Muddling Through the Middle

I read an article a few years ago that stated that our brains are hardwired to avoid ambiguity.  Even though mature reasoning demands a high level of abstract thinking and working through contradictions, conundrums, and puzzles, the normal state is one of binary certainty.  We want our lives to operate in a safe, clean, organized fashion.  This is why people will so adamantly defend one position over another — they are trying to simplify the complexity of life and escape the mists of ambiguity.  Good luck with that.  We really do not live in a “yes/no,” “good/bad” “either/or” world.  The gray areas are significant and when we adopt the either/or option, we turn most of life into competition — “win/lose,” “fight/flight,” “us/them,” “right/wrong.”  This is short-sighted, hazardous and self-defeating.  But, according to brain research, it is also natural and normal.  Our working brains seek resolution.  When faced with “maybe,” we will strive toward a definite “yes” or a definite “no.”

And we all know what this means in the church.  If we resign ourselves to doing the limbic tango, we will never train our brains to function at higher levels.  We will turn everything into a binary choice — bickering endlessly over who is right and who is wrong.  Instead of rising above our base natures, we give into the less-mature state and create dissonance instead of harmony and resonance.  How sad.  There is so little to gain by division — especially in a church called to multiplication.  Mature thought and developed cognitive process lead us from conflict through compromise toward true, honest, creative collaboration.  We enter into the creative processes of God when we cease to destroy and divide and begin to build bridges and strengthen relationships.  We stop hiding the treasure we have been given in a sock in the ground, and we work together to become good and faithful stewards.  By the power of the Holy Spirit we begin to realize that Jesus wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said that we would do even greater works than he did.  This wasn’t a simple wish or pleasant sentiment — God actually expects us to do great works together (greater even than Jesus did).

We cannot achieve this by continuing to focus on our decline, decay, and death.  All the well-meaning “leaders” who keep opting for lower-order, binary thinking are doing us a disservice.  The “look how badly our ship is sinking message” and the “death Tsunami” prophecies of our future certainly make us an attractive alternative to all those proto-Christians sitting on the fence trying to figure out where they’d like to get involved.  “Ooh, let’s join the church that’s failing!”  I don’t think so.  Of course, we could hire some secular ad agencies and consultants to tell us who we ought to be and what we ought to be doing.  That will also instill deep confidence in a culture that is looking for relevancy and purpose.

Binary thinking won’t take us anyplace new or exciting, but it is certainly safe and undemanding.  Reverting to the least mature cognitive reasoning process is simple and easy.  It reduces stress and requires no effort.  It allows us to throw up our hands in frustration when “those people” disagree and thwart our best efforts.  It always provides us with someone else to blame for the poor results we do get or the good results we don’t.  It gives us all kinds of simplistic “either/or” slogans — “either you’re on the bus or you’re not, but the bus is leaving either way!”  I can still hear the shrill whining about those who “aren’t on the bus!” from a previous place of employment…  But, think for a moment.  What changes if instead of “us/them” we reframed our reality to “all of us?”  What if we viewed everyone at the table as responsible to work together toward “both/and” instead of “either/or?”  What would we lose?  What could we gain?

We lose being right, getting our own way, imposing our will or beliefs on others, and being smug and egotistical.  We lose the risk of being on the losing end.  We lose the dissipation of energy and resources to build fences and dividing walls.  We might make mistakes — just like the ones we make now by demanding our own way, but different.  We trade one “truth” for a different “truth” – almost always painful and scary.  But we gain so much.  We gain a larger family — people to love and respect and honor and care for — and by whom to be loved, respected, honored and cared for.  We gain “God-sight,” seeing others as beloved children of God.  We gain allies and friends, coworkers and collaborators.  We gain community — moving from binary competition to multi-faceted diversity and complexity.  Chasing another metaphor — we are transformed from corded rope (tug-of-war, anyone) into colorful threads woven into a tapestry.  We begin to embrace the oneness, the wholeness, the unity and the promise that Jesus and Paul proclaimed in scripture.

