Sacrificial Listening (Scholar’s Compass)

Some Christians have felt that this basic insight into the constructed nature of all human knowledge undermines the absolute truth of Christian doctrines, but I found that it only deepened my Christian convictions about the depravity of human nature and the grievous effects of the fall upon the way we learn and know. – David Vishanoff, “Sacrificial Listening,” Faithful Is Successful p. 215


David Vishanoff’s paper is a fascinating challenge to both Christian and secular academics to rethink the attitudes we have towards studying other cultures and worldviews. His model of ‘sacrificial listening’ has arisen from his study of Islam – as well as other world religions – and essentially consists in pursuing relationship rather than objectivity as an epistemological value. Objectivity demands that we as scholars and researchers not enter into any kind of personal relationship with our objects of study, lest our perceptions be shaped or distorted. Vishanoff, however, suggests that a proper drive for objectivity should not consist of raising ourselves above human entanglement to achieve some detached perspective (a perspective which, he points out, is in any case impossible to reach, and can only ever be illusory). Rather, objectivity, insofar as it drives our study, ought to be the constant effort to critique our own involvement and prejudice: a striving to avoid the self-serving, self-centring interpretive framework that always mars our knowledge. This can be achieved not by pursuing the impossible goal of objectivity per se, but by constantly becoming more aware, in the context of relationship with those we seek to understand, of all the ways in which we aren’t, and cannot be, objective. It may be impossible for a Christian to ever fully understand the worldview of a Muslim or a secular colleague but, as Vishanoff proposes, that shouldn’t stop either party from seeking constantly to appreciate and be aware of the differences between them.

The emphasis that Vishanoff places on relationship has obvious parallels in Jesus’ ministry – ones we would do well to learn from. What is perhaps more striking, though, is the way that his vision of sacrificial listening is subtly but deeply rooted in a very biblical anthropology. In a refreshing turn for a Christian thinker, Vishanoff embraces post-modern models of knowledge acquisition and ‘othering’, and shows how they reflect what the Bible has to say about the fundamental sinfulness and selfishness of human beings. Our sin distances us from other people, and most importantly from God, as we constantly, and often unconsciously operate from our own personal perspective, and with our own power and gratification in mind.

This paper, then, challenges us by pointing out just how deeply sin distorts the way we interact with others. Nor is there anything we ourselves can do to change this. Rather, an acknowledgement of the depth of our self-imposed separation from others forces us to turn to God’s transcendence, and his perfect knowledge of all human beings: as John writes in his Gospel, “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” (John 2.25) Even if we can never fully escape our tendency to interpret our experiences and knowledge in a self-centred way, the fact that God knows the people we study wholly and intimately reminds us that they are people to be known, not objects to be studied. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit – who makes us daily more like the Christ who spent so much of his ministry asking questions and listening to others – can help us in pursuing the path Vishanoff describes: a path on which we constantly examine our own prejudices, and lay down the security of our own preconceptions and cognitive frameworks. This is a small sacrifice; Jesus, after all, laid down his life.

Additionally, the discourse of the self and the other reminds us that in one important way we are all ‘others’, separated from God, who alone exhibits pure objectivity and pure love together. When the eternal Son of God became a man, He did what we can never do: far from self-interestedly seeking knowledge and power over the ‘other’ (humankind), he assumed our perspective and wholly and disinterestedly gave himself over, so that we might have knowledge of Him. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4.6).


O Lord my God, you who so loved the world that you gave us your only Son to become one of us, so that he might be able ‘to empathize with our weaknesses… tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin’[1], help me by your Holy Spirit to appreciate the depth of my own imperfection, and graciously give me the humility to sacrifice my comfort and security, and the illusion that I am always, or even often, right, for the sake of winning others for You. Help me to understand how small and flawed all my knowledge is, and how great and perfect is yours. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

[1] Hebrews 4.15

Questions for Reflection

  • Where have I made assumptions or generalisations about the worldviews of my friends and colleagues?
  • How can I invite them to share with me the way that they see the world?
  • Where in their lives (academic or personal) could the Gospel most resonate?

Further Reading

Vishanoff, David R. “Sacrificial Listening: Christians, Muslims, and the Secular University.” Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 213-243.

Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. Help ESN Create a Devotional for Scholars.

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Oliver Marjot

Oli grew up in England, and spent a year working as a children's intern at St. Aldate's Church, Oxford, after graduating with a BA in Classics and French from Oxford University. He is currently studying for a PhD in Medieval Latin at Harvard, and hoping to focus on inter-faith dialogue and polemic in the Middle Ages, and relationships between the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic worlds more broadly. In his (rare!) spare time, he enjoys eating, reading science fiction, running, and learning languages.

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