As narrated in my 6/20 blog article, D. Elton Trueblood’s book Philosophy of Religion (1957) greatly impacted my life and thinking. Particularly, I was significantly influenced by the chapter titled “Faith and Reason” as I learned about the Danish philosopher/ theologian Søren Kierkegaard and his “Christian existentialism” and about the French mathematician/physicist/philosopher Blaise Pascal as well as about the idea of paradox as a serious philosophical concept.
The use of paradox as a literary device is widely recognized as a legitimate, and often helpful, means of enlarging one’s perspective and consideration of complex issues. In the English speaking world, however, it was not until the 1950s that paradox became the subject of serious theological consideration.
Of course, the idea of paradox as a way to comprehend reality goes back far earlier than to the last century or to the centuries in which Kierkegaard and Pascal lived.
The concept of yin and yang, for example, is an ancient Chinese concept. Taken together, yin and yang describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent. So, according to that perspective, reality is not just unitary (one) but neither is it dual. It is, as is sometimes expressed in East Asia, “not-two.”
Truth is often found in the combination or unity of opposites. That is the philosophical or theological idea behind the concept of paradox and the reason I assert that in most cases both/and is better than and more nearly true than either/or.
In the 1960s I became so interested in the concept of paradox that I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on The Meaning of Paradox.
Paradox is, I believe, a key concept that helps us grasp the truth about reality. Accordingly, both/and thinking is almost always better than either/or thinking.
Affirming Coincidentia Oppositorum
Recently I came across a significant statement by Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who emphasized that “truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”
That idea can be traced back at least to Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century. He wrote about coincidentia oppositorum (the “coincidence of the opposites”).” This means that in many cases Truth is not on one side or the other—or even in the middle between the opposites. The truth is in both extremes held simultaneously.
This seems to have been the position of Kierkegaard, who referred to Jesus Christ as the Absolute Paradox. By that he meant that Jesus is not only wholly God and wholly human but also wholly unexpected and wholly incomprehensible to normal rational thought.
The nature of Jesus Christ is just one of many Christian doctrines that have a paradoxical nature, at least the way that I and many others understand the matter.
Seeing the Limits of Both/And Thinking
While generally, or in most instances, both/and thinking is better than either/or, that is not always true. It is especially not true when it comes to ultimate commitments.
For example, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24, NRSV). Here is a clear case of either/or being correct; both/and doesn’t work.
So, this section turns out to be an illustration of the point of the chapter. Rather than say we should always use both/and thinking or always use either/or thinking, it is far better to realize that both “both/and” and “either/or” thinking should be used at times and that neither can nor should be used exclusively.
[Click here to read the 17th chapter in Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now, my unpublished book manuscript.]