Your nose looks a little different this new year

These last few months, thanks to all sorts of fun yet time-consuming activities, have not been a blogging season for me. To be sure, there are a number of half-baked drafts on my hard drive; none of them, however, seem worth sharing at this point. Good thing this isn’t my job.

I came across something exciting last night, however, leading me to turn this particular post around in under 24 hours. The thing that excited me was a bit narcissistic, but oh well this is a personal blog and that is bound to happen from time to time.

The exciting thing came from a snippet of a book blending youth ministry practice with social construction theory, one which I have been reading these past few weeks (emphasis added):

Let’s face it: our readings of Scripture are deeply biased. Biases are not necessarily good or bad. They are like noses; we all have them. But just like the noses on our faces, they can be difficult to see. When we do not recognize our biases in reading Scripture and treat them as ultimate truth, we eliminate others’ biases. This limits new forms of understanding and manufactures division that hinders relational growth.

— Brandon McKoy, Youth Ministry from the Outside In, p.156 – 157

This got my attention, because I used the same “nose” metaphor in my senior-thesis-turned-e-book that I published earlier this year, The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (see excerpt below). While this may be a case of wit’s all been done before, I think McKoy and myself are both sufficiently influenced by Gadamer to say that this is a pretty neat case of language being shaped by tradition. Besides, coming up with the same language as someone more learned and experienced than myself is a reassuring sign that I might be on the right track (I had a similar realization last year with Barbara Brown Taylor).

Granted, McKoy talks about biases, while I talk about prejudices, but we are talking about essentially the same thing. For those of us who are card-carrying members of the human race, our understanding of the world is fundamentally finite. Rather than trying to know everything from all possible perspectives, the remedy to this so-called problem is hardly a remedy at all but rather the way the world should have been from the beginning: that we develop trusting relationships with people who see things differently than us — so that we may be corrected, humbled, and inspired.

I don’t like to drum up gloom, but initial reports suggest 2013 has been the year of suspicion. Congress is in deadlock, ethnic tensions seem anachronistically high, and our private lives and personal information feel compromised. In the political economy of 2013, trust has been a more precious resource than gold or oil or even bitcoins.

For Christians, our churches continue to divide, using certain verses as cleaving knives. What sadness.

Emergent problems require innovative solutions, yet tradition (and the corresponding wealth of wisdom) has been held hostage by those who fear change. The guardians of tradition, whoever they may be, need to let go of the false notion that tradition is unchangeable and static. Every belief or ritual or symbol they hold so dear was, after all, an innovation of it’s own back in the day.

I am droning on (I guess that is something else that happened in 2013), so let me get to the point, which is hardly a point but more of a New Year’s challenge.

  • Looking back on 2013, how has your metaphorical nose (your biases, your prejudices, etc.) been changed through experience or through relationship?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of your metaphorical nose — regardless of whether you think it is awkward or perfect or something inbetween?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of others’ metaphorical noses — in a way that does not induce shame or hostility?

While you reflect on those questions, go ahead and read this excerpt from The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (for context, this part of the essay is reflecting on the July 2013 verdict of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial). Afterwards, feel free to share your reflections in the comments section.

It seems shameful to have prejudices, although prejudices are as normal as the noses on our faces. Many are awkward, to be sure, but that is no reason to hide them. Yet, shame is precisely what our culture encourages. We like calling people out: “You’re insensitive!” “That wasn’t politically correct!” “What a moron — I’m going to call out your bigotry on the internet and get a bunch of like-minded people to share my content!”

Calling people out makes us feel enlightened, like we stand on the moral high ground. For the truly oppressed, calling out an oppressor may feel like the only shred of dignity they can get in the fight.

But, if I dare say it, it is when we cover up our prejudices that they are most likely to erupt in violence. Like an algae bloom in stagnant water, our faulty prejudices are most threatening when they are not constantly being exposed and stirred and moved and challenged.

And so, we don’t magically need fewer prejudices. We need more safe places to sound stupid. We need to be compassionate people in both correcting and correction, with whom wrong answers are opportunities to practice humility instead of shame.

By the way: for this weekend only, the Amazon.com gods are letting me offer The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay at the reduced price of FREE. You might as well download it to pad the new e-reader you got for Christmas, or send a copy to that one uncle who wouldn’t shut up about religion or politics during holiday dinner.

For that matter, I’m still reading McKoy’s book, but I can already say I strongly recommend it for any youth minister with a social sciences/philosophy bent. Check it out here.

