Saturday, June 30, 2018

TTT #17 Both/And is Generally Better and More Nearly True than Either/Or

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.
Embracing Paradox
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.]


  1. Thanks, Leroy for this provocative post. I have not ready your 17th chapter, but this inspires me to do so. I am curious, though, why you are willing to conclude that Jesus abandons paradox in the statement you quote from Matthew's Gospel (6:24), when you're nevertheless willing to allow, presumably, such a profound paradox as "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44).

    Isn't it possible, for instance, that either Jesus was simply wrong, that in fact we are able to serve God and wealth simultaneously, or that the Evangelist's own interests, growing from his own community's needs, motivated him to present Jesus in that way, e.g. as an unbending moral authority? The first instance is possible, especially in light of Steven Pinker's book, "Enlightenment Now," in which he documents the ways that life on the planet is simply better today than ever before, certainly better for more people than in Jesus' day. What is more, we know that globally, people are more religious than ever before, especially as Manlio Graziano's book, "Holy Wars and Holy Alliance" would assert (I know you don't accept the term religion as indicative of sincere practice of faith--a dichotomy you insist upon-- but you also likely remember that I disagree with you on this).

    My point is this: is it possible that you are mixing conceptual metaphors in your interpretation of Jesus' moral instructions, or Christianity's moral instructions? In the instance, "you cannot serve God and wealth," where you abandon paradox or the possibility that Jesus could still be affirming paradox, you are embracing a metaphorical conceptuality that sees Jesus's teaching as "the stern father." This stands in contrast to the instance where you yourself seem to affirm paradox, which coincides with the metaphorical conceptuality that sees Jesus as the "nurturing parent (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). Such mixing of metaphorical conceptualities for Christian morality creates confusion and further indicates your own biases, doesn't it?

    1. Dennis BoatrightJune 30, 2018 at 3:30 PM

      I like this newly retired Milton! Willing to take the time and have the interest to jump into a meaty discussion. I cannot cite philosophers, but it does seem to me there are a lot of proponents of being able to serve God and wealth simultaneously with the prosperity gospel. It seems most of the arguments are not about whether wealth is bad, but about whether it should be shared with those less prosperous via government or charity. That is way too complicated to be addressed fully here, but in the spirit of the topic I will say I like both. I also acknowledge that I chose to stay with the term "wealth" instead of the "love of money" that 1sojourner brought up, which is more complicated to me but likely equivalent if you consider "wealth" a master.

      And since it is my role to bring sports talk into these discussions, I am currently pondering the Oregon State pitcher that just participated in a team win at the College World Series as a highly touted player. He went undrafted because he admitted to fondling his six year-old niece when he was 15. Our hometown Royals general manager is floating the possibility of signing this pitcher with many points of discussion about fulfilling punishment, second chances and victim rights. One key point is this pitcher pleaded guilty to avoid a contentious family trial and with the belief that as a minor the record would be sealed. That is probably why Oregon State accepted the player. The pitcher now denies the charges were true, but the victim's mother believes her daughter.

      So while the crime is abhorrent, can the actions of a minor be used for lifetime punishment? Punishment of murder by a minor continues to be debated, but seems to be moving to lesser punishment. The Bible does not document Jesus meeting a pedophile, so there is no specific scripture to cite. Also a 15-year-old in Jesus' time was often considered an adult, while modern day science is telling us that the brain is not fully mature until 21 or later. So the paradox on another example way too complicated to fully address here, do we choose zero tolerance or second chance?

    2. Milton, I am slow to respond to your comments, but I much appreciate you posting your thought-provoking ideas. As usual, I am challenged to deeper thinking about important issues because of your comments.

      The main thing I have had to reflect on after reading your important comments is the relation of paradoxical thinking to ethical or moral issues. In considering most ethical issues, it is probably not correct to say that there can be a both/and position. Not being able to serve both God and wealth is perhaps the same is most ethical issues: for example (and there are many others that might be considered) one can't affirm both truth and falsehood, or both inflicting physical violence and loving others.

      The paradox in this case, perhaps, is found in how God demands/expects humans to act morally but accepts/forgives all of us who fail to act morally.

      Fairly recently I read much of the concluding chapters of Pinker's book, and I had many serious questions about some of his assertions, although there were, I thought, some important insights that I was glad to consider. I have not read and do not know anything about Graziano's book.

      I remember well that we disagree about the meaning or significance of religion, but I certainly do not think that there are no religious who have sincere practice of faith. My point is only that there are many religious people who do not engage in a sincere practice of faith, so faith is far more important than religion.

    3. Thanks, Dennis, for your thoughtful comments also. I certainly do not agree with the main ideas of those who promote the prosperity gospel, but I doubt that any of them would agree with the idea that they in any way sanction serving wealth. Rather, it seems to me, they say only that serving God properly will be rewarded with wealth/prosperity.

      The issue of the Oregon State pitcher is an interesting one. I don't much about the case but had seen enough about it to wonder what was the "right" thing for the Royals (for example) to do about trying to sign him. Even though I don't know the details of the situation adequately, I think I am on the side of both condemning his aberrant behaving as strongly as possible and giving him the opportunity to live in the present and to move into the future without being irreparably shackled to his past.

  2. Philosophy is not my specialty. I only had one class in it, which, thankfully, was The Problems of Philosophy. Not being a philosopher, Chapter 17 was over my head – although I am familiar with most of the names. Having lived life, and having seen a lot of evil (including by Christians), my philosophies are probably closer cynicism and the Missouri motto – Show Me. But I have also seen and met a lot of diverse people of Goodwill. That is my standard. Jesus seemed to give deference to humble people of goodwill, whether wealthy or poor, Roman soldiers or Zealots, sinners or Pharisees, Jews or Gentiles, teetotal or drunk. The arrogant, self-righteous, and lovers of money were out.

