The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 04, 2022 - 3:40:59

Preaching to the Choir

Devra Torres, Mar 13, 2017

We're all acutely aware of the need to exit our respective bubbles. When we surround ourselves exclusively (especially in cyberspace) with likeminded people, it's not that we might end up talking past each other. It's that we won't get around to talking at all. We risk being cemented into our own cluelessness about how people outside our chosen ghetto see the world. We miss out on the bracing "resistance," as Max Scheler calls it, that reality offers.

It's all true. I'm all for it. I'm in the midst of a dialogue with a liberal friend, and our first step was to recommend to each other our own favorite websites--the ones that rise above an exclusive focus on the idiocy of their opponents.

On the other hand...

There's something to be said for building up a community of people fighting the same battle. The "Benedict Option" may mean many things to many people, but one thing it affirms is the value--for those who choose it and for civilization at large--of banding together and forming communities of the likeminded.

So, how do you know when to preach to the choir and when to target "the other"? How to hone your message so as to get the greatest possible mileage out of every utterance? 

Maybe it's not the right question.

Once i was giving a talk at a morning of recollection. I was ill-prepared this particular day, mostly making it up as I went along. Finally I ground to a halt and was sheepishly gathering up my papers, when a woman I'd never met before ran up, gave me an enthusiastic hug, and exclaimed, "Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today!"

I don't know what I said, but twelve years later, we're still close friends. 

So you never know. Sometimes we overthink whether the situation calls for preaching to the choir or "translating" our words into language that someone different might be receptive to, or be able to hear at all. Sometimes we imagine that every single moment has to be a teachable one, however much tortured phrasing that might require

Yes, we ought to be smart enough to avoid slapping the verbal equivalent of ear plugs on our conversation partners--but on the other hand, this is one person, talking to another, not a machine emitting sounds according to a predetermined algorithm. Don't be mechanical about spitting out what your perceived audience presumably wants to hear. Don't place all your confidence, all your faith, in conversational tactics and preparedness.

The Book of Proverbs says to "lean not on your own understanding." And Christ Himself, in the Gospels, warns us against overthinking our reaction even at the moment of arrest, because  "words will be given you in that hour." As a former evangelical-to-the-point-of-fundamentalist-to-the-point-of-anti-intellectual, I realize, believe me, that these verses can be twisted. Their potential for misinterpretation rivals even "Judge not," and "She has loved much." Our understanding is a gift that's meant to be used, not just fearfully stored away. And, as every student who tried relying on "words will be given you in that hour" instead of studying for the test knows, whatever it means exactly, it doesn't mean "Be unprepared!" You still have to do your homework, it turns out.

But maybe it means this: Leave room for the unexpected--whether a clear case of the Holy Spirit intervening, or just from a healthy respect for spontaneous communication between persons. Be wise as serpents, yes, but be not forever calculating and trusting in thine own calculations. Have a sense of the pros and cons of phrasing things this way or that, but also acknowledge the limits of your power to hear with someone else's ears.

So get out of those bubbles! Or not. As long as you treat persons like persons, and not generic targets of your wisdom. 


Bubbles: Pixabay; Benedictine monastery: CityDesert; Robot: Pixabay;

Target practice: Pixabay