John Inazu: "Learning to Disagree" | Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal, and I’m with the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Now, let me introduce you to my guest today. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with John Inazu. John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s written three books and published opinion pieces in the Washington Post, the Atlantic, L.A. Times, U.S.A. Today, Newsweek, and CNN.
Today, John Inazu is with us to discuss his latest book, Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigate Differences with Empathy and Respect.
John, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
John Inazu: Karen, it’s great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Karen Pascal: Now, before we even begin to discuss your book, I would just love to know a little bit about you. And somehow, I discovered you knew Henri Nouwen. Maybe, tell us a bit about how that came about.
John Inazu: Yeah, one of the great stories of life for me, and I would say knowing him might be a strong claim, but I was able, I was really privileged to spend some time with him. I was first introduced to his writings when I was a high school student. A young life leader named Cliff Anderson gave me some of his books, and even as a 17-year-old kid, I just found them so transformative to the way I was thinking about faith and ambition and career and life. And so then, when a couple years later when I got to college at Duke, I learned that the Methodist group was taking a spring break trip up to L’Arche. And I wasn’t part of the Methodist group, but I knew that Henri was up there. And so, I signed on quickly to that trip and was able to spend a week, during the spring of my sophomore year, in the community, and really experience the rhythms of life with him and his colleagues. And it was just a transformative moment of my life. Unforgettable and – really, all aspects of it. And I’ve since continued to read and benefit from many of his writings. But that was really a key anchor moment for my faith journey and my life, and I felt real privileged to be a part of it.
Karen Pascal: Oh, I’m so glad you got to meet him in person. I’m glad you got that one-on-one contact. You know, so many of us, we meet him in his books. It’s lovely when somebody says, “Ah, I got to meet him in person.”
And also, probably, the question becomes, “Well, was he like his books? Is there a good fit there?” Tell me a bit about what you saw.
John Inazu: Yeah, it just felt so, so genuine, so non-pretentious. So, what I remember, and this was now a long time ago, but I remember just the presence he had with the people around him, whether it was the residents of L’Arche, or someone visiting from out of town, or these college kids who showed up for a week. He was just fully present with us.
He kind of spit a lot when he talked, because he got very excited. So, if you were a little too close to him, you could maybe get hit with some spit. But he was very engaged, passionately and personally, with the people around him.
And then, as a coda to this story, I wrote him a thank-you note on behalf of the group after we returned back to college. And then he wrote to me a thank-you note for my thank-you note. And I thought, “Who in the world does this?” It was such a joy to receive this little booklet and note from him, just for the fact of sending him a thank-you note. And I think that just speaks volumes to the person, the human being who is behind so many of these writings that have benefited so many of us.
Karen Pascal: You know, I’m really grateful that Henri was not born in the age of emails, because – well, I’m sure he would’ve emailed everybody – but we have this incredible treasury in the archives of letters, and people go back and say, “I wrote to Henri.” Well, it well may be there in the archives, which is really wonderful, and you could access what you actually might’ve written. And then Henri might’ve written back to you. And of course, we’ve been very grateful for people who have sent us the letters that they received from Henri Nouwen.
Now, let me just ask you one other question: How did this experience maybe impact the spirituality that you bring into your career as a lawyer and as a professor of law?
John Inazu: You know, I think I really came to my current vocation and work somewhat accidentally, and a little bit older than some other people. I didn’t really get into teaching until I was about 30, and so, when I was reading Nouwen’s work in my twenties, I wasn’t thinking about the perspective of an academic. But once I got into this profession, I realized, “Oh, here’s this person I’ve been reading for a long, long time who traveled this journey and made it to the top, you know, was at the most prestigious institutions, and then left them all, and held them quite loosely.”
And so, as I’ve situated my own academic journey within that framework, I think often about these concepts of downward mobility, these ideas of being honest about ambition and anxiety at the same time, and then trying to remember the humanity of the people around you at any level.
And I’ve been involved in some ministry work since I’ve been a professor, and one of the themes that I think about a lot is: How can we work toward a kind of uncommon community in the university? And where there are these power dynamics in these assigned roles, and there’s often distance and lots of time constraints, are there places and environments we can create where students and teachers and other people from the ecosystem can come together and learn together and pray together and be together? And that’s been one of the most rewarding parts of my own time as a faculty member, is to be a really good teacher in the classroom, but also be a really good friend and mentor and fellow human being outside of the classroom.
Karen Pascal: You know, I think I see that sort of woven through this book that you’ve written, Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect. At first, you can almost think it’s just written for law students, to be quite honest, because you take us through your year of teaching to young lawyers coming up, and you’re really teaching them how to think, and you’re teaching them how to ask the right questions.
