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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

In Praise of Bias
July 28, 2011

Many Presbyterians know that our name derives from the Greek work presbuteros, which means “old person.” Our forebears took to calling themselves “Presbyterians” because they looked to their “old-timers” – or, if you would, elders – to govern the church. They believed that the church is better led by the consensus of a representative group of mature, discerning members than by mass votes of the whole body, or by edicts of clerics.

The only common non-church English word built from that Greek root is “presbyopia,” which means literally “old vision.” It’s what happens when our eye lenses get too old and rigid to bend sufficiently to see things clearly up close. Presbyopia sees things as well as ever from a distance, but anything within arm’s length gets clouded.

Presbyopia’s opposite is myopia, where close-up things are clear but distant things are not. An article in the Los Angeles Times this week tells of research indicating that couples with “relational myopia” are thereby happier together, and their relationships are stronger over the long haul. It’s the “I only have eyes for you” factor winning out over “farther pastures look greener.” It is common for people newly in love to see their partner with rose-colored glasses, to think better of them than a distant, more objective observer might. The Times article cites a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science finding that strong long-term relationships preserve this sort of positively biased vision of our partners.

We’ve seen this kind of myopia aplenty in parents who insist that children who appear to the rest of the world as hellions are in fact angels. I’ve observed it recently emerging in Pittsburgh’s image of the Pirates – after a recent terrible Pirate pitching performance, a couple of local TV commentators were mighty soft on the offender, saying that after all his good work in recent months, a little lapse is surely to be expected and ought to be quickly forgiven. I can’t imagine them saying that a year ago.

Paul repeatedly urges Christian brothers and sisters to esteem each other highly. Apparently such encouragement was as necessary then as it is today. Might he even be commending a kind of myopic bias, a propensity to see the best in our Christian kin? All too often we suspect the worst more quickly than we believe the best of fellow Christians.

I cannot begin to tell how amazed I am that the person in this world who knows me best thinks I’m worth spending the rest of her life with! Knowing that she chooses to have eyes only for me is a gift almost beyond fathom, let alone reason. And think of it – the One who knows me better than I even know myself loves me most of all. Knowing all my short-comings, he chooses to be my resolute defender. Imagine!

Imagine a church marked by this kind of love between its members – a church whose members thought and spoke better of each other than any reasonable objective observer would. That’s what fueled the explosive growth of early Christianity, according to the early church leader Tertullian: “See how they love each other!” marveled Roman-world onlookers who knew only a world of relationships marked by self-interest and cynicism. Might one reason for the massive loss of membership experienced by churches in our time be our slipping from being each other’s chief defenders to being each other’s chief critics?

Of course, the better we know each other, the better armed we are to be each other’s critics. But as those who trust that our Judge has chosen to be our Defender, we are called likewise to be each other’s defenders. Thinking the worst of you rather than the best says more about me than I care to admit. Turning such thoughts to accusatory rather than appreciative speech undercuts the bonds by which our Lord has bound us to himself and to one another.

May all that I think, say, and do reflect well on you, my dear brothers and sisters.

Cheering you on,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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