Distant Neighbors

51MeQ4nEzcL._AA160_This past week I read a book called “Distant Neighbors”. It is a compilation of some of the correspondence between two of my favorite living writers and farmers (one of whom was a central person in my M.A. thesis), Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. The title refers to a line in one of the letters and the idea that these two fellas feel like neighbors even though one lived in rural Kentucky (Berry) and the other in a rural section of California (Snyder). Despite the geographical distance separating them they felt like neighbors, that is to say, they felt that their actions impacted each other and they had responsibility towards each other and the ecosystems they inhabit. They had to learn to get along and work together where they shared common ground while having the humility to let many things go. The letters cover something like 50 years of involvement.

Now I like these two guys but I cannot believe how fast I read the book, how voracious was my appetite for something new from these two. It was a joy to read their thoughts, hear of their troubles, their joys, their worries and their hopes, and to be reminded that they are so human. I often forget that when it comes to people I look up to. Having the back and forth of the letters helped to keep that in mind, seeing them pushing each other, questioning each other, challenging each other, all in an effort to arrive at the truth. As I read the book and gleaned what I could from it I couldn’t help but feel like if I could add any one thing to the bible it wouldn’t be a specific idea, or more about any character (including Jesus) but I would love to have the letters to Paul, the ones he is answering. It would help me to see him more as a man with struggles, a man who could be questioned, a man who could be approached with questions, and it would help to understand the particulars of the letters we do have.

You may well know these two men, one (Snyder) is a serious Buddhist and the other (Berry) is a Christian. Berry coined the term “binocular vision” to explain the importance of their differences (there were many things they got along about and agreed upon, religion just wasn’t one of them). Binocular vision is “the art of gaining clarification of thought by perceiving through the other person’s way of being.” In other words, it is the vision we get access to when we try to understand the world through the eyes of The Other. For the most part doing so will make us see they are not as crazy, lazy, stupid, arrogant, confused, mean-spirited or dastardly as we may have at first thought. This is a big step towards reconciliation and it is a big step towards a healthy dialogue. This is an important lesson for us who inhabit a global economy and news cycle with multicultural cities and towns as we see a rise in religious violence on the global scale. It’s also important for us Canadian Presbyterians as we dialogue about the status of the LGBTQ community within our church.

Berry points out in one letter that when it comes to environmental activism there are a great many stripes and colors. Faction after faction breaks away to rule it’s own little part of the thought-world, their focus narrows and they dig in. Yet, Berry points out, the classification system “begins to break down as soon as you begin to do something.”

Which got me thinking about denominations and how content we are to put up our walls, stake our claim on a theological issue or two (or even less, say the presence of guitars in worship or a certain way of praying), and head out on our own (all claiming to be going with God and discerning His will or copying the early church, better or more accurately than all the other groups trying to do the same things). Man those borders are drawn and seem unlikely to fall, and yet when we want to feed people, give them Christmas Hampers, offer education, clean water, bring in refugees, help with addictions, that is to say, as soon as we begin to act out the Gospel the classification system begins to break down and we become neighbors with common issues and projects. Thank God for that.


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