Every field of academic inquiry has its favorite set of buzzords or common sayings that capture something essential about that particular field. In Catholic moral theology, one often hears the phrase “See, Judge, Act” to describe the process of prudence or practical reasoning. First, one gathers information about the context, then one forms a judgment in light of basic moral principles, and then one puts that judgment into a particular act or series of actions. The phrase works because it accurately and simply encapsulates what can potentially be a very difficult process of moral discernment and action.
In the readings from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Mark for this Sunday we hear the Shema repeated in each. The title derives from the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen. It is the closest thing to a creed for Jews, and it too sums up the Jewish faith and experience in a few short phrases:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Similarly, when Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, he says to the man, “Be opened” (Mk 7:34), and he is then able to hear and speak properly. Whenever I hear this miracle story, I am reminded that frequently when I am struggling with moral dilemma (whether academic or personal), I get stuck in the second phase of prudential reasoning (“Judge”) without having given proper attention to the first (“See”). Reflecting upon these readings, I would add that “seeing” entails being open with all of my being and consciousness, and this frequently entails listening as well. Indeed, the first word of the Rule of Benedict is “Listen.” Spiritual and moral transformation begins with being open and listening for the voice of God in the nitty-gritty details of life.
Writing in the week prior to a national election, it seems particularly fitting to reflect upon the necessity of listening before judging. It may be that I still come to the same conclusion after engaging in a long process of listening, of being open, prior to making up my mind.
I was recently involved in a dispute with some colleagues, the kind of dispute over minor details that only academics seem capable of getting entirely upset over, and I was taking my colleague’s responses very personally. My first inclination was to lash out angrily, to judge, and to hold them accountable to (what I thought were) the appropriate professional and ethical standards in this situation. Fortunately, another colleague and friend urged restraint and encouraged me to listen more clearly to their dilemma and to respond in a more understanding and respectful tone. We still asked for the same outcome when we approached our colleageus (that is, we came to the same judgment), but we engaged the discussion in a spirit of understanding, and in doing so were able to maintain a sense that we were a part of the same community and ultimately we all desired a fair and just outcome – which is precisely what happened.
Listening in this way entails opening myself to vulnerability as well. I could not go into this conversation with my colleagues prepared to fight to the death for what I wanted, but ultimately the common good of our professional organization and the future of our relationship superseded the dispute itself. I would also suggest that this model applies equally to Christian engagement in modern culture and in the struggle to create a more just and peaceful community.
Certainly when Christians engage in public dialogues about the good of our particular communities or of the nation as a whole, paradoxically we are more likely to be heard and to see our work bear fruit when we are able to slow down and listen to those with whom we disagree before moving into the judgment phase. I believe that it is precisely in that space that is created when we slow down and listen that we provide greater leeway for the Holy Spirit to be involved in the process, to make it less about us and our (sometimes petty) needs, and more about the true needs of all involved, even our supposed enemies.
The readings for this week remind us that if we are open and willing to listen for God’s voice in the details of our lives we will be transformed, and who knows, in doing so our “enemies” and our world just might be as well.