    Paradox is difficult to understand. As a centrist, I like shades of gray and exceptions. But I also appreciate truth – which by nature cannot be gray, but must be solid and unchanging (certainly NOT postmodern).

    Jesus Christ is quite interesting. Your example of serving two masters is interesting. I have to take it that means “the love of money”. He surrounded himself with, and was supported by people of means. And his parables of the Kingdom favored those of great wealth, and of pursuing it.

    Having seen extremes in my lifetime, I don’t favor them. However, extreme measures must be taken at times to end extremes – hence the necessity of “just wars” to throw off tyranny. (Anarchy is no better than tyranny.)

    1. Of the various issues made in 1sojourner's comments, I will make this brief response only to the next to last paragraph:

      I think there is no support for the idea that Jesus was supported by people who were serving wealth or that Jesus' parables favored those who were pursuing wealth.

  3. One of the things I love about Genesis 1 is the repeated majestic use of the word "and" in the creation story. One of the delightful paradoxes of the story is "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (KJV) What does that line mean, and why is it there? I never fully experienced that line until I camped in California's Westport-Union Landing State Beach, and watched the wind whip the clouds as the sun set over the Pacific. Now I camp there whenever I can, which is hopefully soon.

    Physics has finally come to the aid of paradox. (Sorry, Sir Isaac Newton.) A photon of light is fully a particle, and fully a wave. Countless clever experiments have pushed this paradox to the limit, until one found a way to run a multi-stage experiment where the photo did one step as a wave and another as a particle. The final distribution pattern confirmed both had happened. Another paradox is the physics of black holes. Quantum mechanics rules the light and the small, while general relativity rules the heavy and the large. Since a black hole is heavy and small, both theories have a claim on it. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics and general relativity have formulas that do not work well together. The mathematical nonsense that results tells us we do not understand the physics of black holes. Photons and black holes are identified parts of our universe, subject to scientific scrutiny, even as they evade our best theoretical efforts at understanding.

    The current issue of Scientific American has an article by Michael Shermer titled "Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God?" The short answer is, the author identifies himself as one of "the final mysterians." For the full article, read here:

    Paradox is a feature of understanding, not of being. Photons are a paradox because we do not understand them. Photons are what photons are. That is our problem, not theirs. We find existence absurd because we lack the tools to understand it. So what? Did anyone promise us that we could understand the universe? We cobble together wave theory and particle theory trying to make sense of photons. On a larger scale, we cobble together religion and science trying to make sense of existence. We live with methods and metaphors which only have an approximate relationship to ultimate reality. Not even Sir Isaac Newton's great energy equation could transcend that. Mass was eclipsed by the speed of light. Yet, this does not mean all is arbitrary. When men walked on the moon a half-century ago, they got there and back home using Newton's equation, not Einstein's. It was so much easier to compute than Einstein's, and worked just fine at the astronomically slow speed of rockets. At its core, religion tells us "God is love." Science tells us that the abyss is the alternative. What I do not understand is people who tell us "Greed is good." Neither religion nor science tells me that, just politicians and lobbyists.

    1. Craig, as usual I much appreciate your significant comments. I was particular intrigued by the beginning of your last paragraph. I am not sure that paradox is only inadequate understanding. Certainly there have been many "paradoxes" in the past that were resolved by greater understanding. I question that all paradoxes are ultimately available for resolution by greater understanding.

  4. Happy Birthday, Sister June. Since my skills are rather limited, my greetings will have to come through this rather public channel. By the way, I have a Christmas card from my mother's stash of memories you might like to have returned. It is of the Seat family when there were only four of you. I'll try to have it in the mail to you soon. Again, Happy Birthday!

    Personally I find no paradox in the choice posed by Jesus as whether it will be God or wealth. God is (I AM) whereas wealth is what we make it. In its nature it is neutral. We choose to make it our servant or our god. As to the rest of your discussion and those who have responded, I agree that the concept of paradox forces us to think in terms we might wish to avoid. Is a paradox a matter of perception? Does one culture always see another culture's paradox in the same way? Does the Father see the God-man Jesus as a paradox as noted by Kierkegaard?

    1. I was also intrigued by your comments/questions, Tom. I am quite sure that many paradoxes are matters of perception and that there are cultural differences in how "paradoxes" are perceived. But what can I say about your last question? Maybe I have to say that we see the God-man as paradox but to God that is just the way things are without any apparent contradiction.

  5. It is my understanding that:
    "Both/And" is compatible with paganism, Zen Buddhism, agnosticism, and Enlightenment thinking in general.
    "Either/Or" describes the demands of Christianity and Islam.
    Are Christianity and Islam are on the wrong side of history?

    1. Thanks for your comments and question, Clif. Here is a brief response that expresses my belief/understanding of the issue:

      I agree with Richard Rohr, the widely-known Catholic priest originally from Kansas, who makes repeated emphasis on paradox and non-polar thinking. For example, on Aug. 21, 2016, he wrote, "The binary, dualistic mind cannot deal with contradictions, paradox, or mystery, all of which are at the heart of religion." The next day he wrote, "The very nature of spiritual truth is that it is paradoxical." (Actually, paradox was his theme for that whole week, which you can find on his website:

      So I think it is only a warped Christianity that fails to see the importance of paradox that is on "the wrong side of history." (I am not able to make any statement in this regard about Islam.)