Years ago, a young medical resident was asked to talk to a patient suffering from terminal breast cancer. He had a difficult, but necessary, job to do. He needed to ask the end-of-life questions required in these kinds of tragic situations, like does she want a “do not resuscitate order” and if she had written her will.
“Then he asks the question, ‘Who knows that you’re ill?’” says Malcolm Gladwell, recalling his conversation with a medical ethicist who first told him the story. “And she said, ‘My son.’”
Gladwell says, at this point the woman turned her head and began to weep.
“Then he asked her, ‘When was the last time you saw your son?’”
The woman’s answer was heartbreaking. It had been seven years since her and her son had last spoken. Suddenly, the medical team’s role transcended medicine.
They still had a job to do, of course, but it wasn’t just about standard end-of-life care. They needed to understand and adapt to the woman’s unique circumstances.
“He realized the issue he had to deal with as an ethicist was not the questions about treatment,” Gladwell says. “It was that she could not die without mending the relationship with her son.”
His new perspective changed his course of action. Gladwell points out that this story illuminates a profound lesson.
We live a culture that likes to ask questions, but rarely listens to answers that aren’t always obvious. We seldom look more deeply at a person or situation than just surface-level answers.
In our current social media age, where someone stands on an issue is rarely seen in the context of why they believe what they believe. The dynamic has led to families, communities and churches polarized by division.
Like a doctor focused on a physical situation when a patient is actually in need of more than that, many of us see the world only through our own perspectives, relegating ourselves to societal echo chambers that only reinforce our views while essentially dismissing seeing things another way.
It’s a problem Gladwell has been observing get worse, and he’s sought out stories like the one from the medical ethicist because he’s looking for a solution to it. And he might have found one in an unexpected place.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
Gladwell, the author of the bestselling books including The Tipping Point, Outliers and his latest, Talking to Strangers, as well as the host of the mega-hit podcast Revisionist History, is one of pop culture’s most popular curious minds. His books focus on forgotten stories or obscure ideas that can change the way we see the world. Recently, he’s discovered one that dates all the way back to Jesus.
Gladwell says he’s always been interested in “how religious teaching helps us make sense of our contemporary world.” And while looking at those types of religious teachings, he came across an idea that has helped great religious minds of the past deal with complicated issues in complicated times. The idea is called casuistry.
“I just started reading about it and became fascinated with it—its history and potential as a way of helping us answer difficult questions,” he explains.
Now, Gladwell has become a sort of casuistry evangelist, though he’s just scratching the surface of how world-changing the idea really is—especially in a time when so many people live in echo chambers of confirmation bias. It’s a simple idea that might hold the key to uniting polarized communities and bringing people together. The idea takes a bit of explaining, but fortunately that’s something Gladwell’s good at.
AN ANCIENT TRUTH
To put it simply—the way Gladwell does with big ideas—“Casuistry is a method of moral reasonings.”
Though casuistry dates all the way back to the time of Aristotle (and subsequently, in a more informal way, Jesus), the concept began to make a major cultural imprint during medieval times when Jesuit theologians determined that simply applying broad, dogmatic principles to then-modern problems was often an insufficient solution. The world around them was changing, and life in the Middle Ages was much more complicated than it was during the time of Christ.
Up until then, church leaders would guide culture by simply pointing to the teachings of the Gospels. But the Jesuits encountered people whose problems frankly needed better leadership than the Church of the day could offer.
“What’s interesting about casuistry is simply that it is the idea that this form of moral reasoning is most useful and important when we are encountering novel problems,” Gladwell explains.
And as technology, new discoveries and emerging philosophies changed the way people interacted with the communities around them, they suddenly began to encounter a lot of these “novel problems.” They were sort of us in that way.
For a contemporary example, take an issue like bioethics. Though the Bible is clear on the big principle of valuing human life, how should we think about an issue like stem cell research, which, though controversial, has the ability to save countless lives? The Bible never addresses it directly, and trying to apply large principles isn’t all that helpful and can lead to a lot of disagreements. What method can be employed to solve this “novel problem”?
The Jesuits decided that instead of simply relying on broad decrees from church leaders, a better approach was to take every problem on a case-by-case basis. When faced with a new problem or conflict, the Jesuits developed a method that examined all sides of an issue, searched for how similar cases were effectively dealt with and matched their ultimate conclusions up to Scripture. Instead of relying on broad principles, they embraced nuance.
“One of the beautiful things about casuistry is there is nothing new about it,” he says. “That it is profoundly scriptural; that it’s possible to find in the example of Jesus a clear analog for how to behave this way in our modern world.”
If you want to see what casuistry can look like when applied to real-world situations, Gladwell suggests going back to the time of Christ. While doing ministry in Capernaum, Jesus was approached by a Roman centurion, a person who was literally the hands and feet of Jewish oppression in ancient Rome. Desperate, he told Jesus, “My servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly,” adding, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
In response, Jesus praised the centurion’s faith and healed his servant.
“I think about the way Jesus responded to the centurion,” Gladwell says. “He listened very closely to his story, and He focused on the centurion as a man. He didn’t start by saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. You’re not Jewish. You’re not circumcised. I don’t even know if you’re a believer.’ He didn’t start with broad, general questions about the appropriateness of the request. Rather, what He did was, He started with the individual and He ‘descended into the particulars’—that lovely Jesuitical phrase.”
