“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” — Niels Bohr
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Been thinking a little about how people respond to truth lately. Not that I know what truth is, but what follows is three ways an individual can respond to something that another holds true.
Assimilation or accommodation: We used these terms at uni to describe two opposite processes people go through when responding to cultures different from their own. Interestingly enough, the power relationship you have in relating to something that is at odds with you in some way will often have an effect on your response to it. The example used in my course was the culture shock experienced when you move into a country that differs from yours in many ways. If an individual is embarrassed by the customs and way of life they have come from and therefore feels the need to rid themselves of these, then it is called assimilation when they allow themselves to be swallowed up by the new dominant culture and take it on as their own. Alternatively, an individual may retain a lot of what they grew up and also take on board what they feel they need to from their new context to operate in that. This, then, is accommodation because they accommodate new values, practices, etc into their existing ones rather than vice versa.
Bored yet? This dynamic can be seen in churches also, when Christians are either shaped by or shape the world around them. We’re warned against the former, and, ironically, the measures we often take to avoid it also may prevent us fulfilling the latter.
Tension and balance: A beautiful way to make peace when discussing theological differences is to proffer the possibility of a ‘tension’. It’s bound to make an appearance in any conversation that (a) different Christians will have differing opinions of and (b) has practical implications. Look at the assimilation/accommodation example I just used: One concerned friend notes how, in an attempt to reach a certain people group, someone in their community is starting to backslide because they’ve been spending too much time among those of the world. Another contradicts the concern by noting that those of the world would never be reached without interaction. I’m oversimplifying here because I don’t want to write for ages. Finally, the peacemaker speaks. Their first move is to identify it: “Oh, it’s a tension.” There are audible ahhs of understanding, and the peacemaker expands, “It’s really important to balance the two. Find a mid-point.” Likewise, you can see this is in more abstract matters like inspiration of scripture (human vs divine input), morality (grace vs grace abuse), and God’s sovereignty (omnipotence vs the unfulfilled kingdom).
Paradox: At the risk of regressing in my own understanding of this and simultaneously confusing you, let’s give paradox a go. Really, I dislike it when people look at a word’s etymology to make an appeal to the real meaning of the word. Unless you’re doing Koine Greek or something to help readers understand the original context, why tell your acrobats that circus comes from the same root as circle so that you can maintain a circular performance area? No, language changes over time. However, I think the etymology or paradox is important. In the Greek, para- means beyond and dox, belief: Beyond belief. Ambrose Bierce’s ironic and delightfully cynical, The Devil’s Dictionary, provides a good example of paradox under the definition of Trinity:
In the multiplex theism of certain Christian churches, three entirely distinct deities consistent with only one. Subordinate deities of the polytheistic faith, such as devils and angels, are not dowered with the power of combination, and must urge individually their claims to adoration and propitiation. The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadequate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.
Paradox transcends language because it is logically impossible. Instead of watering down two truths to find a mid-point, or saying that one end of the spectrum is true in some cases and the other in other cases, paradox defiantly holds both at the same time. Paradox pulls a moonie at truth. Paradox is the parody of truth. In some ways it can be seen as the option for those who are too intellectually weak to decide if one statement is more logical, empirically testable, or true than another statement, which Bierce takes a jab at in the above definition. And this is probably the greatest temptation, but au contraire, paradox shows not only the limits of truth as expressed in language, not only our own understanding, but our humanity.
It’s all in God’s hands, but we need to proclaim the Good News. You need to love others, but you also need to speak out against their injustices. Grace is completely free, but it will cost you everything. Accept this intellectually, at a glance. Look at that. Yes. Done already. But now try to live this. There is no mid-point. You cannot say that it’s a little bit of you and a little bit of the Holy Spirit. You cannot say that God does all the work, and you definitely cannot say you do all of it. Your only option is to continue the hard task of living it, to the limits of your humanity.