Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Help of Doubters

Sleet and snow all day yesterday. By mid-morning, every twig of every tree was a crystal
shaft. It’s an enforced Sabbath. No lamps are lit today—the sunlight, unobstructed by foliage, refracts from the snow into every window. Bread is rising over the woodstove. I’m thinking of mixing pesto from last summer’s basil and garlic.

          Tomorrow, unless it snows again too hard, I’ll host a small group of Presbyterians to thank them for reading each chapter of my then-unnamed book in first draft. Every month or two (or six), I would feed them dinner. Then I’d listen and take notes as they discussed what they had read, which never precisely matched what I thought I’d written, but came close.

As beginners in both Bible and ecology, some hesitated at first to speak, and I’m sure no one said all that they thought. They told me what they liked, what they questioned, what they objected to. They saved me from many bad arguments and inelegant paragraphs. Though I alone edited, I hoped all would see their handprints on each revision.

          Writers must work to visualize their audiences. But this audience sat on my porch regularly, easing the imaginative overdrive. Each paragraph had to bow and squeeze past the anticipated reactions of actual readers: “How will she hear this? What will he say now?”

By the eighth chapter, the one on climate change, I had heard enough to know it
would be tough. Preaching to the choir is playing it safe. Writing to impress the already converted, especially one’s own mentors, is a great temptation, but such writing may speak right past the tough audience you really want—the one that makes writing worthwhile at all. Speaking across ideational gaps requires more imagination, more transcendence, more patience. If at any point I succeeded, it is because of this group of Christians, this mixed crowd of thoughtful readers, some who see their faith through ecological eyes and some who don’t, who all tried to respond honestly as well as kindly to my efforts.

          For months I dreaded the climate change discussion. Having been raised among chemists, mathematicians, and astronomers, I know what “virtually certain” means. Among all but those with a vested interest in obstructionism, and those unfortunate enough to be listening to them, the scientific debate was over long ago, and the time for action is now dreadfully overdue.

Urgency notwithstanding, I still find conflict personally painful. Most people do. Perhaps that’s why some develop what Martin Buber called “I-It” relationships with adversaries, side-taking, name-calling, objectifying silently if not out loud. And why others avoid debate, holding the strain of disagreement in our guts, along with our unshaken views. It’s hard to look another “Thou” in the eye and say, “I hear you, I still disagree, and would you like another cookie?”

No matter how the conversation goes, I told myself, what we hold in common is bigger. Our common faith and humanity shrink the proportions of our opinions, though they be mountains in our minds. Come Sunday, no matter what, we’ll still be singing together in the sanctuary.

          But to my surprise, in part because they had virtually set up couches and armchairs on my shoulder as I wrote the climate change chapter, debating every paragraph even before it materialized, this was one of the pieces these readers liked the most. Those who still doubted were nevertheless drawn in and, I’d like to think, nudged toward hearing the scientists. For that I was grateful. All that cooking, all that listening, paid off after all. And tomorrow I don’t have to take notes, only thank and celebrate.

          Years ago, as an associate pastor, I witnessed a lengthy congregational debate about some issue that seemed critical at the time. The closer the decision drew, the longer and louder the speeches. But the vote itself bore a lopsided relationship to all the talk. Three-fourths of the verbiage had been “against”; three-fourths of the hands were “for.” It reminded me of my young son, who fought hard every night, noisily, sometimes irately, before he gave himself to sleep, as if he knew the battle was lost, but still had to
play it out.

          History's train plunges through the countryside, taking us all along. Some of us instinctively look ahead, proud to sit with the engineer, trying to steer, waving our hats to show we were here first. Some stand on the rear platform, nostalgic for receding terrain that was new only moments before. But we are all on the same train, and the engine pulls into the station only minutes before the caboose. When it comes to rest, no one cares who got there first. 

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