Several years ago in college, I heard a representative of the organization Evangelicals for Social Action speak on the need to get beyond “either/or ministry.” It was at that time that I was introduced to the word “dichotomy,” of which he gave several examples, mostly related to ministry and missiology: word or deed, physical needs or spiritual needs, the earth going to hell in a handbasket or the kingdom of heaven being brought to the earthy, and such like. In his final summarizing point, he used a memorable analogy: just as a one-sided coin would be counterfeit, so would a one-sided gospel.
I had no idea, sitting in that classroom on that day, the extent to which the message I was hearing would shape my thinking from then on, but something struck a chord with me. I began seeing dichotomies everywhere – head vs. heart, theory vs. experience, tradition vs. innovation, in-the-world vs. not-of-the-world, to name a few – and the more dichotomies I noticed, the more I became convinced that the vast majority of them are artificial and unhelpful. Naming and transcending false dichotomies has remained an ongoing obsession of mine to this day, as any of my current grad school classmates can attest. A few of them have called me the “anti-dichotomy queen,” a title I have willingly adopted as a badge of honor. This may partially explain my attraction to the study of systematic theology in the first place, which I often describe in terms of seeing connections between things; not to mention my particular fixation, as a Mennonite Catholic, with the connections between sacraments and discipleship.
What underlies the pervasive temptation to dichotomize, and what underlies my personal mission against all these either/ors? I haven’t found a clear answer to these questions, nor can I always be sure of the right alternative to every false dichotomy. Sometimes the answer is a both/and, sometimes it’s a neither/nor, sometimes it’s somewhere in between – and perhaps, on very rare occasion, it may indeed be appropriate to come down on one side of a dichotomy over the other. But such cases should be the exception, by a long shot.
Whatever is at the root of it, I do not think it an exaggeration to say that false dichotomies are not only a hazard to clear thinking but a poison to society. It almost feels like a cliché by now to point out the toxicity of the polarized political climate that currently prevails in American public discourse, but only because this is the most glaring example of the sort of damage that such polemics can do at the societal level. And the church, to our shame, is not doing noticeably better. When we should be demonstrating a better way, bearing with each other in love (which by the way is serious business, not fluffy stuff – I’m talking about the long hard work of dealing with our differences, not about a naïve pretense that they don’t exist), we are split along the same politicized lines as society at large, with a few ecclesiological polarities thrown in to boot. Something is wrong with this picture.
The problem with dichotomies is that they force us to oversimplify. It may be a case of setting up a false choice between two things that need not be opposed, or of limiting ourselves to a pair of equally inadequate options, or of jumping to extremes while being blinded to any middle ground or happy medium. In any case, any either/or should raise a yellow flag. What we should be doing is finding ways to be more discerning, to get beyond dichotomized thinking. That’s not a panacea or a quick fix for all our personal and social ills. But it’s a good place to start.