But in order to “descend into the particulars” of a given situation, Gladwell says you first have to listen very intently to all of the details.
“[Jesus] listened to that person as a person,” Gladwell says. “He listened carefully, figured out what was on his mind and what it would take to alleviate this man’s suffering.”
“Jesus’ focus was entirely on the particulars of this guy’s situation.”
This is the same example that Ignatius of Loyola, the co-founder of the Society of Jesus (which would become the Jesuits) used when demonstrating casuistry in the 14th century.
The lesson, Gladwell says, is simple: “Don’t get caught up in all these broad or general questions.” He explains, “Your first obligation is to listen to the person you are attempting to serve. Carefully listen.”
He adds, “That is what Jesus was fundamentally: He was a fantastic listener.”
Once you fully understand the human side of real-world problems, Gladwell says the next step is doing what the Jesuits call freeing yourself of “disordered attachments.”
Essentially, before you can solve a problem, you first have to identify and rid yourself of personal biases that would cloud your decision-making ability. That, Gladwell says, is a “function of discernment.”
“That is why we take the time to introspect, to pray, to attend to our inner lives and to scrutinize our behavior in that way,” he explains.
This is where things can get difficult. There are no shortcuts. The Jesuits believed that you have to listen—really listen to the details of complicated problems—to understand your own perspective and also listen to understand God.
“There’s a reason why reflection is built into religious practice because that’s the only way we discover things like that—[it’s] the only way that we uncover our biases and weaknesses and failings,” Gladwell says. “There’s no simple way to do it except to say you have to take the task of uncovering your disordered attachments seriously and set aside the time and effort to reflect.”
In taking this time to reflect on how our own backgrounds can distort our objectivity, we realize that Jesus’ teachings aren’t just for “religious” problems. They can provide a guide for tackling issues of all kinds, for all kinds of people.
“We shouldn’t let our religious beliefs restrict the range of our attention,” Gladwell says. “On the contrary, it ought to free us up to minister to whomever is in need of help.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
It’s not hard to find examples of society moving away from a concept like casuistry. Just go on Twitter or turn on cable news. Society has become divided. People often prefer the comfort of like-minded individuals who reinforce their own ideas instead of engaging with diverse opinions that challenge them. Listening is becoming a casualty of the modern age.
Casuistry is based on listening to the heart of problems, reflecting on our own biases, embracing the possibility that we may be wrong and ultimately making decisions inspired by the heart of the Gospel instead of the letter of the law. But to do that, Gladwell says, keeping faith as the backbone of our lives is essential.
“I always wonder whether what we’re seeing is the consequence of a retreat from religiosity and spirituality in our society,” he says, reflecting on our polarized culture. “If in a space of two generations you remove the centrality of that set of ideas, you’re going to pay a price. There’s going to be a consequence.”
This requires us to keep faith and the Gospel central, and to keep religious practices a part of our lives.
“If you don’t have the reinforcement of religious practice saying that you have a moral obligation to take care of the poor and the suffering, or to remind you that you need to be humble in the eyes of God, maybe people become a lot less respectful of others, or people become a lot less cautious and humble about putting forth their own opinions,” he says.
This also means being part of a diverse community and going to church with people who think differently from you.
“If you remove the Sunday ritual where you are reminded of how much you had in common, and all you’re left with is Monday through Friday where you don’t have much in common, it’s a problem, right?” he says. “There’s something incredibly, powerfully, socially important about bringing people together on a regular basis and reminding them that they are all part of a community.”
If we do these things and embrace the approach of casuistry, it won’t just make us better neighbors. It can make us better citizens of the Kingdom.
“We shouldn’t let our religious beliefs restrict the range of our attention.”
“It’s not like this is a big leap for any contemporary Christian,” Gladwell says. “It’s just about being attentive and faithful to some of the bedrock teachings of the Church, but I don’t think it requires some kind of radical transformation. I think it’s fundamentally a very, very simple and traditional message that should be at the heart of all kinds of church teaching.
A MORAL PRACTICE
Looking back at the story of the medical resident and the woman with breast cancer, Gladwell reflects on the lesson the man learned that day. Yes, his intentions were correct when he entered the room and began asking about the woman’s will, but his actions were misguided.
“He was running through a checklist and healing that woman’s pain,” he says. “[But] the pain wasn’t in her breast; it was in her heart.”
It wasn’t until the man actually listened to the woman’s story and tried to understand her as a fellow human being that he realized, even though he might not be able to cure her cancer, he could mend a relationship that would heal her broken heart.
The angry person in your Facebook comments might be mad about your political stance, but that’s probably not why they are so angry in life. The fellow churchgoer might be upset about your stance in a theological dispute, but that’s probably not why they’re hurt by the Church. The friend making lifestyle choices you don’t agree with might get defensive when you confront them, but that might not be why they’re so distant. Sometimes to truly understand someone else’s perspective, you can’t just hear their opinion on a matter. You have to actually listen to what they have to say—and even listen to the things they might not be able to.
“And that’s what we’re talking about here with Jesus as well,” Gladwell says. “Paying such close attention to someone that you know exactly the right kind of question to ask, and you know how to locate the pain, the true source of their suffering. I just find that …,” Gladwell, a man known for capturing big ideas with simple words, pauses. “As a whole kind of moral practice, it’s incredibly beautiful.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.