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Your nose looks a little different this new year

On Questions

Let’s jump right in and talk about conferences. A bunch of people getting together to ask a single question.

For example: how do we manufacture a better manufacturing sector? How do we, as institutions of higher education, use social media to advance our mission? How do we practice youth ministry in the city? How do we, as the world’s 20 largest independent countries, cooperate to achieve global economic stability and agree on international financial norms?

No matter how specific the question, the participants of each conference – speakers and audience and hosts alike – never leave with exactly the same answer. There was just too much information and personal opinion swirling around for everyone to be the same page. For some people, the success of a conference is measured not in “notes taken” but “business cards collected” or “photo ops achieved.”

Motives, goals, results will vary. There will be sub-questions and tangents.

Nonetheless, what holds all these elements of a conference together for its brief blink of unity, is that single question.

?

This summer, I was at a conference that was all about how Midwest-based, sustainability-focused non-profits could mobilize together to reduce the carbon footprint of the region enough to avert the climate change crisis (with the big assumption, of course, that the rest of the nation and the world does their fair share as well). It was the sort of conference with two separate dress codes – either business casual or hippie commune.

I was merely supposed to go and take notes, maybe get a few business cards along the way. When I arrived that morning, however, I found out that due to extraneous circumstances, the lead spokesperson for my organization, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, was unable to be there that day. With roughly 20 minutes until go time, I had to prep some preliminary remarks and represent us on the “Faith and Eco-Justice” session panel.

With three other panelists, I took all sorts of questions I had not had a proper chance to prepare answers for. “What are some the greatest challenges you have had reaching out to churches in the Midwest?” “How is your organization reaching out to African-Americans and other minority groups?” “What advice would you give us scientists and policy-wonks for reaching out to faith communities?” (The entire time, I wanted to ask what the difference between “eco-justice” and regular justice was. But I figured, as a panelist, it was best I not ask such a question that could come across as either pointed or ill-informed.)

I sat alongside some excellent panelists, and the conversation that ensued was at once frank, rich and insightful. Nobody in the room wanted it to end, and we were beginning to run over our allotted time.

“One more question,” declared the moderator.

That one more question came from a man sitting behind his 17” laptop. In subtle ways, he stuck out from the rest of the crowd. He broke both dress codes and wore a simple t-shirt and cargo shorts, while his overgrown stubble qualified him for neither the professional clean-shave nor outdoorsman beard categories. He had a few extra pounds on him — not that he was unhealthily overweight, just that at a conference of environmentally conscious folks who mostly ate plants and rode bikes, the fact that he was not slender was noticeable.

“I have found this whole discussion really fascinating,” he began. “In fact, I want to ask a question to the Christians on the panel about how they see global warming in view of their doctrine of the apocalypse and the end times.” I made a quick glance at the other evangelical Christian who sat on the panel, who looked just as excited as I was to launch into this conversation about the rich theology of eschatology that goes way deeper than one finds among the Left Behind books and rapture-ready bumper-stickers which dominate Christian pop sub-culture.

“But I’m not going to ask that question,” continued the man who was beginning to look more and more like an internet troll. “Instead, I want to talk about a very important topic that none of the panelists have brought up. Nuclear power is an incredible energy source that is getting safer all the time, but for whatever reason the green orthodoxy has decided to continuously push it away…”

This so-called “question” went on for about a minute, only to end when the man turned his 17” laptop around toward the panel, although we sat too far away to make out whatever chart or map he had on the screen.

The panel was polite but unimpressed. Nuclear power was a topic about as relevant as homeopathic medicine at a Race for the Cure event. A great discussion for another time wound up riling up the audience into righteous chatter and crosstalk. I was livid if not a bit sorry, because this man’s initial question was great. It was his own agenda that defeated him.

(As another conference participant reminded me later: “what did you expect out of a room full of activists?”)

?

I had a friend in college who is the sort of friend you want to have in college. Anytime, really.

She was, and continues to be, the master of the art of asking questions.

My college friend was not just interested in what you did today or how you were feeling. She wanted to know how these were connected. She wanted to uncover the passion behind your hobbies, the hope behind your labors, the values behind your talk. Her questions were far from “small talk” – they were verbal processing prompts that in the process of answering you would learn just as much about yourself as she would. She found a sly, subversive joy in making you the star of the conversation.

Nearly an hour in, I would try to turn the tables.

“Enough about me, how are things going in your own life?”

“Good, good,” she would respond.

?

“Don’t the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table?”

?

I want to master the art of asking questions. I am not sure if I can.

