Meeting a Mormon in Mid-air!

Terry Lieb Judging Others, Learning from Failure, Mindfulness Leave a Comment

On a flight from Philadelphia to Minnesota, on our way to Glacier National Park and eventually the Canadian Rockies, my wife and I happened to be seated beside a banker from Calgary Canada I’ll call Daniel.

After we had pressed Daniel for the best places to visit in Canada, as often is the case, I carefully and craftily moved our conversation to my lifelong interest in the formation of God image. It’s easy enough to do when I tell people I’m writing a book I on the topic. I hope that by presenting stories about how other people’s God images have been shaped by their early experiences and relationships—often in ways they aren’t even aware of—readers will be able to gain some perspective and illuminate the unconscious foundations of their own understanding of God.

When I learned that Daniel was a Mormon, I was especially keen to hear about his God image since Mormonism is a faith tradition I don’t know a lot about. I asked Daniel if he would be so kind as to tell me about his faith journey and his understanding of God. Although it is common wisdom that politics and religion are topics best avoided since they can be so divisive, I have found that if you approach people in an open-minded, nonjudgmental way with a genuine desire to understand, not challenge, they are usually happy to tell their story.

Daniel was no exception. He was eager to share his understanding of God. In fact, of the hundreds of people I have spoken to about their God image, Daniel was more descriptive and excited about his God than most. He clearly enjoyed being in relationship with his God.

Daniel told me he had had a life-changing conversion to Mormonism as a teenager. His God was clearly masculine and HE loved Daniel as Daniel’s father had loved him and as he overwhelmingly loved his children, two of whom were sitting with their mother in the row behind us. This fit in perfectly with the thesis of my book, that people’s God images are profoundly shaped by their human relationships. Daniel’s concept of father love was clearly very positive and powerful for him, just as his familial relationships were.

After hearing Daniel’s story, I had a few questions for him. “You know,” I said, “I used to work in a state correctional facility and later, a residential home for children, and many of the prisoners and children had experienced horrific and painful experiences with their parents, including their fathers. They endured all kinds of abuse and various levels of abandonment; in some cases the parent was physically present but seldom, if ever, emotionally present. What experiences would these folks have to draw upon in order to formulate images of their heavenly ‘father’?”

“Wow! How come I haven’t ever considered that?” Daniel said, showing no defensiveness at all. “I wonder what my responsibility is to those folks you lifted up who haven’t had the father experience I had?” He immediately began considering adjustments and options for growth and change that he could implement as a lay leader in his church.

As we got off the plane, we briefly met Daniel’s wife and children, who seemed every bit as close and loving as he had related. We said a fond goodbye to our new friend and set off to explore the wilds of Glacier.

It was only afterwards, when I thought over the experience, that I became uncomfortable with my behavior on the plane.

Why had I asked Daniel how his concept of fatherly love would be received by people who had a negative experience with their earthly father? What was my agenda? Daniel was obviously very comfortable with his God image and it served him well. What difference did it make if the metaphor wouldn’t fit other folks with different experiences? But more importantly, I had violated my resolution to listen without judgment.

My question to Daniel hadn’t been a real question. I wasn’t honestly seeking information. I was trying to instruct Daniel and get him to come to the same conclusions I already held. It may have been subtle and well-intentioned, but I was trying to expand (a.k.a. change) Daniel’s understanding of God.

Although in this case, Daniel responded well to my question and it might even have led to some positive results, he could just as easily felt attacked or at the very least, invalidated. This could have shut down constructive dialogue not just with me on that plane, but anyone in the future who wanted to talk to him about his faith.

One of the main propositions in my upcoming book is, “What would our world-wide community look like if we could simply explore and learn from each other’s understanding of God without subtly or blatantly judging the other?”

For someone deeply committed to the value of listening to understand without trying to instruct or convert, I was dismayed to see just how easy it had been to slip into “teacher” mode. Once again, I realized I must keep the challenges I am lifting up for others at the forefront of my own exploratory journey!

Allowing ourselves to enter into another person’s faith journey and truly experience their God can expand and enrich our understanding of our own God. However, equally important is the transformative potential of looking inward to gain a more honest understanding of ourselves.

Questions for Deepening Your Faith Journey

How do you think the world would change if we could listen to one another’s understanding of God without judgement?

Have you ever had your dearly-held beliefs attacked or questioned? How did you react?

Have you had the experience of being listened to without judgment? How did it make you feel?

Are you able to listen to someone else’s religious beliefs (or political perspective or any other controversial opinions) without feeling compelled to challenge them? If not, why?

Do you make an effort to examine your own motives and hidden agendas? How can you do this more regularly?

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