Three times this week I’ve found myself querying simple either/or propositions about matters of belief.
The first was in a ‘Liberal Evangelicals’ Facebook group, where a Tea-Party-voting contributor had posted ‘If you are Born Again you automatically become Pro Life like JESUS!!’ Though arguing with fundamentalists usually isn’t productive, I couldn’t help responding ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but real life and Christian theology just aren’t ever as simple as these neat black-and-white divisions of ‘Born-again’/’not-born-again’, or ‘pro-life’/’pro-choice’…
The second was on this blog, where someone responded to the ‘Surprised by Hope’ post with the statement ‘The primary job of the church is to reach unbelievers with the gospel’. Something in me reacts against statements like this, so I found myself replying ‘I’m less inclined [now] to divide the world into “believers” and “unbelievers”’.
And thirdly, regular friendly commenter David responded to a recent post with the comment ‘Unregenerate man may say true things, but that isn’t the same as knowing the truth’. I broadly agree with this, but again something in me wants to query polarised terms like ‘unregenerate’ and ‘the truth’; terms that seem to offer only a binary either/or, in/out, true/false choice.
So what’s wrong with either/or?
I’ll admit that part of my reaction against these polarities comes from my personality (not that that invalidates the reaction). I’m a Myers-Briggs extreme ‘P’, and Ps like to keep options open and avoid decisions that close down possibilities. I’m also an Enneagram type 9, and 9s are mediators who like to see both sides of every dispute; to see some good in all viewpoints. And I’m temperamentally a Phlegmatic who values relational peace and harmony more than being right. Put all these aspects together and you have someone who really doesn’t like closed true/false dilemmas, nor right/wrong arguments.
I think it’s also a stages-of-faith thing. The earlier, more fundamentalist stage 2 is characterised by the need for hard-and-fast binary categories of good/evil, true/false, right/wrong, in/out, saved/unsaved. It’s a simpler way of viewing the world, and it’s very useful and necessary for a time. It filters out extraneous noise and complexity and allows us to concentrate on the essentials, so we can get a clear picture and learn the basics. Much of the Bible (and particularly the Old Testament) does seem to be written to address this stage – hence why fundamentalists often believe that they alone are truly ‘Bible-believing’. But not all of the Bible is like this by any means.
Later on, as we grow we become capable of handling more complexity. At the same time we also start to see that the world, and life, and belief, and morals, are all more complex than we previously realised. The old simple good/bad, right/wrong divisions have to be expanded and qualified; in some cases discarded, or radically rethought.
The Bible in binary?
However, it’s true that some things in the world do apparently fit into binary categories. For example, humans are either physically dead or alive; either physically present or absent; either physically male or female.
Yet even here there are shades of complexity. We can be half-dead or half-alive, somewhere between the two and with the possibility of going either way; we can be alive yet dying from a terminal disease, or at death’s door but reviving. We can be physically absent yet present via telecommunications. And we’ve started to discover that even gender categories are not as rigid or binary as we once thought.
Of course, it could be legitimately pointed out that these are exceptional, quibbling qualifications to what are essentially clear rules and norms, and I wouldn’t disagree. I’m just raising these examples to show that even in extreme cases there may be more than just the two polar options.
There’s no denying though that at times the Bible does present stark either/or categories – life or death, light or darkness, heaven or hell. Jesus famously said that those who weren’t with him were against him (Matt 12:30). I’m not denying these biblical dichotomies, and they are an important aspect of the truth. Sometimes we do need to lay aside our sophistication, cut out the complexity and hear the simple either/or version just as it stands.
However, when pressed further the Bible does generally offer challenging and qualifying (and frequently confusing!) shades of nuance and complexity. Often just when we think we’ve got it all biblically worked out and sewn up, another part of the Bible comes along and throws a spanner in our neat theological works. On almost any subject mentioned in Scripture, once we move beyond the proof-texts and survey the full biblical picture we’ll find multiple alternative perspectives.
(I think I’ve cited before a Bible study I tried to do on riches and poverty, mining the Bible for verses that were pro-riches, anti-riches and neutral/balanced; at the end of the evening our group was more confused than enlightened. Another obvious example is the ‘biblical’ view of the family, which Jesus seems almost to go out of his way to undermine.)
