Both/And

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Frequently I am involved in theological discussions where two concepts are in tension. (The classic example is "Free Will vs Predestination".) More often than not, one person in the conversation will say something along the lines of "It's Both/And, not Either/Or". If such a Both/And seems like a logical contradiction, then the contradiction is "solved" by invoking the mystery or transcendence or omnipotence of God. This annoys me to no end.

What annoys me about this is that it discourages exploration of the topic at hand. The person who says almost invariably has the attitude that since the answer is "Both/And", then we are wasting our time by studying it further. And if that person has appealed to the mystery/transcendence/omnipotence of God, then it is foolish for us to attempt to penetrate that. (I've even had professors tell me that further exploration into the doctrine of the Trinity is inadvisable as the doctrine is unfathomable. I guess they must be dismayed by the last 50 years of theology.) While the people who say these things think that they are being wise, it seems to me that they are arrogant in their ignorance. It sounds to me like they are saying, "I don't know the answer, but I know that no one can know the answer." However, they never seem to put forth the proof that no one can know the answer, so I remain unconvinced.

As soon as someone says this, half of the people in the conversation immediately stop thinking about the issue as it if had already been resolved. As a TA (and hopefully, a future professor), this is maddening. I don't want people to stop thinking about it just because someone says "Both/And". That's just failing to wrestle with the issue. If the answer really is "Both/And", then I want to know how and, if possible, why it is Both/And; it is not simply enough to know that that is the answer (if indeed it is the answer).

What also frustrates me is that "Both/And" is overused. While I accept that "Both/And" is the correct answer to "Is God Three Persons or One Being?" and "Is Jesus fully God or fully Human?" both of those questions are about the nature of God. It is not to hard for me to accept that the nature of God transcends human logic. But when we got to questions outside of the nature of God, I'm extremely unwilling to accept "Both/And" as an answer. Before I'll accept it as an answer, I need proof that the two positions in tension are not mutually exclusive. (And even if I accept it as an answer, don't expect me to stop exploring the issue.)

As a TA, I see many people who overuse "Both/And" in my classes. With the worst offenders, I'm tempted to answer all of their class related either/or questions with "Both/And": Pre-trib or Post-trib? Both/And. Women should or should not be allowed to be the senior pastor of a church? Both/And. Do infants who die go to heaven or hell? Both/And.

So far, I have managed to restrain myself. We'll see how long that lasts.

2 Comments

I once wrote a piece for an independent study in which I compared and contrasted some Chinese (especially Taoist) ideas with Christian doctrine. (That was before I heard about the Jesus Sutras, by the way).

Some of the doctrines that I touched on if I remember correctly were about the nature of good/evil (theodicies, theologies of suffering, etc), self/no-self in Taoism vs. Jesus' denial of self & Christian/Western ideas of identity/personal salvation, etc.

In the paper, I explored the tension of both/and thinking in traditional Chinese philosophies (for there is not one singular Chinese school or style of philosophy) vs the either/or thinking that is prevalent in Western thinking.

I remember the professor telling me that most of it didn't make sense to him (he wasn't a Chinese scholar, just a theology/missions guy but that was the closest that I could find at that small Christian liberal arts college to supervise work in cross-cultural philosophy/theology), and how the law of non-contradiction is sacrosanct and that it is not just a western idea, but pure and simple logic! I tried to bring up the concept of paradox in Christian theology and the Scriptures and alluded to examples such as Christ being both man and God, etc. but he didn't agree that those were equivalent to what were tantamount to heresy to him. He graded me down a little on my work because of that, academic freedom notwithstanding. (In contrast, my paper on Reformed epistemology submitted at a non-Christian school and graded by at least two of the leading atheists in the world was given top honors for its philosophical acuity, although both disagreed with the main thesis of the paper). Opps, I am digressing...

Both/And doesn't have to be given as the end of the discussion, but the beginning of an exploration of how two apparent contradictories could both be true.

I used to have a secret hope when I was in the same department that included both Graham Priest and Michael Tooley (he was one of the graders of my thesis). I used to hope that I could use Priest's paraconsistent logic (for example) to persuade both of them into the kingdom.

Both/And doesn't have to be given as the end of the discussion, but the beginning of an exploration of how two apparent contradictories could both be true.

Admittedly true. And when I'm convinced "Both/And" is the answer, then I do try to use that as the strating point fo rfurther exploration.

However, almost none of my students (especially the ones fond of using "Both/And" as an answer) have that same attitude. AS a result, they tend to shut down converstaion rather than promoting it.

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