My instincts as a storyteller, as a moralizer, as an advice-giver often are the first to rise to the surface. If I ever come across as silent, it is more likely because I am busy formulating my own response than it is because I am listening intently.

I once tried to come up with a pre-prepared list of “50 great questions to ask anyone.” The hope was that I would always be ready to come across as a question-asking-master.

That list never came to fruition.

Maybe you are born with the “art of asking questions.” Or maybe the “art of asking questions” is really the “art of listening.” The best questions, after all, seem to come not from outside the conversation, but rather from the inside.

There might be a chance that I can still master the art of asking questions. At the very least, I am going to give it the best shot I have left in me.

?

What if a question could change the world?

We are quick to rush to the answers — especially when the issues our world faces are so urgent. We understandably want people to think the right things. We are going to be evangelists of our own good news.

As someone who believes in something out there called truth, the sort of truth that is able to be touched if not grasped, I have to logically conclude that the answers are of crucial importance.

But answers have a way of growing old, of turning into tired talking points that are not in harmony with the world around them.

Just because we have the right answers does not mean we can leave the questions behind. Like a guitarist tuning his guitar partway through the performance, the evangelist needs to make sure her favorite answers keep hitting the right note. Questions can do that.

At the ground level, however, “changing the world” is not so much about righting answers as it is about righting relationships. Peace (if I may be so bold as to suggest what peace may look like) finds its roots not in agreement but rather in trust.

And so, a challenge: let us not simply ask questions that are mere intellectual exercises or opportunities to look smart. Those have their place, and we have enough of those to go around. Let us instead ask questions that are of the sort that show we trust each other.

The sort of questions that are springboards for someone else to develop their train of thought, instead of wedges meant to exploit their inconsistencies and omissions. The sort of question where we look forward to the answer, not because it is “truthful” or “insightful” or even “interesting” but because it comes from another human being possessing that strange thing we call dignity. The sort of question that is on everyone’s mind, but nobody has been quite sure how to put it to words. The sort of question that comes from inside, not outside, the conversation.

Heck, we can even have a conference. One where we all get together and simply ask: how can we ask better questions?

Who knows if such a conference could actually change the world, or even nudge things in the right direction. There’s enough conferences as it is and most of them, we complain, are high on talk and little on action.

But, if we are going to keeping having conferences (and I don’t think they are going away anytime soon), we might as well give them the best shot we have left in us.

What are the questions that could change the world?

On Questions” is second in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications.

On Questions

Now available for download: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay”

NEW VoOM coverA little under two years ago, my professor challenged me to find a way to decimate some of the ideas I had developed in a senior thesis.

A little over a year ago, I challenged myself to think bigger than a blog post. 1,000 words every couple of weeks was neat, but what if I strung those together? What could I come up with? Could I do 10,000 words? 20,000 words?

And then I decided to put those two challenges together. The final result, and my excuse for not blogging lately, is now live and available for download at Amazon.com.

There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in just bringing “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay” to fruition. The thing, for better or worse, is littered with running metaphors, but I have to use one more: it feels a bit like completing my first half-marathon. Who cares about the final time. I crossed the finish line, and that is great in and of itself.

But, of course, I would love it if people were to read this essay. If they were to discuss it, critique it, embrace it, share it. I believe the ideas in this essay matter, and I do not think I could have succeeded in finishing this essay if it was not for this belief, however naive this belief may ultimately turn out to be.

So, towards that end, I am offering the essay for free over the next couple of days. (Soon, it will have to be priced at $3.00, to appease the Amazon.com gods and additionally help pad my rather lean wallet). If you download it for free and read it and say, “hey, that’s great, wish I paid the poor kid something for this” I would love it if you went back online and gifted a copy to a friend.

If you feel led, “four star” or “five star” reviews also warm my heart. Heck, I’ll appreciate one or two star reviews if you read the full thing and take me seriously.

What’s this essay about, you ask? Well, according to my publisher (aka me):

When it comes to culture, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideas, or just people in general, American Christians in the 21st century have found themselves caught in an unprecedented flood of diversity. Rather than something to escape from or merely tolerate, this sudden rush of strange and new things should be seen as an exciting gold rush with which we can enrich both our individual lives and our lives together. To join in on this adventure, however, we need to equip ourselves with the proper tool — “the virtue of open-mindedness.”

