[Originally published as Teaching, hearing, learning]
It’s weird to think that I’m old enough now that students can come back to me as adults to tell me what they thought of my teaching. Sometimes that’s a nice experience because students really took my guidance and teaching to heart and became better people and better scholars for it. Other encounters make me wonder if I taught anyone anything.
And then there are those instances where people think I’ve taught them things that I never did or would even consider.
I have been thoroughly misunderstood on more occasions than I care to remember, even on issues where I made my position perfectly crystal clear. Some folks, even after reading a large amount of my work, still have no idea what I actually believe and think I should be tossed out with the rest of the garbage.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve seen a lot of people lately in the creation/evolution debate wildly misunderstand and misrepresent each other. I recently read a book on theistic evolution that presented three examples of young earth creationist beliefs that were supposed to illustrate how silly we are. Two of those beliefs are things creationists don’t actually believe, and the other objection was that we propose our own unique scientific models!
It’s so very strange to read books critical of a position that I’m supposed to hold but that I do not even recognize, sometimes by very well-known authors. It happens far too often.
Then on social media, things are even worse.
I’ve seen people claim that I believe things that I do not. I’ve seen people claim that mainstream creationist positions are things that no actually creationist would ever believe. In a Facebook group, I once saw a commenter angrily affirming the “beliefs” of a prominent creationist organization even as a well-known employee of that same organization tried to explain that that wasn’t at all what they believed.
Did he listen? Nah, anonymous person “knew better” than the guy who actually works there.
What to do?
I don’t know what to do about other people, but maybe I can do some things myself.
- Listen. Really listen. Listen carefully and generously. Don’t listen to formulate my own critique. Listen to understand as best as I can possibly understand. Forget about the strawmen that live in my brain and inspire my own beliefs. Listen well.
- Forgive. Seeing myself so frequently misunderstood, I’ve really come to see how much teaching and communication is a two-way street. I can communicate excellently, but if the learner brings baggage, preconceptions, and confusion, all that excellent communication can spin off some crazy errors. That’s not even mentioning the personal hurts and scars we all do our best to ignore or hide.
I think a lot of people in the creation/evolution world have some traumatic experiences in their background, and that too often distorts our judgment. So be generous and gracious with those who misunderstand. I don’t know what kind of baggage they’re dragging along to my lectures, and it’s hard to know how my words will be received as a result.
- Shut up. That may be a little crass, but let’s be brutally honest. With something so deeply personal and profoundly important as our understanding of God’s creation, it’s all too easy to jump to conclusions, take offense, and lash out. I am very good at it. Over the decades of my life, I have honed my sarcasm and snark to an exquisite art form. And it’s a hindrance more than a help.
I’ve found that when I’m being pushed to respond to something, often the best thing to do is to pause and think carefully in silence. Sometimes I need to not react and just process. Sometimes I need to privately fume and get it out of my system before I can think clearly about a subject. This is a hard one, especially when people are actively lashing out at me, and I want to hit back.
Sometimes I think about the baggage people are carrying, and that helps me think about mercy instead of revenge.
I’m writing all this down not because I want you to think that I’m better than you but because I’ve been kind of angry and sad lately at arrogant and crude mistreatments of myself and my colleagues. I need to remind myself of these things and pull up that root of bitterness.
So let’s all pray for each other.