Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Either/Or-edness of Things

I recently engaged in some spirited correspondence with an old friend from back in my Church of Christ days. In that past, we shared a mutual frustration with our church, and often talked of what might be. Even after all these years, I find him every bit as discontented as he was 10, 15, 20 years before. And yet, he is still on the fence, you might say, contemplating which way to go. My friend talks of chucking church altogether and devoting his time to a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or some other community service. He now chafes at their emphasis on "attendance" at church services, finding it not only unimportant, but actually distracting from what God really wants--"doing good."

I found the whole conversation a bit odd. I suppose our discussions were hampered by the fact that we no longer speak the same language. In Orthodoxy, we have a throw-away line that usually says something to the effect that it is not that Orthodoxy has different answers, but that it asks different questions. I believe this to be true, but it is awfully hard to explain without explicating 2,000 years of church history. And yet, I felt this was exactly the position I was in with my friend. His burning concerns have no real meaning to me any longer. Take for example his beef with "attendance." However one characterizes Orthodox services, the word "attendance" is not a factor. One attends a concert. One attends a class. One attends a lecture. In every case, the attendee is part of an audience. One participates in an Orthodox liturgy.

But this would have been hard to explain to my friend, and would have come across as just more know-it-all triumphalism of which we are sometimes guilty. And I am afraid it comes across that what in print, as well. But the differences are real and substantive. The thing that really frustrated me, however, was my friend's either/or approach to his dilemma--he could either "attend" church or he could "do good." I asked him why he could not do both. In truth, there is no either/or solution. The question is really one of yes/and. He, in turn, was disturbed by my insistence that his anti-communal, individualistic go-it-alone approach was a dead end.

My friend's attitude put me in mind of something Flannery O'Connor once wrote--"The good thing about Protestantism is that it always carries the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends--on one end, to Catholicism, and on the other to unbelief." I sympathized with his frustrations on the limitations of the church he knew--the general churchiness that characterized his worship experience. And having once been there myself, I knew exactly that to which he was speaking. My response that worship did not have to be that way was met with a good bit of incredulity. He could not image anything outside the general context of his experience--Protestant/fundamentalist/evangelical. My concern was with what O'Connor noted--the open end he was tumbled out of was the one which led to unbelief.

And along the way, he was leaving himself wide open to anything and everything--from the fluffy nothingness of Philip Gulley to the latest hot-shot televangelist. He actually convinced me to read Gulley's If The Church Were Christian. He assured me that it would change my life. The book did, in fact, bring tears to my eyes: first because I could never regain the time I had wasted reading the book, and secondly because a small forest was sacrificed to publish that trash. After that, he wanted me to listen to the latest podcast by David Jeremiah. That is where I drew the line. Like I say, different languages.

The either/or dichotomy is not unique to just Protestantism. I came across the following on a Catholic blog:

Anyone who says, "We don't go to Mass, but we are really good people" have missed the Christian bus big time. They don't get it and so greatly don't get it that they are almost uneducable. Their misunderstanding is so profound that you couldn't even say to them what they haven't got because they don't know what they don't know. The astounding blind ness of such folks is that nine times out of then they then turn around and blame the people who do go to Mass for being hypocrites. Their lack of self awareness and spiritual awareness reveals the depth of their own hypocrisy for they think they are good, and never see that the essential prayer--the prayer at the heart of it all is the sinner's plea, "Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on me a Sinner."

This prayer, so simple and so profound is the prayer that truly liberates. See how free and how child like you can be if you simply say this prayer? Within this prayer is the soul's freedom and the soul's joy. Within this prayer is the simple trust in God on which everything else depends. Therefore, "Being good or Going to Mass" is a totally false dichotomy.

As one of the students said, "You can't really go to Mass and mean it and be bad, and if you don't go to Mass you can't really be good."

And so, the false dichotomies play out in Catholic circles as well.

My friend's situation has been on my mind for some time now, but only recently did I read of a theory as to why these questions are so common in Western Christendom, whether Catholic or Protestant. Andrea Elizabeth has undertaken a series on Dr. Joseph Farrell's God, History and Dialectic. This is my introduction to this work, which, unfortunately, can be obtained only by e-book. Dr. Farrell examines the difference courses taken by what he calls the First Europe (the East) and Second Europe (the West.) The following is an excerpt from the Introduction, which is available online:

Why did the western half of Christendom split along so cleanly dialectical lines during the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation? Why, for example, is it not only convenient but possible to describe that split by a series of polar oppositions: Faith versus works, Scripture versus Tradition, “private conversion stay-at-home-and-watch-television religion” versus “public, sacramental, institutional” religion; predestination versus free will, Kernel versus Husk, Kerygma versus Dogma, Luther versus Zwingli, Calvin versus Arminius, Whitefield and Edwards versus the Wesleys, Henry VIII versus the Pope? It has its secular counterparts as well: Empiricism versus Rationalism, Materialism versus Idealism, Science versus Religion, Creation versus Evolution, hard versus soft disciplines, and so on. One could
cite an endless litany of similar oppositions. Indeed, theologians, philosophers, and
historians of the Second Europe have long written about this or that pair of these eitheror
polarities, but astonishingly, have either done so in isolation of an examination of the
paradigm of dialectical opposition itself, or they have accepted that paradigm as an
inevitability of Christian theology or of Judeo-Christian civilization itself. The
phenomenon of this acceptance is therefore deeply rooted, and must be accounted for.
These essays argue that the paradigm is itself a direct consequence of Augustine’s
formulation of trinitarian doctrine. But the movement from the specifically Augustinian
formulation of the Trinity to these cultural consequences is certainly not an easy one to
recount, and thus, many theologians — those most adequately equipped to undertake
the task — fail to do so, for they view the original dispute between the East and West
over that formulation as a dispute about words. The troublesome questions multiply:
Why did a Church and a culture, which believed absolutely in the complete union in
Christ of the utterly spiritual and the completely material, without separation and without
confusion, lose sight of the implications of that belief in the movements of the dialectical
deconstruction of its thought and institutions? Why did the same Church, which, heir to
the doctrine of the Trinity, ought to have believed in the “both-andness” of Absolute Unity
and Utter diversity find itself embroiled in life-and-death constitutional struggles between
the Empire and the Papacy, or more fundamentally, between endless contests between
One Pope and Many Bishops? (p.11)

