How Can We Learn to See That of God in People We Dislike?

@ Etienne Boulanger/Unsplash

If Quakers have anything close to one theology, it is that there is “that of God” in everyone. But what happens when we encounter people we dislike? Or at least, people who are doing things we dislike? How do we see God in them? I’ve been working on an answer.

First, we need to mentally be able to separate the people from both their values and the beliefs they hold. Then we need to understand how the values and the beliefs interact. Social science research gives us a helpful starting place. Reading Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion changed the way I looked at the world.

Haidt says that all humans have the same underlying belief structure (aha! That’s probably part of “that of God” in each of us). What differs between us is the relative importance we place on those values and the interpretation we give those values. There are some patterns: liberals or progressives tend to favor two of what Haidt calls moral foundations, while conservatives are more evenly spread across all five foundations.

Many other researchers have been building on Haidt’s work. They have discovered that moral foundations are related to differences in personality and in physiology. People who are lower in openness, higher in conscientiousness, and have a fixed mindset are more likely to be conservative. Differences in moral foundations affect (or cause) differences in saliva production, sweat production, and brain waves. People who are more easily nauseated are more likely to be higher in sacredness and more likely to be conservative.

Thus, when we get upset at the position people are taking on an issue and asking them to change their mind, we are actually asking them to change their personality, their physiology, and how they were raised. Obviously, that’s not likely to be successful.

What’s the answer? How can we talk to people whose positions we dislike and see “that of God” in them? And how can we be successful in communicating what we believe? All the while, not abandoning our own principles?

Again, I take my inspiration from social science, in this case, psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, who developed a technique they call moral reframing. One Quaker I know likened this to speaking in tongues.

It’s not an easy technique to apply. Fewer than 10 percent of us can do it naturally without any training. The rest of us have to learn it. I have turned it into a spiritual practice, and created a number of steps. Some of these are examining ourselves, learning about our own bias, and working to detach from it. Then we need to figure out the ways in which we value the ideas that the other side has. If we can assume good intentions, we can learn from those we disagree with and examine the issues. Once we understand the values that underpin their views on the issue, then we can try different ways to reframe the issue. The key is to use a relevant value that is surprising but relevant.

Willer and Feinberg have proven moral reframing is effective in their experiments. They used this technique with both conservatives and liberals on a number of issues and were able to demonstrate that it made a difference.

But it doesn’t come easy. We need to learn how to do it. That’s why it is a practice.

If we can learn to do reframe, then the other side will be able to hear what we have to say. Just like in meeting for worship, when we listen to each other and open ourselves up for a creative solution, one will come. This can bring peace. Theologian Peter Rollins talks about how the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was difficult to accomplish but by deciding to talk to each other, they were able to find things they could agree on. In Northern Ireland, they were killing each other. If they could do it under those conditions, we can too.

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