In the belief conversation, I have extolled the gift of reason, stressed the importance of examining the evidence of God’s action in our lives and made a case for employing logic as the basis for formulating belief. Is my western bias showing?
Western thought is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. We prize Aristotelian logic and put a premium on logical consistency. Proving something is true is equivalent to proving its opposite is false. Something and its opposite cannot be simultaneously true. While this logic is intellectually satisfying, and makes us feel like we know something with certainty, it might leave much of reality in the dark. For all our technological achievements and advancement of scientific knowledge, we moderns may actually be less in touch with reality than ancient thinkers.
Before Greek thought percolated and permeated the western world, how did the ancients understand reality, and what did they believe? Early believers in the God of Abraham understood God to be so unlike man, or anything that man could conceive, that a cornerstone of their theology was man doesn’t know and can’t know God. They understood reality to exist in the tension between polar opposites that are simultaneously true. The nature of God is at once transcendent (otherworldly) and immanent (present at every moment). God champions justice and at the same time gives mercy. God is concealed (eludes direct observation) and also intervenes (touches us directly). This balanced thinking describes Jewish theology to this day.
The Jewish tradition also sees the reality of human nature as held in the tension between polar opposites. Man can be obedient to God’s will but also sins. Man lives in faith and in fear. God gives man collective responsibility (covenants with groups of people) and individual responsibility. Don’t we see this pull to opposite extremes in religious life today? I know a deeply spiritual man who feels fervently convicted of the righteousness of one extreme in the homosexual clergy debate. As deeply as he knows he is right, I know he is wrong. I respect his piety and his sincerity, and I have no doubt that God is pulling him to his belief just as I know God is pulling me to mine. I don’t think God is playing games with us, though. I think he is leading us to deeper truths that exist on both sides of the matter. I think he is drawing us into tension to reveal a complex reality that lies outside the simple circle of Aristotelian if-I’m-right-then-you’re-wrong logic.
Polarity is essential to our understanding of the very nature of existence. Light has no meaning without darkness. Order is meaningless without chaos. How could we appreciate goodness if there were no evil? Even our scientific understanding of physical reality invokes opposites. Light simultaneously exhibits the nature of particles and waves.
Perhaps we can find hope in this reality of opposites. Sin in all its horror precipitates the glory of being redeemed. Maybe suffering exists to reveal the miracle of healing.
Join the conversation. What polar opposites do you believe are simultaneously true?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.