When the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in Washington, D.C., decided recently to sponsor a day's discussion on environmental issues (with an emphasis on global warming), they did something we should all learn to imitate. They invited several speakers who disagreed with IRD's point of view.
All of us, I suppose, tend to listen most attentively to evidence and argumentation-on just about any topic-that supports our existing biases. We tend to forget that far better than repeatedly rehearsing our own worn-out arguments is the bold practice of taking our opponents' best shots, analyzing them, and-if appropriate-turning them into our own ammunition.
(If, of course, in the process, we discover we really were wrong, so much the better. Our confidence in truth-whoever tells it-should be enough to get us by such temporary embarrassment!)
So I was gratified earlier this month when IRD went the extra mile in putting together its program. The schedule highlighted self-professed environmental conservatives like Calvin Beisner of Knox Seminary, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and Jay Richards of the Acton Institute. But also there, with the explicit task of responding to the headliners, were Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and originator of the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign; Rusty Pritchard, also of EEN; Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland; and Steve Bouma-Prediger of Hope College.
IRD calls itself "an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their [usually mainline] churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad." Implicit in that description is what IRD hopes is a biblically based challenge to typical radical and liberal positions on a host of social and political issues-including care for God's creation.
The toe-to-toe debate at this IRD conference, however, was characterized more by tiptoeing. The exchanges were for the most part so mild and sweet-spirited that some in attendance may have thought they were a bit shortchanged. "I had hoped we'd really see what the big differences are between the conservatives and liberals," said one woman. "But the differences at the end of the day really didn't seem so big."
Probably that was in part because the roster of participants didn't include any real theological liberals. Slight differences surfaced over how the early Genesis mandate to "take dominion" of the creation ought to be interpreted; some complained that in the minds of too many conservatives, "dominion" has become exploitative "domination." But no one really pointed to a significant biblical or ethical gap among those who spoke.
So-if I was happy with IRD's sponsorship of such a gathering (and I was), and grateful to the global warming folks for their willingness to be part of a lukewarm discussion (and I was)-do I think the two sides managed to get any closer together?
Not really. And the reason for that failure involves an unusual irony.
Usually, in discussions like this, conservatives tend to be the affirmers and liberals the skeptics. In many theological debates, for example, conservatives tend to be the ones who claim that "God has said it!" while liberals hold back and ask skeptically, "Has He really said that?"
In the global warming argument, however, those roles have been reversed. The orthodoxy of the priests of global warming is all but absolute. Al Gore's propagandistic tenets have become Truth with a capital T. And anyone who doubts that Truth gets the condescending smiles typically reserved for the simple-minded and naïve.
The whole discussion would be helped if, in this case, the proponents of global warming as an urgent crisis for humankind would treat us like liberals who have brought to the table a healthy dose of open-minded skepticism. We'd just like you to do us the courtesy of offering your ideas as theory rather than as dogma. And we owe you the same.
The planet may or may not be in crisis. But certainly the Arctic glaciers aren't melting so fast that we don't have time to get adjusted to these sometimes oddly reversed roles.