by: Jay Griffith, Coordinator of Think Again and Faith Again discussion groups in Utah - and a three-time Living Room Conversation Co-host.
I regularly run in Millcreek Canyon near my home. As often as not, I don't have a set course to take, and at times will end up on a trail I haven't been on to see where it will take me. A while back, I was on such a trail and followed it as far as I could make out a path. I had hoped to loop around back home rather than return the same way I had come, but it was not to be. Weeks later, while exploring a different trail from the opposite side of the mountain, I discovered a way to connect to the previous trail I had hoped would circle back to my home, and so found the hoped-for route.
It occurred to me that this was a valuable lesson with larger implications. Sometimes to reach understanding, or find what we are searching for, we have to approach what we seek from the opposite direction. And rarely is there only one way to reach a destination.
A related lesson came from doing triathlons. In my efforts to become a faster triathlete, I signed up for a swimming clinic where each person is filmed and critiqued. I went in having watched quite a few online videos of technique and thought I had it down fairly well. I was wrong. Reviewing the video was comical and disappointing. I was weaving all over and didn't resemble at all the elegant and efficient form I thought I had. Seeing myself through the honest critique of video was humbling and instructive.
Both these lessons played out in a more critical and important area of my life. Thanks to menopause giving my wife the gumption to show me what my spouse and parenting techniques looked like, I discovered that there were times where I was controlling, and even unintentionally abusive. I was blind-sided and devastated to learn this. I felt terrible about myself and lost for a time. But as I listened, acknowledged, and sought to make amends and improve my technique, I eventually reached a much better place than where I was before. A place I had thought I had reached, but wasn't able to running the trail I had been on -- without awareness of other paths or perspectives. As I relinquished control and sought to see myself as I really was and as God sees me, I experienced what felt like miracles.
These new and wider perspectives evolved during some other key events. Growing up Mormon has given me many valuable experiences and relationships. About six years ago, I was given a "calling"--an opportunity to serve in a particular position in my church. There I met and became friends with a man who invited me to a discussion group that he and his wife hosted called Think Again. I enjoyed the stimulating exploration of topics as well as the good hearts within the group. In 2013, I took over facilitating it as well as a new discussion group that grew out of it called Faith Again. Both these groups meet monthly and attract a variety of people and ages. Some are university professors with PhD's, and maybe a very few, like me, have no college degree.
Faith Again was born out of a desire to better understand my own faith tradition as well as why some seemed to be troubled by it or leaving altogether. I had suggested for Think Again the topic "Mormon History and Faith Crisis" and asked a friend to lead it. More than three times as many people attended. The hosts suggested the need for a group to fill this niche and so it began.
Prior to this, my two sons and their wives had had their names removed from the Mormon Church and had become proponents of atheism. My daughter, while not atheist, had abandoned formal religion. My sons and one of their wives had also become anarchical capitalists -- capitalism with no government. This while I had been leaning much more progressive-liberal.
Having such polemically different views prompted many conversations with my sons and their spouses -- including discussion in the realm of these most dangerous, and for some, taboo topics, religion and politics. I have learned much in the process -- not just about navigating these potentially rough waters with genuine curiosity and civility, but learning to appreciate and respect many of their views. And, like the lessons I shared prior, I received valuable critiques and perspectives about how I and my cohorts were "swimming" that I wouldn't have gotten in any other way.
This last year I've had the good fortune to participate in "formal" Living Room Conversations --some within my home. I have found each one to be enlightening and useful for me and for those who participated. There has been no rancor or raucous debate, just genuine attempts at seeking to listen and understand. While some have had apprehension prior, once time is spent sharing food and conversation as guided by the LRC rules of engagement, all have lingered afterwards to enjoy each others company (See video highlights here of our latest Living Room Conversation).
Why bother with such conversations? Why explore these rocky trails? Why risk getting a glimpse of our ideas and form from new vantage points through the eyes of others? Not only are they valuable for the personal growth and insights they bring, but also because they are necessary to our survival. Unless we learn to converse respectfully, with a genuine desire to understand and a willingness to question our assumptions, we will continue to fracture and fail as a species.
Recently, while on a long trail run with my oldest son, Aaron, I asked him what he most wished that religious people understood about atheists. His answer sums up one of the greatest values of being open to new routes and fresh perspectives through civil conversations with those different than us. He thought for several moments and then replied: "That we're not all that different."