Dr. Farrell would say that the either-or approach of my friend--as opposed to a "both-andness" view--is hardwired into the very makeup of western Christendom, manifesting itself in an endless progression of controversial counterpoints. I believe that to be true. The real question, though, is how does one move past that mentality? We have become accustomed to the rut we are in. Western Christendom steadily declines with the endless re-reforming of the Faith these last few hundred years. There may be no way out until we hit bottom first.


Apophatically Speaking said...

Great reflection, thank you.

How to move past the dialectic mentality, you ask?

I propose a start would be to recognize that truth ultimately is neither a philosophy nor a proposition, but a Person. Truth as person - this alters reality from flat, simple, and static to complex, dynamic, revelational and mysterious. Love and communion here are the keys, not comprehension or accession. A "flat" either/or dialectic simply won't do to describe or even approach He who is Truth.

s-p said...

Not to puff up your head on the first day of Lent, but this is good stuff. Dialectic is the doom of Western Christian thought and spirituality, I think.

The Singular Observer said...

I'm only partly convinced - I think that the case is being overstated, somewhat. In reality, there are either/or cases, as well as both/and cases. I mean, in your position, the filioque is very much not a both/and thing, is it?

Thus the question is not which, but when which, if you get my drift. Except if your'e fundemantalistic, then it it is always either/or. As an escapee from fundamentalism, I can certainly vouch for that. What could very well be the problem is the reigning climate - and here in North America, and especially south of the 49th, where everything is politics, Either/Or is the all-consuming paradigm, often (and I would argue, most of the time) to the detriment of both logic and dialectic in general.

Because of my calling as a geologist, I tend to take an interest in that minefield called the Creation/Evolution debate. And that field is a perfect example - eventually it becomes "conservative" christian fundy on the one hand, and atheist fundy on the other, or thus both parties paint the picture. Except - it ain't so. But even entertaining the thought that there is a possibility that the either/or case is overstated is a heresy from BOTH sides. Agh!!!!!

Thus, I would argue, our experience of either/or vs both/and, and our interpretation of historical events surrounding these issues, is so highly coloured by our insane public climate that it is almost impossible to arrive at clear positions regarding issues. It is damn difficult to shoot straight when the wind is howling and visibility is zero...

Apophatically Speaking said...


Yes good point. As a clarification, it needs to be added that Truth is not exhausted in knowledge, proposition, philosophy,language, and so forth. For instance, even though Truth may be expressed in either/or statements, yet that is not all of the Truth; nor is accession to such statements complete comprehension of Truth. There remains incomprehensibility, revelation, otherness, need for communion, etc. Apophaticism here is not understood as a mere ignorance, but rather as a point of departure to knowledge beyond intellect. Enter theology.

John said...


That’s it in a nutshell, I think—Truth as a Person rather than a proposition. I’ve been wading through “The Pillar and Ground of the Truth” by Pavel Florensky who has a lot to say about a great number of things, including this:

“Rationality must necessarily limit itself to one of the sides of an object. And limitation to one side is precisely the meaning of heresy. A heresy, even a mystical one, is a rational one-sidedness that claims to be everything.”

I have a cousin who has gone from evangelical to Christian Zionist zealot to some kind of offbeat quasi-Jewish convert who is now militantly anti-Christian, complete with website declaring “Christendom is a Farce,” etc. It is a sad endeavor, and not at all convincing. He wants to argue with me about it, but I refuse to take the bait. The ironic thing, however, is that the very arguments against the Christian Faith he so despises, are, at their core, nothing more than the same old propositional dialectical rationalism he learned as a Baptist in central Texas.


No danger of puffing up my head—particularly when I have only just become comfortable using the word “dialectic.”


I agree, the public climate is insane: pick your topic—religion, politics, science, no matter. The atmosphere is toxic.

Milton T. Burton said...

Your cousin is like the rich hippies who used to go to Northern India and Tibet in search of some guru who would tell them the secret meaning of the universe. In truth they are like your cousin: not so much after the secret meaning as they are after a colorful, attention-getting way of rejecting their parent's/society's values. What is important to such folk is not the destination or even the trip itself. Their interest is in a colorful departure and in showing off all the groovy nonsense they bring back.

s-p said...

Milton, you slay me! Dead on, as usual.

Milton T. Burton said...

Slay you? Metaphorically speaking, I hope you mean.

John said...

You slay me too, Milton.