Of course, this can’t happen by accident and it won’t happen naturally.  The only hope we have is supernatural — guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow up and function in mature and enlightened ways.  We allow Christ to be our peace, as the author writes in Ephesians, and to break down every dividing wall of hostility that separates us.  We stop looking around thinking “who let YOU in?’ and instead we respond with gratitude that God let US in.  This life has not been given to us so that we might give in to our baser natures and choose up sides.  Let us choose to be on God’s side (which is truly all-encompassing — what “side” exists apart from God?) and let us choose to be made one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to ALL the world.

9 replies

  1. This is the kind of namby-pamby liberal hogwash that is killing our church. We have got to stand for something! Everybody is not right! If you let the devil in the door he will take over the house. You sound like you are talking about love and kindness but what you are really talking about is weakness and a corruption of the truth. There is an “us” and we are called Christians and there is a “them” and they are called “evil” and if you don’t understand that then you need to find another line of work.

    • I respectfully disagree. I didn’t read Dan to say anthing close to not “standing for something” ….. unless you are referring to personal preference/agenda, etc., which IMHO has NO PLACE in ANY church community.

      And — I am a fan/proponent/cheerleader of the “both/and” mindset — agreeing to disagree (please, check our WESLEYAN UNDERSTANDING of how to get along with others on this one, Mary……….) so, you are certainly entitled to your opinion — but you are on the wrong path. Dan, in the alternative, is on the RIGHT path and we all should take his advise.

      Blessings As We Journey The Great 50 Days.

  2. Is it fair to say either/or thinking is always the least demanding? It may be less demanding in a cognitive sense, but not in a living faith sense.

    I think of the first chapter of 1 John. God is light and in him there is no darkness. Pretty binary. But to live in love as 1 John calls us to do is not easy by any means.

  3. I am going to look for that article Dan. I am facilitating a course on Adam Hamilton’s book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, with a few other articles and exercises on civil conversation added, throughout the summer. Your article about our hard-wired brains would be interesting to incorporate. When I was younger (actually in my late 20s), I went through a transition from an active political career to a different career, with only active citizen retained from the old career, and one of my reasons for the change (among 3 other reasons) was that I felt politicians needed to have a very clear platform about which they were consistently passionate. As I matured, I felt that the issues of the world were more gray than black and white. Although I felt mostly good about my career change and my potential maturing, I always have felt a little guilty about losing some of that passion that used to come so quickly. My passion has gone in other directions as I have gotten old(er)–mostly toward a ministry of hope and justice, and especially for youth. But I always felt a little guilty about finding the gray areas. Thank you for helping me to define gray in that greater context of diversity and complex thinking.

  4. It really bothers me when people practically spit out the word liberal or conservative. That automatically reeks of division and assumptions.

    Dan, I like your post. Everything you said sounds good to me. But, then I agree with what Mary said. We have to stand for something. I believe there could be a way for us to stand for something while standing together, knowing not everyone agrees with the other. (Agreement would be boring and not very challenging.)But, we’ve had one challenge hanging over our heads for longer than I’ve been alive.

    How can we move to compromise and to creative collaboration?

  5. I’ve always appreciated this part of The United Methodist Book of Discipline: “Our Doctrinal Standards and Theological Task” —

    The Nature of Our Theological Task

    Our theological task is both critical and constructive.
    It is critical in that we test various expressions of faith by asking: Are they true? Appropriate? Clear? …. Our theological task is constructive in that every generation must appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past and seek God in their midst in order to think afresh about God….

    Our theological task is both individual and communal.
    It is a feature in the ministry of individual Christians. Our theological task is communal. It unfolds in conversations open to the experiences, insights, and traditions of all constituencies ….

    Our theological task is contextual and incarnational.
    …theological reflection is energized by our incarnational involvement in the daily life of the Church and the world, as we participate in God’s liberating and saving action.

    Our theological task is essentially practical.
    It informs the individual’s daily decisions and serves the Church’s life and work.

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