I was recently at an event organised by Christian Aid examining how Christians should get involved in politics. In the opening session, some of the speakers were reviewing the day's newspapers and they were asked what they thought of The Dress. In case you've been on a monastic retreat for the past few weeks, a photo of a dress taken by a 21-year-old from the Scottish island of Colonsay, went viral because some people see it as blue and black while others see it as white and gold. The Dress has become the first internet craze of 2015 and maybe it was because of this that Saturday's panellists dismissed the story as not worth engaging with. But to me this is the most fascinating story of the year and the perfect thought to begin a day looking at politics.
The colour of the dress isn't important but what it teaches us about the nature of humanity is. The Dress demonstrates beautifully how people can look at exactly the same thing and come away with entirely different conclusions. What has infuriated and dumbfounded those looking at it is that they cannot understand how someone else can see it completely differently. They have no comprehension what is going on inside the other person's head which can lead to derision and argument.
The same struggle is at the heart of so many of our societal and religious conflicts. Politicians from opposing ideological camps may look at the same problem and see entirely different solutions. At the event on Saturday Colin Bloom from the Conservative Christian Fellowship clashed (good naturedly) with Sara Hyde representing Labour and Christians on the Left and Claire Mathys from the Lib Dem Christian Forum. All three were talking about what the political solutions were for Britain but each saw a different answer.
Likewise when it comes to religion we often look at the same world but through entirely different eyes. A girl brought up as a Christian in Sheffield who wonders at the glory of creation and wants a relationship with its creator is likely to have a different idea of how to go about doing that than a boy brought up as a Muslim in Kabul or a girl from a Hindu family in Calcutta. In order to have a sensible conversation about the subject the three of them need to first understand the cultural and religious lenses through which they look at the world.
Within Christianity, theologians have looked at the same collections of passages and come to different and sometimes opposite conclusions about what they mean. The words are the same but people see a different coloured dress. Differing interpretations of scripture have divided the church for centuries and continue to be a cause division now whether it be gay marriage or infant baptism.
Maybe a key to overcoming this conflict is to try and seek the common humanity in those with whom we differ, recognising our own biases and trying to see through the eyes of our opponents. It's not that all truth is relative (The Dress is actually blue and black) but at least if we recognise that there are reasons why people may be seeing a different colour to us we can at least start to understand each other.
What's fascinating about The Dress is that for some people the colours they see change, sometimes right before their eyes. Maybe we too will have our perspectives altered or help alter those of another if we're honest about the cultural and psychological baggage which shapes how we all see the world.
A version of this story first appeared on threads