when to remain silent and when to speak. He asked brilliant questions. As Hebrew Rabbi, His heart was to initiate meaningful dialogue with others. As Divine Logos, His heart is positive on good communication.

In following Him, we learn to listen with love to the pain of those around us, to the work of the Father in our world, and to the Holy Spirit who is mending our hearts.

Vertical & Horizontal Connections

Eugene Peterson suggests paying attention to “the vertical conversation” (what is happening between the Lord and the person) before speaking into the “horizontal [earthly] conversation” (c.f. “The Contemplative Pastor,” an excellent book. Here’s a good summary

In a seemingly post-rational, post-relational society, a humble response of love can change the world. But first let’s consider just a few factors that brought us to this place. 

Understanding Our Current Tension

Acknowledging the inevitable reductionism of trying to offer a few notes here in the face of such modern complexity, it is helpful to recognize at least some of the historical and philosophical influences behind our current careless cultural condition. 

Therefore, please pardon a bit of historical and ethical geekdom: 

In 1981, Alistair MacIntyre, a catholic philosopher, wrote what is widely considered a seminal book in inciting the resurrection of moral debate regarding virtue ethics in philosophical circles and one of the most important ethical works of the 20th century.

“After Virtue” is Macintyre’s treatment of the history of ethics, the abandonment of a cultural common ethic, and the rise of modern cacophony of a multitude of competing ethical theories alongside the inevitable loss of a listening culture. MacIntyre postulates that Aristotelian ethics (from Socrates and Aristotle) mingled in a seemingly helpful way (albeit debatable) with early Christianity to form a common ethic in the Western world that prevailed largely until the Enlightenment. Having a common ethical system allowed healthy debate amongst people adhering to Western civilization (note: this is lacking consideration of other global ethical systems). 

Ethic Buffet

MacIntyre notes that in the 1600’s we began to see a proliferation of new rational ethical models, with good intentions but unintended consequences. Again, pardon the reductionism, but think of Immanuel Kant, William James, David Hume, even Karl Marx and Adam Smith just to name a few; all of these and many others began to influence entire new pragmatic systems of ethics that were largely being adopted in various places throughout society, without widespread consensus or cohesion. Add to this the influence of globalism, ethical pluralism, and post-modern epistemology, and you have a yard sale of ethical systems that everyone can pick and choose from; creating ethical consumers as a product. 

Consumer Listening

So when a typical moral debate arises, rather than an easy flow of meaning and understanding, the dialogue partners may be using competing ethical systems which entails competing linguistic, semantic and value systems. This makes it harder to listen to one another. So if someone wants to debate, say, abortion, one person uses a Judeo-Christian / Aristotelian ethic for the sanctity of human life, while another person responds with an ethic from Adam Smith regarding property rights (my body, my choice, etc), and a third reply can go either way using a utilitarian ethic claiming societal consequences as either positive or negative. In this example, one person may not care about another person’s “ethical system” for argumentation, because they have chosen an ethical system that they prefer for this particular issue. However, as an ethical consumer, one may use a competing or contradictory ethical system for another tricky topic in their life. 

How can meaning flow if ethical systems aren’t agreed upon? How can understanding flow if semantics aren’t in unity? In his study of ethics, Nietzsche observed this problem and concluded that no meaning could be achieved. Many of postmodern persuasion have also concluded a similar fatalism. 

MacIntyre didn’t cave to despair. He had hope that renewed ethical dialogue could bring some healing to society. He hoped a new sort of “St. Benedict” would bring about a resurgence in ethical order. To his surprise, a number of people read MacIntyre’s work and began formulating apparently Benedictine solutions to this problem. 

A Half Solution

Part of a solution has been offered through New Monasticism. Jonathan Wilson in his book, “Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World” promoted this idea of a semi-monasticism or a contemplative activist. He pulls from Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s claim that the church needed restoration in the form of some sort of new monasticism imbued with the teachings of Jesus. The movement gained popularity in the early 2000’s and new monastics like Shane Claiborne arose. Books like, “The Celtic Way of Evangelism,” by George C. Hunter, “Poustinia” by Catherine Doherty, “The Benedict Option” published by Rod Dreher in 2017, and “Gravitas” by Jerome Daley in 2020 (an excellent book), demonstrate the influence of monastic communities historically and promote a contemplative / activist approach. 

