TRUTH encompassing dynamic polarities
Recently, my long time co-teacher at New Covenant, Jim, challenged us to solve the “problem of breathing.” First he told us to breathe in as much oxygen as possible and hold on tightly to as much of it as possible. This is an obvious solution to the fact that we desperately need oxygen, right? But after just a while we were all desperately needing to do something other than retain the oxygen, so Jim then challenged us to acknowledge this reality by continually breathing out. After all, it is a fact that we need to rid our body of carbon dioxide, right?
If you are trying this exercise as you read, you know that in the first instance we soon were about to explode, and in the second instance we were soon running out of oxygen. So, the big picture reality about breathing is not just breathing in oxygen nor breathing out carbon dioxide, but rather finding an alternating rhythm that moves back and forth between these two polarities.
As Jim taught, and in a later insightful discussion with a sister, Shereen, I found myself applying this picture to our search for truth. Most of us seem to want the truth to be simple and single faceted. It rarely is. And, like the breathing exercise, the fact that we often relentlessly focus on only one facet of truth as though it is the whole truth about a given reality often leaves us as limited and dysfunctional as did the single-faceted breathing exercises.
The dysfunction caused by focusing on “the truth” as a single facet appears everywhere. For example, this is a reality in the relationship between a parent or teacher and the children they guide. A parent or teacher, who focuses too much on the child’s need for boundaries and guidelines as “the truth” about child-rearing, actually leaves the child with a false and dysfunctional understanding of what is needed in the real world. But this is also true: A parent or teacher who focuses too much on the child’s need for individual freedom and personal choice also leaves the child with a false and dysfunctional understanding of what is needed in the real world. The best teachers and parents are the ones who know that the truth about child-rearing includes the art of moving back and forth between the polarities of authority/guidance and freedom/choice in a rhythm that fits the current needs of the children. There is a truth about child-rearing, but it is a big truth full of polarities, not a single faceted truth.
In the area of sociology/politics, we see a lot of single-faceted thinking. These kinds of truth claims are incredibly destructive. The current “big government versus small government” arguments and the “they should help themselves” versus “government should help” arguments are example of single-faceted truth claims. Just as dysfunctional are the views that see “capitalism” or “socialism” as the truth about economics. Successful societies are the ones that move back and forth between these equally important polarities at the right times in a manner that takes into account the strengths and dangers of each aspect of the truth about human societies. A person (and a society) will actually be destructive if it insists that only one facet of this truth is “the whole truth.”
So what about theology and doctrine—beliefs? What a gift it would be if we followers of Jesus moved toward a much bigger search for God’s truth by understanding the polarities of the real world God has created and of the truths God reveals to us through Scriptures, creation, scientific discovery, human relationships, touches of God’s Holy Spirit, etc.
Here are just a few of the polarities that become quite dysfunctional when we attempt to limit our search for God’s truth to a single aspect of God’s truth.
GOD GIVING and HUMANS RECEIVING and RESPONDING: The arguments about “faith and works” and “salvation as nothing but a gift, versus salvation as something we work out with fear and trembling, are good examples. Is Salvation a pure gift of grace or something to be worked out with tenacious obedience and choices? Is God’s desire to save us mainly forgiveness, mainly rescue, mainly restored relationships, mainly healing, or mainly wholeness? Does God want to save every human or will some humans finally end up choosing to be separate from God and God’s future community of goodness, righteousness, and justice for all? Can God alone save us or do we need to save ourselves from the current cultural wickedness? Is the truth about what God expects of us Faith or Works? Is the Kingdom of God at work in our midst right now with expectations about how we should live to allow more of God’s presence or is it the promise of a future age in God’s history that only God can bring? Can we experience God’s gift of wholeness now both individually and socially or is God’s wholeness unattainable in this present age? All of these things are taught in the Bible, and it would be great if we could get real about the fact that these polar dynamics are truths that point to a bigger truth. Nevertheless, huge books continue to be written defending each of these polar dynamics of truth as the only truth on the subject. Our attempts to focus on only one of these polarities as “the truth” has been and is extremely destructive to our lives with God and one another.
GOD’S NATURE and HUMAN NATURE: Is God sovereign or are human choices meaningful and powerful in some ultimate sense? Can God’s sovereignty include both purposes that will happen no matter what occurs as well as many instances of God truly changing God’s mind in response to human concerns and human choices? Is God totally separate from evil and sin or is God willing to deeply involve God’s self in the compromising contextual realities of human existence (for example, might God be against war and patriarchy and yet busy revealing his grace and presence in the midst of it)? Is God’s love and grace inclusive or exclusive? Can true love include both grace and anger—both all out support and some condemnation and frustration? Is our relationship with God primarily individual or primarily as a member of a community? Again, all of these polarities are taught as “truth” by various biblical writers—sometimes in the same paragraph. Are these writers just naively self-contradictory, or are they aware of the nature of truth and reality as almost always multi-faceted?
THE BIBLE and TRUTH CLAIMS: Is the Bible a gift from God or is the Bible a gift from our fellow humans? Does the Bible teach us truths that transcend a given context or is it always contextual and in need of contextual reapplication? Is truth absolute or is truth relative? Is God’s truth revealed or is God’s truth discovered? Is God personally relating uniquely to a very narrow band of human history, or is God personally relating to people in all cultures and people who participate in many different religious groups? Is the truth about evil about individual choices or about systemic conditions? Does our search for truth include not only our faith and trust, but also our doubts and questions? Does it make sense for me to say, “I believe in God’s absolute truth; and I absolutely know that I do not know it” (though I hope someday God will give us the gift of ‘knowing as we are known’)? Does it matter to God that at one and the same time, I both want to know the whole truth and that I know that I do not know nearly enough truth?
JESUS: Is Jesus incredibly unique and discontinuous with our “normal” humanity or is Jesus the fulfillment and continuation of God’s purpose for humanity that God has pursued from the beginning of human history? Is Jesus to be primarily identified in relationship to humanity or in relationship to God? Is Jesus the son of David or the son of God? Again, all of these dynamic polarities are a part of the Biblical faith.
THE CHURCH – a divine or a human reality: Is the community of followers of Jesus another flawed human institution or is this community the covenant community of God’s purpose in history? Is the church the bride of Christ or a sold out prostituted institution? Do I have to be in community to grow as God wants me to grow, or do I have to be willing to take a stand for God even if it is against the wishes of the church community at this time? Once again, all of these dynamic polarities are a part of the biblical faith.
Please do not hear me as though I am claiming that if we understand that our search for truth must include polarities, we will easily resolve all of our questions and issues. Of course, we will not. Let’s be real about that as well. But we will be moving toward a much bigger understanding of God’s truth if we are willing to seek it within the polar dynamics of God’s mind-boggling, magnificent gift of a reality that we have by God’s choice, for good and ill in the short run, been helping to create.
God’s world is complicated and messy. If we do not learn to get real about this bigger truth reality, we will continue to experience either despair that there is any truth, or rigidity and fanaticism that undercuts both reality and truth, or naiveté that runs over people and belittles and dishonors a much bigger God.