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Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

Friday October 21 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
                      —Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

In this contentious time, characterized by deep divisions and polarities, this quotation is challenging. Do I really believe that the person who has a different opinion than I do on a topic I really care about has “labored in the search for truth”? Do I really believe that such a person has actually helped me find what I consider to be truth?

Aquinas emphasizes the search for truth, a cognitive process. He calls us to honor all who engage in that cognitive process.

His words provide an interesting juxtaposition with a quotation I’ve been using a lot as I teach listening skills:

“There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.”
                               —Mohan et al., Communicating! Theory and Practice [1]

These authors argue that we can disagree with people but still be interested in how they came to embrace the position the position they hold.  Mohan et al. call us to honor the motivation that lies behind another person’s thinking. They ask us to engage in a psychological process of curiosity in way that honors another person’s journey.

When teaching listening skills, I encourage people to ask the kinds of questions that get to the motivations and experiences that have shaped people we disagree with.
     • “Tell me about why that perspective is so important to you.”
     • “What were some of the experiences that shaped your opinion?”
     • “Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to this belief?”

Aquinas might encourage the addition of a couple of additional questions:
     • “I’d love to understand some of the thought process that brought you to this opinion.”
     • “Tell me about the search for truth as you experienced it.”

I find it very difficult, as most of us do, to listen to someone talking on and on about something I disagree with. I’ve found it helpful to ask some of the above questions, because frankly I find it at least somewhat interesting to hear about how a person got to that belief that I find so repugnant. Sometimes the back story really does help me love the person more, because I understand more about the forces at work in their life that led them to the place where they stand.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Message version repeats the first words but adds some additional challenging words: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” One form “the best” can take is asking questions that help us understand what’s going on inside the people we disagree with. How I wish this could be a part of our political dialog in this contentious time, and how I wish people in churches could have this perspective in the midst of profound disagreements.

(Next week: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoyment. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under subscribe in the right hand column.)

[1] Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.



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