Author Kaleb Daniel Nyquist gives an account of the virtue of open-mindedness that is both personal and theoretical, theological and practical. It is a journey that meanders through the forests of Oregon, the streets of Chicago, the sidewalks of India, a Sunday School classroom, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many hair-pulling trips to the university library. Mashing together ideas from Aristotle, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and even Jesus of Nazareth, he puts together a model of the virtue of open-mindedness that just might help American Christians (and whoever else cares to listen in) navigate our strange, beautiful, broken and interconnected world.

You literally have nothing to lose. Apologies for the aggressive sales pitch, but you are going to waste more time thinking about downloading it (or not) than actually downloading it.

Check it out here.

(By the way, if you don’t have an actual Kindle, don’t worry. Amazon.com has Kindle apps for your computer, tablet, internet browser and smartphone. Problem solved.)

Aside

Editors, proof-readers wanted: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness”

This is like a Kickstarter campaign, except it is not going to cost you a dime.

A little history: I had two majors in college, and so I had to write two senior theses. One of those was a critical analysis of Sweden’s development aid relationship with Tanzania (which was rather difficult, because I have never been to Tanzania). The second was an ambitious attempt to find some common ground between the academic disciplines of philosophical hermeneutics and conflict transformation, which was just about as painful as it sounds. By the end of the paper I was reduced to blabbering about Jesus.

But sometimes when you shoot for the moon you land among the stars. My professor returned the paper back to me, with a number of passages circled, underlined, smiley-faced. I had been so lost in my own world that it had not occurred to me the significance of some of the things I had been saying. “You really should consider getting this published,” he said.

Neither of us knew what getting published looked like. There was no academic journal that would take such a bizarre piece, especially from an undergraduate student. I tried submitting it to a peace studies conference, but the paper was just too theoretical to stand side-by-side with students my age who had done their research not in the library but in war zones.

Then it hit me. For me to really test these ideas, I needed to put them in an arena. There was that bit in the paper when I blabbered about Jesus…what if I were to play these ideas out in a church context?

And so I wrote a 1,000 word blog post, “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness”, for publication in Christian channels. Last May, the Donald Miller-associated e-magazine Burnside Writer’s Collective picked it up.

I thought I had done justice to the paper. I got the ideas out there, that should be enough.

And then, over the past year, at a high school youth retreat of all places, I realized there was still more to say.

Now, I have 16,000 words sitting on my hard drive. Instead of a blog post, it is a full-fledged essay. Instead of publishing it via WordPress, I am probably going to put it in formats suitable for e-readers (think Kindle).

But before I do that, I want your help reviewing the rough draft of The Virtue of Open-Mindedness. I am looking for a couple of readers and editors of different kinds: those with an eye for typos and those with an eye for style; theologically-minded and philosophically-minded who can point out any heresies or logical fallacies I may be making; and finally just anyone interested in what I have to say but who can call me out for having my head in the clouds.

I cannot promise much in terms of compensation, other than you will get a copy of the essay for free (if I decide to charge for it) and if you are in the Chicago area I am willing to buy you a cup of coffee so that we can meet up and talk about it.

If interested, fill out the form below and send me a note. I don’t plan on turning away potential proof-readers and editors, but I am also not going to trust this work to complete strangers unless they can explain themselves. Also, only fill out this form if (over the next month) you can commit to reading 16,000 words in and giving me at least 160 words of feedback.

Thanks so much friends. Stay tuned for my next Kickstarter campaign where I try and raise the funds to travel out to Tanzania. (Just joking.) (Kind of.)

Editors, proof-readers wanted: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness”

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto

Somewhere along the way, in a polarized political system, “being passionate” and “having extreme views” have become more and more synonymous. Passionate moderatism sounds nearly as oxymoronic as compassionate conservatism did some years back as a Bush-era slogan. But conservatives can be compassionate, and I want to contend that moderates can be passionate.

A story

My high school US History teacher, the beloved-and-moustached rabble-rouser that he was, repeatedly told our class: “Be conservative. Be liberal. Be whatever, but whatever the case don’t be a boring ol’ moderate.” When former President Bill Clinton came to visit Mac High in order to rally support for Hillary’s presidential candidacy, I remember a number of my politically-minded friends saying how stupid it was to not join either party. “Why would anyone sacrifice their primary vote?”

When I went to register to vote, however, I could not bring myself to join any party. Perhaps I was torn between my conservative evangelical subculture and my liberal Pacific Northwest context. Perhaps it did not help that I was reading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for 12th Grade English Literature. The third parties were even more extreme and even less effective, and I could not register as an Independent because Oregon actually has an Independent Party and so I was, and still am, designated as “Not affiliated with any political party.”