Incarnational Impact

The idea is that small communities of people, united around a common ethic and rule of life, can most easily contextualize to their surroundings and become a potent force for good, spiritual and physical health, and the thriving of others. Instead of endless arguments and fatalism, an incarnational witness of love is promoted. You can see how the missional and micro-church movement can blend so easily into this methodology. 

This is an attempt to remedy the broken influence of Christianity in segments of society. MacIntyre, Bonhoeffer and others are pointing back to early church leaders such as John Cassian, Gregory the Great, and Benedict of Nursia who all offered activism deeply integrated with contemplation (c.f. Foster and Beebe’s comprehensive work, “Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion,” specifically Path Six: Action and Contemplation). 

But this is only half of a solution. Behavior can be trendy and lifestyle changes don’t always stick. D.A. Carson in his book, “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” laid down some systemic problems with this new monastic movement. Others have pointed out that many of these recent monastic activist communities have fizzled (not to say that they didn’t do something important while they existed, but simply to say that measurable positive outcomes of their existence is hard to discern). Something is missing.  

The Answer: The Holy Spirit 

Listening to the Holy Spirit; a strong applied pneumatology. 

Macintyre’s conclusions may, unintentionally, lead to fatalism about productive dialogue. Why even try open discourse if no one can communicate? How can there be meaningful transference of ideas and understanding when both sides are using discordant ethical and semantic systems, with no unity about how to reconcile those systems?

Yet we have a hidden treasure: The Holy Spirit. If we listen, truly listen to the Holy Spirit, then we have the Source of all Wisdom, Love and Gentleness available to us. Then we can allow someone to verbally expound their ethical system to us, and even if we do not fully agree, we can listen to the Spirit of God, who reminds us to listen well to the person in front of us too.

Instead of forcing people to change, we listen to understand them and give space for the Spirit of God to begin a work of kindness within them. Here is where we take on the deeper scriptural identity of being ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

Meaningful dialogue becomes possible. But a lot of listening must take place. Sometimes we must go home and pray before even offering a response, and this is a mature response given the complexity, obstinacy, and ostracism of our times. As Eugene Peterson indicated, we may need to discern what is truly happening in that vertical relationship first. Be slow to speak until you understand the flow of the Divine conversation. It behooves us to patiently discern what the Lord is saying before we “rush in.” 

"Meaningful dialogue is possible. But a lot of listening must take place." ~ Jeremy Chambers Click To Tweet

This sort of maturity is beautiful in immature times. Holy listening, waiting, digesting before replying is one of the highest acts of servanthood. As the phrase goes, you can “be the change you want to see in the world.” We must crucify our pride and desire to prove ourselves right, crucify our belief that we have “judged rightly” in every dialogue, and humble our hearts to a place of listening to those in front of us, listening to what is happening inside of us, and most importantly, listening to (and groaning with) the Spirit of God who groans in deep infinite intercession for each of us. 

Additional Resources: “Fierce Conversations” – Susan Scott. “Difficult Conversations” – Bruce Patton. “The Tangible Kingdom Primer” – Hugh Halter (has an excellent chapter on listening). “Kingdom Contours” – Jeremy and Monica Chambers, (addresses listening, serving, and being contemplative in the context of missional activist communities). “Hearing God” – Dallas Willard (excellent for learning to listen to the Lord).  

About the Author

Jeremy Chambers

Jeremy Chambers is currently planting and launching discipleship missional communities in Richmond, VA and the broader region. He has been involved in the global Kingdom movement since 1999 and has personally witnessed incredible Kingdom advancement in over 40 countries. He did his BA in Bible at Lancaster Bible College and an MA in Intercultural Studies, and an MA in History of Christian Thought/Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His aim is to seed the global movement and launch new discipleship communities that aim to spread virally. His wife, Monica, is Costa Rican, but came to the U.S. with her parents as missionaries to the U.S. Jeremy has a black belt in mixed martial arts, is a rock climber, is just a little too excited about playing chess, and definitely reads too much. Jeremy and Monica authored "Kingdom Contours," a collection of resources to help people practice missional discipleship.

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