Last week I got to be the former Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, who died in 450 A.D. Really. Yes, it was only for a little while, as part of a “friends of the past” presentation at a Masters program I’m helping with in Switzerland. To play the part of this man, condemned as a heretic in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, was an experience that led me to reflect again on these questions: What would it feel like to be looked at as a heretic? To have your writings burned, to have your ideas ignored or considered rubbish?
In my last few blog posts I have reflected on these questions. In the case of Nestorius, there has been a re-evaluation of his writings and thought, and some further consideration given as to whether he was really a heretic. As I played him last week, and brought out some of his thought in quotes, I felt in a very small way the pain of being so misunderstood. We had arranged for Nestorius’ primary opponent, Cyril of Alexandria, to be in the audience that day. (thanks John P.) At one point, Cyril jumped up, startling the group, and started shouting at me, “You are a heretic! We exiled you! What are you doing here? Guards, take him away!” Then one of Nestorius’ supporters jumped up also and proceeded to defend him and condemn Cyril.
Quite a ruckus. But it has happened so often not only in the fifth century but even today, in universities, churches, political gatherings. Last week I heard for the first time a wonderful quote from Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff, an esteemed philosopher and educator who taught many years at Yale University. Dr. Christopher Hall, our speaker for the week who passed on the quote, called it “Wolterstorff’s rule”. It certainly goes well with my last blog post, Dinner with Heretics.
Here is the quote, “You have not presented your opponent’s position fairly until you see him sitting across the table from you, and he smiles and says ‘yes, that is indeed what I believe.'” Think about that for a moment. Read it over a couple of times. How often do we do just the opposite? We hear about someone’s views on something, and instead of really sitting with them (preferably for a meal or coffee) and hearing them out, we shout far and wide exactly what they don’t really believe. I have done this. Have you?
When I was Nestorius last week, I could feel the pain of being misunderstood, if only for a moment. But I have also definitely felt it as Steve Cochrane. I have also participated more than once in passing on something about someone that was a caricature, a “straw man” to be knocked down by our superior arguments or opinions. Although we have never even listened to them, or read what they really said. I went through this again recently. I had never read the writings of a person that I had criticized for years. But in the last few months I have read two of their books. What do you think I found out? Yes, I had been wrong completely in what I had assumed they were saying.
Have you done this? I want to stop. I want to learn how to really listen, and if possible sit across from people over a good meal or beverage and find out what they really say. If they are no longer on this earth, then hopefully be able to read their writings and try and understand. Imagining them sitting across from me, and as I state their position, they smile and say, “Indeed that is what I believe!” I may still disagree with what they believe, but I have done my best to understand before I call in the guards to exile them from my life and context.
Being Nestorius. You should try it sometime. It was certainly good for my soul.