It’s funny, because it brought me back to my college days, when in philosophy, I think the one thing I took away was, you only get to the right answer if you ask the right question. And this is quite a really inspiring book in that area. Tell me a little bit about what you hoped to achieve when you wrote this book.
John Inazu: Yeah, thanks for asking that question. You know, I started the book with a couple of intuitions. One of them was that it’s harder and harder for people to read long and sustained arguments about deep and complex issues. And so, I thought if there’s a way to present tough issues and hard ideas in more of a narrative or story-based format, that it might capture a reader’s attention a little better.
And I realized that many of the stories that I just encounter in my day-to-day life as a law professor – some in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom – they illustrate some of these difficulties we have in a divided society, and how we might work across some of those differences. So, that was Intuition One.
And then Intuition Two, which was maybe a little less serious, but equally important to this book, is I was reading a book about the behind-the-scenes story of the sitcom, The Office – you know, that comedy. And one of the fascinating things about that story was they revealed that most of the bits and plotlines in The Office came out of the actual experiences the writers had in life. And so, one of the writers is walking to a job interview and falls into a koi pond. And that shows up in The Office, and you think this couldn’t possibly happen to a real person. And yet it did.
And then I realized, the day-to-day experiences that you and I have, they might not be Office-worthy, but they are kind of interesting and informative to share with other people, especially if you can put them within a story framework. So, I started to think about, well, what have I experienced in my teaching in the classroom and the university that might be helpful to other people, if I can tell the stories?
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting to me that you take us through a school year. And I was thinking, oh, honestly, anybody who’s considering going into law should read this book. It’s great fun. I found it such a delightful book to read. You ask really profound questions. You force me to think hard about how would I answer them. But at the same time, I felt like it is so timely. I mean, we are living in a time in which we feel like we can’t even talk about the issues that we disagree about. That part, I found really interesting. We need tools again. We need fresh resources to help us into conversations that are difficult.
Tell me a bit about what you have been finding. because you tackle some of these really difficult questions – right on.
John Inazu: Yeah. And I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of them. So, some of the stories I tell from my own experience are when we have student protests or when we have very awkward classroom moments, and those happen and they’re hard and they’re difficult to figure out how to process. But at the same time, and the book’s subtitle is A Surprising Path, to learn some of these tools. And part of the surprise, I think, is that the antidotes and the tools are things that as human beings we’ve known for a long time. And this takes me back, actually, to some of Henri Nouwen’s writings: the ability to see other people as human beings and not problems or interruptions; the importance of forgiveness and really hard relationships; the importance of discernment of when to speak and when not to speak.
None of this is rocket science. We all have forgotten it. We need to practice it more. But in some ways, if we’re, as a society and as individuals, if we’re thinking, “How do I get across that Thanksgiving dinner conversation?” or “How do I engage with my neighbor or my coworker?” Part of the answer is we return to the basics, and we return to working to see each other as human beings. And I think we’ve lost sight of that, especially in our online, very rapid-paced era that we find ourselves in.
Karen Pascal: I think we also feel the polarization that’s going on right now. For example, who expected three years ago that we would be talking about wars that could be world wars. And now we are facing incredibly difficult, difficult situations, and people become so polarized they can’t talk to each other. There’s no longer a human being on the other side; there’s just the personification of evil. And I heard that in one of the stories that you told, about the Stanford professor [who] became the personification of evil because of something he did that was in some people’s minds unforgivable. So, how do we deal with that? Because we do see these divides happening. How do we be a resource in that? Or are you only trying to speak to people personally: This is how you handle it? No big solutions for the world around us?
John Inazu: Well, I do want to – I mean, these are important questions and they’re questions at a societal level or a global level, not just an individual level. So, there is part of this book is my real goal to challenge and speak to individuals. But I also hope and aspire to speak to larger social questions, because when you think about the nature of patience, or forgiveness, or seeing the other side in more humane ways, it plays out one-by-one among individuals. But when it happens or doesn’t happen, there are massive social and often global consequences that follow. And you mentioned wars, for example. When hearts are hardened at a collective level, it makes a very fraught situation become more than just an individual problem. And that really is, I think, our current moment. Many localities experience this, but I also think we’re feeling this tension around the world, as well. And so, this is, I hope, a message that resonates on beyond just the individual level.
Karen Pascal: I can imagine that you’re often called on – because your specialty is law and religion – that you’re often called on into these sticky, difficult situations. And sometimes people of religion, of faith will position themselves at an extreme, that they can’t hear the other person. How do you speak into that situation? We want to hold what we believe as true to be true, but how do we then deal with others that would disagree?
