The extending of hospitality is a common element in every culture. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to welcome people into our home from every part of the world. Being a good host can be challenging sometimes, but also fun as we encounter people very different from ourselves. These encounters enlarge our worlds even as they challenge our skills in making people welcome. We have to think about welcoming customs (shoes on/shoes off for example), foods that may not be acceptable, how meals are served, how we engage in conversation and so much more. It can be both fascinating and frustrating but I am so glad that we’ve been able to get so much bigger a sense of the world through the people who have graced our table.
I’ve been writing recently on various types of diversity. Recently, I was asked to co-present a workshop on “intellectual hospitality” that led me to reflect on how we engage intellectual diversity. That is how do we welcome ideas, and the people who bear them, when these might be very different from the way we think? This actually seems to me to be an urgently needed skill because everywhere we turn, we encounter multiple, and often conflicting perspectives, particularly in the market place of ideas called higher education. Whether it is economic theories, political theories, cosmology, literary criticism or religion and spirituality, we encounter multiple perspectives, often vigorously, and sometimes viciously at odds with each other. This seems to be intensified by the insular communities we often seem to form that define themselves by their opposition to the ideas of other, often equally insular communities. In many places, we seem to be losing the capacity to engage and welcome each other as human beings even while we may have vigorous discussions about our most deeply held ideas.
Here are a few of my musings on what it might take to practice “intellectual hospitality” with those outside my own community of belief (in my case, a particular set of Christian communities operating within the landscape of higher education).
1. Intellectual hospitality does not commit me to adopt the ideas, values, and world view of the person who I’m welcoming into conversation. Just as welcoming guests who are more comfortable “shoes off” to remove their shoes in my home doesn’t commit me to change our practice of being a “shoes on” household in our personal life, entertaining the ideas of another doesn’t commit me to adopt those ideas as my own.
2. At the same time, intellectual hospitality can be scary. Let’s admit that. We may fear that something we hold deeply will be shown lacking or baseless in light of the other’s ideas. And sometimes it is easier to keep the other at arms length or even on the other side of an ideological wall because it is easier to lob criticisms based on our own preconceptions of each other’s ideas than to really encounter them. It seems that one of the requirements of intellectual hospitality is that we love truth more than we love holding onto our dearest ideas or being “right”.
3. Intellectual hospitality means realizing that others may have thought as deeply (or more) about their ideas as we have. It means that we respect each other’s sincerity by neither belittling even the things we disagree with nor expecting that one should readily change their mind about things they’ve thought and believed deeply. In other words, we don’t start from the presumption that the other is “shallow”.
4. Intellectual hospitality involves curiosity. And perhaps this is an issue for us at times. Do we really wonder why someone else who seems as equally thoughtful as ourselves would arrive at very different conclusions? Do we really want to “walk in their shoes” and really understand their ideas? Do we want to learn from someone who has delved deeply into something we know little or nothing of?
5. We honor another person when we take the time and effort to really understand what they are saying. To take the time to read something someone has written before we meet and talk with them is to say, “I’m really interested in the things you’ve poured your life into.” It means reading or listening to understand before engaging in any kind of critique–of suspending judgment long enough to really understand the other.
6. In any form of hospitality, we look for what we have in common with and what we admire in the other person. It seems that this must also be true with regard to intellectual hospitality. I’ve had wonderful conversations with committed atheists in which we’ve shared a commitment to truth and to the idea that we shouldn’t believe something simply because we’ve been raised that way.
7. Intellectual hospitality doesn’t exclude persuasion but it honors the freedom of another person to believe or change one’s beliefs not out of emotional duress but out of personal reflection and choice. Any of us who believe something to be true have reasons we are persuaded are valid not only for us but at least potentially for the wider human community. Persuasion is always an important part of any conversation of substance. The alternative is nice, insipid conversations of the variety that replay the stale mantra, “You’ve got your truth, I’ve got mine.”
8. It seems that one of the values of this kind of hospitality is that we don’t get to remain in our little enclaves in this pluralistic world. Nor do we get to conform everyone to our point of view. What this kind of hospitality seems to open up is the opportunity to figure out how will we work together, whether as colleagues in a university, members in a community, or citizens in a nation. In the process, we might find ourselves enriched and our own capacities enhanced. It could be that we find our own beliefs more deeply confirmed. It might be that we re-think some of them. Or we might even change our mind.
It is sad that the human condition often seems to make difference a cause for hostility. But must it be? Might intellectual hospitality promote the kind of respectful yet robust conversations that allow us to find sufficient places of common ground, imperfect to be sure, but sufficient to protect the freedom of all to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful?