Choosing Both / And rather than Either / Or as an Antidote to Polarization in America

Much of my work over the years has focused on my calling into question either/or binary positions on contentious issues; choosing, rather, to formulate both/and positions that seek to capture the best insights from those adhering to the two either/or poles

It all started many years ago, during my days as a Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA) at two Christian liberal arts colleges. The first either/or false choice I rejected was as follows:

  • College faculty members should focus either on effective teaching or productive scholarship.

This false choice fails to capture the truth that effective teaching and productive scholarship are two sides of the same coin, with each activity enriching the other.

More recently, there has been a debate in Christian higher education circles about another false choice:

  • College education should focus either on the dissemination of information or the development of character.

Once again it is both/and, not either/or. At its best, college education includes the dissemination of information that will deeply inform the character development of the learner (for elaboration, see pp. 27-31 of my book Let’s Talk).

A trichotomy (rather than a dichotomy) among Christians that also needs to be rejected is:

  • Living well as a Christian involves either feeling deeply, or thinking deeply, or acting on your feelings or thoughts.

To be a whole person, you must integrate what psychologists refer to as the affective, cognitive and volitional dimensions of personhood.

My calling into question common either/or positions scaled new heights as the result of the recent electronic conversation on this website, that will soon be reported in a book (See the Musing below) on the topic “Following Jesus: Perspectives From twelve Christian Traditions.” In summary form, this conversation revealed that a number of Christian traditions have erroneously focused on one pole of suspect either/or choices. Here is a litany of such false choices regarding what it means to follow Jesus:

  • God’s purpose for Creation is either to redeem individual persons or to redeem the entire world, including broken systemic structures.
  • Either have a personal relationship with Jesus (“Jesus and me”) or partner with God to redeem the world.
  • Either worship God by means of the liturgy provided by your tradition or live out the teachings of Jesus in everyday life.
  • Develop a Christian ethic that features either freedom or prescriptions and proscriptions for ethical behavior.
  • Either exercise your will or do God’s will

The Bible does not teach that God wishes to obliterate my will, which would make me into something like a stone. Rather, God wishes to transform my will away from selfishness, which is the essence of sin, into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18, 5:17). There should be a synergy of wills, God’s and mine, as noted in Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” What God intends for my will is that I be so attuned to God’s redemptive purposes for Creation that I choose to exercise my will in harmony with God’s will.

There are two very prevalent false choices about the relationship between the role of government in America’s free market economy, the first of which is:

  • Either have a limited view of the role of government in the free market economy or have a more expansive view that allows for government to provide for the needs of those citizens who, through no fault of their own, cannot compete in a capitalistic system.

The second false choice, closely related to the first, is:

  • Each human being is either an “individual” or a “social being.”

Once again, it is both/and, not either/or. Since I am an individual, I must be provided with the freedom to take individual initiatives, including economic initiatives, as long as such initiatives do not have a destructive effect on the well-being of others (Hence I embrace a personal ethic that I call “freedom within bounds”). As a social being, my Christian beliefs require that I seek to meet the needs of others, particularly those who are marginalized in our society (see Matthew 15).

As you can see, I have significant problems with what I believe are false binary either/or choices that are very prevalent among Christians (and others) in America. So, what can be done about such problems? My response will flow from my noting one final false choice that is particularly rampant and exceedingly pernicious.

  • Persons who disagree about a contentious issue should exemplify either “commitment” or “openness.”

The severity of the negative consequences of this false choice between commitment and openness can best be seen in the context of the tendency to demean and demonize those who disagree with you that is running wild in contemporary American culture. This is because of a rampant tribalism, an adversarial us-versus-them mentality, characterized by believing that “me and my people” (my church, my political party, or my circle of friends) have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth regarding the controversial issue at hand, and “those other folks” (that other church, that other political party, that other circle of friends) possess none of the truth. Worse yet, not only are those other folks completely wrong, they are downright evil. Therefore, they need to be demeaned and demonized.

Given the prominence of this tribalistic mentality, one can see how positing an erroneous either/or choice between commitment and openness offers little to no hope for those situated at either pole of that choice finding any common ground. I will start elaborating by considering how rare it is to find Christians (and other human beings) who simultaneously exemplify the characteristics of commitment and openness.

First, let us consider the “commitment” pole. I admire Christians and other human beings who hold passionately to their beliefs; believing strongly that their beliefs are “true’: so much so that they are willing to die for their beliefs. That is the commitment pole of the rare combination of commitment and openness. But, as C. S. Lewis has observed in his book Reflections on the Psalms, to which past and current world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.”

Therefore, to counteract the fanaticism that can lead to violence and terrorism, the “openness” pole needs to be considered. Ian Barbour adds this pole to the commitment pole in his definition of “religious maturity,” as follows

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.

But adherence to the openness pole without commitment is also one-sided. In a commencement speech at Gordon College a number of years ago, the late Charles Colson, former lawyer to Richard Nixon, summarized the epistemology (the theory about knowing) of the generation of college students at that time in one word: “Whatever.” You have your beliefs. I have mine. Whatever. One set of beliefs is as good as another.

Such sheer relativism is nonsense. Some beliefs are true and some beliefs are false.

So, the problem is that commitment without openness too easily leads to fanaticism and terrorism, and openness without commitment leads to the nonsense of relativism.

It is both/and; not either/or. We need to be characterized by that rare combination of both commitment and openness. To put that ideal most starkly in my own words: I need to believe passionately that my beliefs are “true” at the same time that I acknowledge that “I may be wrong” (my beliefs may be false), and I can possibly correct some of my beliefs by carefully listening to the contrary views of others and seriously re-examining my beliefs in light of the reasons given for those contrary views. My experiences over the past decade or so suggest that there are all too few Christians and other human beings in our contemporary American culture who embrace both commitment and openness.

So, where does that leave us relative to the looming question of how to deal with those many American citizens who situate themselves at one of the either/or poles in the many examples of false choices that I enumerate above?

My proposal, which readers of this website will expect by now, is that those who situate them selves at opposite poles of what I believe are false choices need to have respectful conversations with one another, with the goal being to learn from those who hold to contrary views toward formulating a more full-orbed understanding of the “truth” about the matter at hand, which will replace either/or thinking with both/and thinking.

Readers may now conclude that I have taken “wishful thinking’ to new heights; especially in light of the observation of one pundit that in light of the rampant tribalism in American society, “half of us don’t want to talk to the other half.” What kind of strategy can help “our two halves” to start talking to one another?”

Pushing credulity to new heights, my response is that we need to advocate for humility on the part of those who situate themselves on either side of an erroneous either/or dichotomy. That response surely begs for some elaboration.

I am not God and neither are you. At best, as a finite and fallible human being, I have only a partial glimpse of the “truth” about the matter being discussed (I see “Through a glass darkly” – I Corinthians 13:12). And the same is true for you.

Elements of my personal biography deeply inform my beliefs about what is true, as do other elements of my social location, such as my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my socio-economic status. The beliefs of someone who disagrees with me about a given issue may be deeply informed by her differing set of particularities that may enable her to see things that I miss, just as my unique particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God.

It is hubris—a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about the issue at hand. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that the contrary beliefs of another person may help me to refine my beliefs, possibly improving them or even correcting them.

Note that such humility does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs. Rather, it involves holding in tension that very rare combination of embracing and expressing your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction while also acknowledging that you have only a partial view of the “whole truth” and you may even be wrong about some things. And, therefore, you can learn from those who disagree with you by creating a safe and welcoming space to, first, carefully listen to the contrary beliefs of others, and the reasons others have for their contrary views, and to then discuss your disagreements for the purpose of attaining a more full-orbed understanding about the “truth” of the matter being discussed.

Of course, a possible fatal flaw in my call for some measure of humility, which I have been told may be a fatal flaw in my Respectful Conversation Project the last decade or so, is that you can’t coerce commitment to exemplifying the cardinal virtue of humility. I agree that such coercive attempts are doomed to failure So, what to do? I will keep trying to point all my readers to the truth that, one aspect of the human condition is that we are all finite and fallible, which is the basis for exercising humility. I leave the results of such ongoing advocacy in God’s hands, based on my core belief that I am called to “plant tiny seeds of redemption,” entrusting the harvest to God (See the parable of the Mustard Seed, recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32).


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