John Inazu: Right. And I think I’ve got to answer that in two ways. So, one is in the particularistic way of Christianity, because I don’t think there’s a religion-specific answer to that question. But as a Christian, when I’m speaking to other Christians, I will say things like remembering that we’re part of a larger story that unfolds across thousands of generations. And that we claim an understanding of a world to come and a hope in Jesus that actually answers a lot of our anxious questions. And if that’s our posture and we think we’re bit players in this, then there’s not a lot of room for anxiety and fear and anger.
It doesn’t mean we won’t have those as human beings, but it does mean that our next steps should be to return to the story and the faith that guides us through those moments. And I think we need to be constantly reminding each other about that.
But then I would also say, and this is more of an interfaith point, but when you zoom out to religions more broadly, I think a lot of people of many different faiths, and people of no faith, have a kind of human generosity. And it might not give all of the resources that everybody needs, but there’s a way in which, if we don’t first see that other person as the enemy, or distant, or not one of us, then we can actually connect on a very human level.
And most people of all faiths or no faith are trying to get along in the world, and they have hopes and dreams, and they’re normal people. And when we can humanize those other people and learn about some of their own resources, we can all be better off for it.
Karen Pascal: How do you think Henri Nouwen would handle the days that we’re living in now?
John Inazu: Hmm. Well, I was just rereading a little bit of his work this week, thinking about this call. And I was just reminded about the importance that he places on being present, reminding ourselves that we’re loved by God, reminding other people that they’re loved by God. That’s so important. It’s a step that we often miss when we want to get to problem-solving or solutions, and it’s just essential. And so, I think that the pause to remind one another of belovedness would be a crucial part of that.
Another thing that came to mind was – I can’t even remember where this was, but one of his books – was the challenge to engage with the news. And at the time, he was talking about reading the newspaper, although we don’t do that anymore, right?
But read the news prayerfully, and with lament or with joy when it was opportune, with a kind of engagement that is not just consuming the news, but praying with it. And I don’t know, very few people seem to be doing that today. It’s more of the clickbait. It’s more of the dopamine hit from reading some outrageous headline. And I think to sit prayerfully with the news and the events of the world would be something we might learn or remember from him.
Karen Pascal: I love the fact your book is laced with the best of questions. I mean, there are things like, “How do we learn empathy?” “What’s fair?” “What happens when we can’t compromise?” Things like that. “Can we have difficult conversations?” I want to encourage people: This book is just so wonderfully useful. And as you may be dreading the next big family circle around the table, or perhaps a conversation with a person down the hall from you who has a totally different set of opinions than you do about the world that we’re living in, I think there is within this a gentleness and some wit, too, to be quite honest. It’s full of warmth, it’s full of wit, and that’s what makes it a very good, enjoyable read, really.
But, what do you say to the person who, in a sense, has gotten really polarized, really off in the corner? How do you bring people back to the circle? I’m sure you must encounter those people in your classes. How do you bring them back into a circle where they can hear each other and speak to each other?
John Inazu: Yeah. That’s a really urgent question right now. I think to start with the classroom setting, I think the classroom is one of the most laden with possibilities in terms of places and environments, because we have the opportunity and really the privilege to be with students in this community that exists over time, where I see them week in and week out, and we can have continued conversations. There aren’t many places left in the world where that happens.
And so, you can get a group of people and work on building trust, and then with that baseline, then you can press on some of those extremes or some of those differences. I think it gets a lot harder when we’re talking about maybe family members you’ll see in person once or twice a year, or a neighbor who, you know, we just come and go and don’t have those set times to talk.
And so, I think in those challenging relationships where there’s not a natural forum to engage, and when there might be great polarization, if the goal is really to engage relationally and to persuade, then we should stop and spend some time thinking about who is our audience. What are their presumptions? What motivates them? And is there a way to speak to them in a way that would be accessible and non-threatening?
So, for example, if you’ve got somebody who’s politically different than you are, and you’re trying to persuade them about the nuance of a position, don’t give them the article from the news source that they already distrust. Find someone closer to them in public discourse or in the public square who’s making a similar point, and they’ll be inclined to trust that source. And then they can say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that so-and-so actually thought this was more complicated than I did,” and move incrementally rather than with the big slam-dunk, mic-drop moment. But that takes patience and commitment to relationships, to work over time.
Karen Pascal: I think most of us are surprised by the times we’re living in – at least, that’s how I feel. I didn’t expect to be here. I didn’t expect that democracy had a fragility to it. I mean that in itself, some things I thought were all in place. I didn’t expect that I’d be worried about a nuclear war. I thought we dealt with that a long time ago.