(Interesting tangent: my first jobs out of high school would be helping non-profits use a particular piece of content-publishing software that Independent Party chair Sal Peralta had implemented but could no longer maintain because he was now the Independent Party chair. It just so happened that I had to use that same software for my journalism class.)

I did not feel like I was transcending the fray. Instead, I simply could not find a political ideology, much less a party, that matched my sense of society-level right-and-wrong. When that new-fangled-Myspace-called-Facebook would later ask me for my Political Views, I typed in “Moderate,” and, upon further tongue-in-cheek reflection on my own indecisiveness, added “…sort of.”

Moderate Manifesto

The state of things

It was not that I did not care. It was just that I did not know. My undergrad electives and eventually my major were, in many ways, about figuring out these strange and confusing things for myself. Surprisingly to myself, instead of falling towards either side, I found myself going more firmly to the center. If I was indecisively moderate in 2008, I was decisively moderate in 2012.

Sadly, I also came to realize, moderates are castigated by the Republican party. They do exist, but none of them are in power: Bob Inglis, Colin Powell, Jon Huntsman, Olympia Snowe, and back in the day Mark Hatfield. In 2012, Moderate Mitt was forced into playing a losing charade of being Right-wing Romney. The Democrats don’t have this problem: they welcome moderates, and their current standard-bearer is actually rather moderate himself. I do hope the GOP opens up towards moderates before the next election cycle, not because I am a party loyalist, but because I like having more than one choice at the ballot.

For that to happen, of course, moderates need to start causing a bit more of a ruckus.

Standing up is hard enough. You do not wish to offend anyone. Furthermore, as a moderate, it can often feel like standing up takes place on a tightrope. But if that’s where the common ground is, let’s be fine with that, because if we fall off we’ll end up in the safety net of common sense.

A Moderate Manifesto

There is some substance, I think, to being a moderate that is greater than simply adding up the numbers and finding the average between two sides. For the past many years, I have being trying to work out what being moderate means for me. I publish these ideas, like almost anything else I publish, not because I know I am right but because if I keep these to myself I will never have to face the possibility of being wrong.

With that said:

  1. Government exists because of the reality of public life.

    I don’t buy the liberal vision that we can govern our way into utopia, but neither do I feel comfortable with the conservative claim that government is a necessary evil. My starting point, as far as legitimate government, is this: just as individuals have worries and aspirations, groups also have worries and aspirations. Politics is one (but not the only) way we can address the worries and aspirations as a society-sized group.

  2. Opposed to big government or small government, government in the right amount.

    Government cannot solve all problems, nor would we want it to. But there are some things it does really well. And (take healthcare for example) there are some things it does only slightly better or slightly worse than the private sector, and while we can have a decent conversation about these things we need not go crazy as if it were a life-or-death situation.

  3. Cultural compatibility of government.

    Because the legitimacy of government is based in the reality of public life, the government system should be culturally compatible with the society it represents (i.e. there may be greater distribution of wealth in Sweden than the United States, but the Swedes also value the concept of lagom). In other words: there is no god-given, time-proof, platonic ideal or rationally supreme form of government.

  4. Let ideas be held in tension.

    If we do cultural compatibility in a multicultural society, there are going to be problems. 49%, or even 4.9%, of the population can have a legitimate concern worth listening to. The ideal character of any place, instead of being domination by some, should be participation by all. As much as it possible, a moderate seeks to achieve this.

  5. Delegate and trust.

    We trust doctors with our bodies (despite the reality of malpractice), we should be able to trust politicians with our societies (despite the reality of corruption). That said, being an expert in one area does not make one an expert in all. If the scientists say global warming is happening, or economists say a debt ceiling is a bad idea, or a minority group says some oppressive force is asserting itself upon their people, politicians should shut up and listen.

  6. Live up to our potential as a society.

    This might sound a bit backwards to American ears, but as a nation, we shouldn’t strive to be the “best in the world” but the “best that we can be.”  Competition is a good thing, but reckless comparison is destructive. We can focus on our own problems and potential and still celebrate the victories of others (with a healthy dose of good-hearted jealousy, of course).

  7. Do not find purpose in a political ideology.

    This is much a spiritual issue as a political one. Too many people, I fear, in the fragmentation of vacuous postmodern society, have traded their religions and other good convictions for the half-assed metanarratives that are contemporary political ideologies. As a moderate, I can tolerate (and perhaps even celebrate) the fact that you may be a Tea Partier or a Marxist or anything along those lines. But please, at the end of the day, be something more than that as well.

high wire 3” by Graeme Maclean, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto