Opening Words from Sun. August 21 by Walter Vesper

It’s become traditional in Opening Words to talk about your history in coming to the Ethical Culture. The bare bones of my history was that sixty-three years ago, I attended Sunday School at the Sheldon for several weeks as guests of the Anderson family. I don’t know what I learned, but I had fun and felt at home.

Forty years later I joined the Society here in St Louis. I’ve been a member of the movement since then either here or in Princeton with a ten-year vacation caused by living in the boondocks.

There’s some continuity between running around and having fun upstairs at the Sheldon and having fun today.

In 1961 I registered for a class in college named something like “philosophy and religion” to meet a graduation requirement. I remember, in particular Anselm’s proofs for the existence of God.

What I found in that class were a lot of tools for understanding the different ways people use language to sort out meaning in their lives.
I really liked this kind of thinking, so I majored in philosophy and theology in both college and graduate school with the goal of teaching philosophic theology, which was my idea at the time of how to pull together all the things I was feeling inside. My focus was Heidegger, and the rest of the German and French existentialists.

While in school, my contact with the Ethical Society was limited to having my dentist (Bud Blake–a Society member) fill my mouth with fingers, tools and suction tubes before asking me questions like “What’s your understanding of the Virgin Birth?”

My dreams of teaching philosophic theology were dashed when my mentor was killed in a plane crash just as I was really getting going.

And it didn’t help that I found myself disagreeing with the core beliefs of the church–like the existence of God!

After graduation and a short stint as a Methodist minister, I taught medical ethics, and after several years training for a career as a psychotherapist, started a practice in individual and family therapy.

For three years starting in 2001, I continued my education at the Humanist Institute with the possibility of becoming an Ethical Leader.

I haven’t lost my interest in understanding both how and why people develop and hold their core beliefs.

James Croft and I had a conversation earlier this year about some of the technical difficulties of looking at competing belief systems. Once again, I started mulling over in my mind what lay behind the relationship between perceptions, decisions, and “facts”. This time, many of my clues came from my experience in family therapy.

The first three things that I learned about marriage and family therapy were profound and may have something to say to us on this subject of this months Platforms.

  1. The first was that each client’s belief system held that everything would be OK if the other person just changed how they saw the world. Each demanded unconditional surrender.
  2. The second was that the issue presented to me as “the problem” was almost never what was causing the pain.
  3. The third was to know that attempting to get an individual or family to give up a troublesome behavior or symptom before they developed skills that would work better than the ones they had, would guarantee failure of the relationship.

When we ask a Fundamentalist Christian to give up their literal interpretation of Genesis we’re asking them to call their entire belief system into question–a belief system that’s probably working pretty well for them. We’re not asking them to decide what’s for dinner.

The history of their faith is full of change. After all almost all now believe that the earth rotates around the sun and that cutting off peoples hands isn’t very gracious. What we forget is that dogma never, ever changes from direct attack. It’s there to protect the belief system from attack. Change takes place when they find something that works better for them than the existing dogma.

Like the individuals in family therapy, the “real problem” often fear of not being heard from both sides.

An important understanding is to know that underneath the bluster, and over-concern we have with the other person’s beliefs, most of us are fearful that we won’t get our deepest needs met if the other is allowed to think what they think and feel instead of what we think and feel.

There’s a line of the SEEK Core Values says: “I accept responsibility for my choices and actions.” Responsibility doesn’t allow us to use our beliefs as clubs or daggers. It requires our actions to “bring out the best” in others. And it leaves room for our beliefs to grow.

And responsibility requires us to face our fears even if others are attacking us for thinking differently from them.

Much of the therapeutic process is to give each adult the experience of getting their needs met at the same time the partner does.

It has been my experience that people feel good when they are heard, and will often choose to dance with each other instead of butting heads. Butting heads is a “I win, you lose” situation. Dancing is a win-win even if we frame the problem differently.

For me, this is a good model for approaching different belief systems.

Now is the time for us to enjoy the dance of life with those who don’t think or feel like we do.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.