Where do you think we bring our faith into the challenging things before us, into things that in a way we want to be on the front lines of? How do we bring it meaningfully into that situation?
John Inazu: You know, there’s probably not one right answer to that question. But some ideas that come to mind are, we are called to speak truth in the world, and so, to describe accurately, to remember correctly. Those are spiritual disciplines that matter. And so, we need to be truthful about what has happened and what is happening. We have to be present in a way that loves the most vulnerable around us. And that takes action and not just saying things. And so, we’ve got to give sacrificially in what we’re doing. And then, I also think, to be people of hope and to have a posture that displays love, joy, peace, hope, patience – those sorts of things. Which is not to say that things will always be okay, or that they may not get very bad. They could get very bad, but the posture of hope matters, regardless of the circumstances.
And I think people who don’t have faith would be looking to those of us who do, and trying to see if we’re any different. When push comes to shove, do the things we say we believe actually matter to how we live out in a world that is sometimes unstable or scary or hard to understand? Can we still show hope in those circumstances? Can we still show joy even in the midst of sorrow? Those are the kinds of things that really, I think, display the authenticity of what we say we believe.
Karen Pascal: In your book, you tend to be very self-deprecating, and it’s part of your wit and it’s part of the warmth of the book. I actually quite love it. You’re going through this. It’s funny, because you think you’re going to be reading a book that’s going to be maybe tough. Learning How to Disagree is the title, but it’s actually quite, for lack of a better word, a delicious read, to be quite honest with you.
I want to go on and ask you about other books. You wrote a book, co-edited a book with Tim Keller. Is that right? And tell me about that book.
John Inazu: So, a lot of my academic work and thinking is around this question of pluralism, which means, how do we live in a world of stark disagreement and difference that we’re not going to overcome? So, you can see themes of that reflected in this new book as well. But when I met Tim Keller and we were starting to talk together, we realized that what he at the time was still preaching at Redeemer in Manhattan, and what I was writing about, were very similar in consonant. We had a message specifically for Christians, about how is it that you might engage both faithfully and neighborly in a world that you don’t control, you’re not trying to control, but you are trying to be authentic to your own faith commitments, and then also generous in the ways in which you engage with other people.
And so, that was sort of the goal and the mission of the book. And we decided early on that rather than just issue a bunch of principles, we wanted to tell stories from our lives, but also go beyond us and do this with a group of friends. And so, we expanded the group to about 12, and encouraged people to write around a theme that also reflected their own life story. And you know, the one thing I’ll say that I think made this book special and different was, as we were inviting people to participate – and these are people with busy lives and lots going on – we said, “We really want you to be part of this book, and if you’re going to do it, we need you to come to St. Louis for a kickoff meeting where we’re going to spend a day together, and before we do any writing, we’re going to learn more about each other.”
And by a miracle of scheduling, everybody came. And we sat around a table and we started off the whole project with a four-hour dinner, where we shared about our lives, and we looked across the table and there were these connection moments and these opportunities to see similarities in our life stories and our feelings. And it was wonderful. And it really shaped the trajectory of the book.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because that reminds me so much of Henri Nouwen, to be honest, the whole concept of community and the word you use, “neighborly.” It’s interesting, because when you go to the parable of the Good Samaritan, “who’s my neighbor?” really is one of the most pivotal descriptions in the Bible that Jesus gives us about a neighbor. And it’s the person that we cross over the street for, we cross over in our lives, to be present in their need. And that’s so cool that you all got together. If Henri had been there, he definitely would’ve wanted to have the Eucharist.
John Inazu: I think that’s for sure, we can count on that. No, that’s right. And when I think about the kinds of things I’ve learned and tried to embody in my own life from reading Henri Nouwen and from that week that I spent at L’Arche, it is a reminder that the doing of the work together is what strengthens and builds relationships, and to slow down. And I mean, by nature, I’m a very task-oriented, efficiency-driven person. But I think my best moments in life are when I can hold onto the efficiency, but not lose sight of the moment and to say, “You know what? We need to do this together.” And the laboring together is part of what really matters here, not just the end product. And that seems to be very consonant with what I’ve learned over many years of reading Henri Nouwen.
Karen Pascal: One of the things I’m constantly reminded of in my life, and it takes me back to Henri, is the reality that often weakness brings us together. Sometimes that becomes a center. And I know that’s why at L’Arche, some of the people that are there, with intellectual disabilities, are called “core members,” because they become the core of a group. But I see that in so many of the groups that I’m a part of. In a way, the core member can be the weakest person physically or mentally or emotionally, and we can gather around that. But there is a choice to make community, and that’s lovely to hear that you have made that choice. And I bet your classes become community as well. I bet, in a unique sort of way, they serve that.
