No, I am not speaking of a psychological condition of mood swings from manic to depressive. (I should also say that I do not want to make light of an illness with which I’ve know talented and high-functioning friends of mine to live.) It’s simply that I am bipolar (although I’d like to come up with a different term) when it comes to many questions of truth and practice, particular around my faith. I draw this term from an insight of a long-time friend who observed on numerous occasions that I was with him that truth is bipolar and that orthodoxy is the idea of living in the tension of bipolar truths. I’ve found this to be so.
- in a God who is both Three and One.
- in a Jesus who is both fully God and fully human in one person.
- both that God is sovereign, and that our choices matter
- both that we are saved by grace through faith and that we are God’s workmanship created for good works in Christ (these two ideas appear in consecutive verses in Ephesians 2:8-10).
Historically, Christians have gotten into problems when they’ve been uncomfortable with those tensions and emphasized one pole at the expense of the other. I can understand the temptation. While I can articulate to a certain degree how each of these pairs relate to each other, I cannot fully logically reconcile them. Heresy often is the emphasis of one end of the polarity at the expense of the other rather than a complete rejection Christian conviction.
Now, for some of my atheist and other skeptical friends, this all seems crazy and irrational. Yet I would observe that there are a number examples from science to every day life of bipolar truths. We understand light as both wave and particle. For Americans, we have the motto of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one. Every society wrestles with the tension of individual rights and social responsibility.
Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I’m convinced that as infuriating as these tensions can be, when we try to eliminate them by emphasizing one pole of a truth at the expense of another, or one position in a debate while demonizing one’s opponent, we not only make the world simpler, but smaller and lose something of the richness and wonder that pervades life, as puzzling as it can be.
I’ve been considering this quite a bit recently as I’ve reflected on Rich Nathan’s recent book Both-And, which attempts to articulate a vision for life that reconciles many apparent opposites in an either-or world of polarized discourse . Here are some of the other tensions of belief and practice in which I think we are called to live:
- we both welcome all people as they are and invite them into the transformational journey of discipleship following the wise and gracious leadership of Jesus.
- we are to live both in the world and not be of the world.
- we both believe in revealed truth and use our minds to understand the world in which God has place us.
- we both form communities centered around unchanging truths and welcome the exploration, questioning, and inquiry that enlarge our understanding of these truths and their relevance for our day.
- we both pursue in word and deed heralding the presence of the rule of Jesus, and realize that the only universal fulfillment of that rule can be in his personal return when “the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” as we love to sing in the Hallelujah Chorus.
The question some might raise is whether this leads to a kind of relativism or shifting ideas about truth. And here I would say that the idea of truths in tension, or bipolar truth, is different from either believing truths that are in utter contradiction (such as that there is both a God and there is no god) or a type of syncretism, that attempts to blend ideas from different and ultimately contrary systems of belief or thought. Both poles find their sense is the character of God, the person of Christ, and the way God has created and ordered his world and church.
I’ve often despaired at the either-or options served up to us in our society, and even more when Christians side up on one side or the other of these polarities and try to get me to join them. Why must I choose between mothers and babies? Why must I choose between free enterprise and the environment? That doesn’t mean that I think Christians will always have the best answers to reconciling these polarities. But I do think that if we see living in tensions like these as an extension of living in the polar tensions of our faith, we might have something to contribute to a society that hungers for peace but struggles to surmount the divide between the various things that polarize us.
Thanks to those of you who have walked with me through this post, which represents an effort to think out something that I think is important both for our faith communities, and for our engagement with the wider world that may not share our convictions. I’d deeply value your thoughts and challenges to this thinking!