May 12, 2010 | 10:23 am

Wednesday – Knowing Why We Want to Know

The countdown has begun: only one month until the family joins me in New York! On this last trip, Tena and I found ourselves nostalgic about the great times we have had in Oman. In particular, I thought about my work in building bridges between people of different faiths and cultures. A central part of this was hosting international guests who came to learn more about Islam. There were wonderful moments when people connected in profound ways, but there were also tense moments when people could not find common ground. Whenever the dialogue derailed, I noticed a common thread among the Western perspectives represented. (I’ll let my Muslim colleagues speak for themselves.) It had to do with why people wanted to know more about Islam.
The “why” of wanting to learn is like the rudder of a ship: it directs us towards what information we see—and don’t see.  With regard to Islam, I noticed how easily Christians motivated by evangelism could only see that which could be used as an apologetic tool. For government officials motivated by the spread of democracy, it was easy to see only that which showed the inferiority of Islamic monarchies. For Western artists motivated by artistic freedom, it was easy to see only that which showed the inadequacy of art that restricts the use of human images. As I look back, the tense moments came when the rudder of learning was not seeking knowledge. It was to glean supporting facts to show the superiority of one’s view.
It is fine to have strongly held views and agendas. This is what makes for great conversation and friendship. The problem is that many of us think that our personal beliefs and objectives do not interfere with what we are able to learn--which is always easier to recognize when done by others than by ourselves! I am not advocating that we abandon what we believe to be able to learn from others. What we need is self-awareness of how our beliefs may shape what we are able to see. From a faith perspective, we must remain open to new insights and knowledge wherever it may be found. There is a text in Philippians that says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (4:8)
Random thought of the day: When learning about others, we need to move from seeing what we know to knowing what we see.