John Inazu: Well, I hope they do. I mean, it’s always so contingent, based on who’s there and what they’re willing to give. And really, the classroom examples are so interesting, because it works when everybody is willing to risk together. I think that’s true of families and friendships as well, right? But you can have the most possibility and the greatest growth, as individuals, but also as a group, when people are willing to risk together. And that takes some trust and a little bit of luck and a little bit of hope. But when it happens, it’s really gratifying.
Karen Pascal: Now, in your book, you actually have the possibility of questions for the various chapters. Did you envision this being something that would be done in classrooms or in church groups? Because I found that really helpful, and they’re not easy or simple questions to ask. It’s not like, you gave a question, and if I read the book, I’ll have the answer. The questions actually say, “How do I address this personally?” And I think it would be great for group discussion. What was your intention when you created the book in that way?
John Inazu: I love that you were hit that way by the questions. because that was certainly the goal. And in fact, there are no answers prescribed in this book. The whole point is to get people to think hard about how does this apply in their own lives and what are maybe some blind spots or some possibilities or some new ways of thinking. And so, I love that you experienced the questions in that way, and that really is the goal. I think life is best done in community with other people. And so, if this happens to work in a classroom or, as you mentioned, in a church small group, that would be lovely. I think there are different organizations that could read this together. I mean, you could imagine a first-year class of college students coming in and all reading together and thinking about how do we want to make the most of these next four years together. So, any of those possibilities I would love to see. And, you know, books, like relationships, are very contingent. So, it’ll be fun to see where this goes.
Karen Pascal: I want to recommend the book, personally, to two groups. I’m going to say, anybody who’s wanting to go into law school, I want to recommend it. I think you’ll enjoy it. I think it’s a good, broad picture of the things that you’ll be tackling. But I also would like to recommend it to the rest of us, who are facing those incredibly difficult conversations now, feeling divided, often saying, “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought that person would think this. They’re not thinking like I think.” And somehow, my big umbrella that everybody should fit under, I’m beginning to realize, no, people think very differently and they have reasons for thinking differently. And so, you really are helping me. You are reminding me how to come into conversations, how to come with respect, and with kindness, and with a listening heart. I really appreciate that. But it’s a good book for that reason. It’s really good. I think it’s worth reading and I’d highly recommend people think about doing it, maybe in a church group or some sort of study book club that you’ve got, because it’s got good questions in it. It’s the stuff you need to address.
John Inazu: Thank you so much.
Karen Pascal: I also just want to thank you. You did a lovely endorsement for Following Jesus. I just noticed that you were one of the people that was chosen to endorse this book. And I don’t know if people have read Following Jesus. It’s a series of lectures, which was quite wonderful, about finding our way home in an age of anxiety. And this is what you write: “Few writers have influenced me more than Henri Nouwen. These newly published lectures offer fresh and timely insights amid the familiar cadences of Nouwen’s prose, written from a place of deep anxiety, but even deeper hope.” You captured in a really beautiful way, Henri. I appreciate that.
John Inazu: Oh, thanks for saying that. The backstory, as best I can tell, but I was so sort of shocked and delighted to be asked to endorse that book. There was no public sense in which I had ever expressed appreciation for Henri Nouwen’s writings. And so, my hunch, my intuition is that that thank-you note that I’d written to him after my visit to L’Arche had made its way to the Nouwen archives somehow, and maybe an editor or someone working on that book found that note and reached out to me. And maybe the lesson, the moral of this story is: Write thank-you notes, because they can really matter! But it’s a real privilege to be able to endorse that book.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s lovely. I’m glad you did and I’m glad it kind of connected us. And I’m so glad for what you have written, and for your enthusiasm, and for the way that it speaks to our community.
There’s a community right around the world that is following and reading Henri’s books, and we will definitely be linking to your book and introducing them to this, and hoping that they will take this on as well.
John Inazu: Thank you so much.
Karen Pascal: John Inazu, thank you so much for being with us today. You’ve posed some hard questions, but you’ve also encouraged us to find ways to hear each other with empathy and respect.
And thank you for listening to our conversation today. You’ll find links in the show notes of this podcast for John Inazu’s book, Learning to Disagree. This is a book packed with wit and life lessons, and it’s woven together with wisdom and with kindness. I can highly recommend this book. It poses the questions we’re all faced with in our world today. It’s groundbreaking, poignant, and highly practical. It’ll give you the strategies for dialoguing clearly and authentically.
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