Does this mean the Bible can never give us clear answers, or that we can just make it say whatever we want? No, but it does mean that we need to be careful and thoughtful in how we read and interpret it. On one level, the Bible was originally written for specific people who weren’t us, in specific situations that don’t always apply to us. And on another level, it’s arguably also written for all types of people in all kinds of situations across all times and ages – which also means that not all of it will apply equally to everyone or every situation at any given moment.
Truth is too great and too complex to be one-size-fits-all. Or to look at it from the other end, the world and humanity are too complex for a single universally-applicable set of instructions, promises or whatever. Obviously we can’t just pick and choose the beliefs and morals we like; but we can embark on the demanding task of discerning what’s meant to be fixed and universal and what isn’t.
That said, it’s admittedly hard to see how we can add any nuance to the binary biblical categorisations of regenerate/unregenerate, born-again/not-born-again, spiritually alive/dead. These do seem to present us with starkly black-and-white alternatives and no shades of grey in between.
Nonetheless, I’d suggest that the reality of what’s going on in anyone’s salvation and regeneration may well be more complex than a simple one-off saved/unsaved distinction. Salvation is a lifelong, perhaps even eternity-long process which may start deep within a person’s spirit long before there is any outward sign of it. (We often have only the haziest idea of what’s going on in the innermost depths of our own beings, let alone anyone else’s.)
So it may well be that God is calling people to himself, gradually and slowly preparing them to receive and reflect him, long before they or anyone else are aware of it; perhaps while they are still outwardly or consciously heading in what looks like completely the opposite direction. Furthermore, God’s Spirit is at work outside the boundaries of the church, so there may be many without any Christian affiliation, within other faiths or with no faith, who are in the process of spiritual growth and renewal.
Above all, salvation is about things like relationship and incarnation, and these are not always subject to simple categorisations but are often questions of degree, or of direction of movement. True, in a sense you’re either in relationship with someone or not in relationship with them; but there are many different ways of being in or out of relationship, ways which sometimes transcend either/or categorisations.
(And even if salvation is all about belief, we have a nice handy Bible quote to show that believing and unbelieving can co-exist simultaneously: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’, Mark 9:24.)
Transcending unnecessary dichotomies
I’d say that a similar principle applies across a range of theological and spiritual issues. There are so many divisions and disagreements within the Christian church, and most of them are over issues that are not simple true/false, right/wrong dichotomies – though the protagonists on either side may see them as such. Homosexuality, women’s ordination, creation/evolution, pro-life vs pro-choice, charismatics vs cessationists, issues of biblical interpretation and inerrancy, use of sacraments and icons, ordination vs priesthood of all believers… all of these and many more are open to differing viewpoints based on scripture, reason, experience and tradition.
Please don’t think I’m saying that truth is all just relative and subjective; that anything goes and that it doesn’t matter what we think or do so long as we’re sincere. All I’m saying is that the truth is usually complex and is often paradoxical and counter-intuitive; and that trying to simplify and categorise it into either/or polarities is generally counter-productive and unnecessarily divisive.
You only need to look at the intensely polarised political situation in the USA at the moment to see the downsides of such binary divisions (and the UK may not be all that different). Whoever wins the US election, half the nation will feel disenfranchised by the result. We desperately need to learn to move beyond our entrenched either/or partisan positions; to reach out to the other, to expand our mental horizons and learn from alternative viewpoints. We need to accept that we may be wrong, and that what we know is always vastly outweighed by what we don’t know.
(Some wise person suggested that rather than being merely for or against in any debate, we can learn to be with; standing with people of differing views and beliefs, listening and loving rather than attacking and defending.)
If you’re currently at the either/or stage, that’s good and right – for a season. I’d just ask you to recognise that it may not be the only valid way of seeing the world; that sometimes things may be more complex, and that your trusted authorities may not always be right – or (in the case of the Bible) may not always be saying what you think they are.
Conversely, if you’re at the ‘more complex’ stage, I’d remind you (and myself) not to be too critical or dismissive of the ‘either/or’ people – and to consider that at least sometimes the simpler version may be the more important one, or the one we need to hear.