Thinking About Thinking – Part 1

Our nation and world are increasingly estranged  and fragmented.  The smaller the world gets, the greater the tension and hostility.  It is fueled by tribal mentality way of thinking.  As the world is compressed and due largely to fear, the lines between “tribes” have not reduced but been enhanced.  People find themselves coalescing into well-defined camps and groups that lob shells of harsh rhetoric at others, the primary goal being to advance and defend one’s ideologies and to discredit and defeat those outside of the tribe.  Words like negotiation, compromise and common good are perceived as treasonous and disloyal to the tribe’s cause, whatever the tribe happens to be.

Polarity thinking is a common type of thinking that is employed by us all every day, to one degree or another.  Obviously there is occasion for polarity thinking.  We are faced with many clear choices that must be made in our everyday routines.  However, polarity thinking comprehensively applied to most everything is troublesome.  Polarity thinking is all-or-nothing thinking, either-or thinking.  Polarity thinking puts one on a quest for the perfect, absolute answer to every question.  Once the perfect answer has been satisfactorily identified, it demands to be defended at all costs, and all other possible answers are dismissed as misguided, mistaken, flat out wrong and even threatening.  Polarity thinking operates with a win-lose mentality in every situation, and the goal is to win and never lose.

Polarity thinking can render one impotent to step back and calmly observe oneself and one’s conclusions with a measure of objectivity.  Polarity thinking is blind to recognizing that it almost always  embraces a prejudice or bias, that is tribally based, by which its conclusions are colored and affected.  Polarity thinking assumes that the information it has gathered about something is the sum total of all the information needed to come to a informed conclusion.   When polarity thinking gets entangled with the human ego, the possibility of changing one’s mind and growing into a new paradigm is remote, especially if it has been stated publicly. The pressure to advance the position is legion even if one’s position begins to look increasingly inappropriate and absurd.  Polarity thinking sees little, if any, redeeming value in changing one’s mind and doing so is disparagingly labeled “flip-flopper,” a condescending term often utilized in the political realm.

One Franciscan writer and mystic, Fr. Richard Rohr, describes polarity thinking this way using a series of “C” words: “(polarity thinking) compares, competes, conflicts, conspires, condemns,  cancels out any contrary evidence, and then it crucifies with impunity.”[i]

Christianity and other world religions have been largely characterized and dominated by polarity thinking.  This either-or thinking is reflected in doctrines, dogmas and conclusions about who’s saved-who’s not; who’s in-who’s out; who’s moral and who’s immoral; right belief-wrong belief, etc.

Fr. Richard Rohr also points out that we see this manifested in various ways:

ü  Racism and anti-Semitism were not broadly recognized as a serious issues until 2000 years after Jesus.

ü  The colonies of Central and South America have never been known for even minimal social  justice despite their primary Christian identity.

ü  Genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of black Africans that was not perceived to a moral problem for many North American Christians.

ü  Gender bias did not begin to be seriously confronted until the mid 20th century.

ü  Elitism, classism, torture, homophobia, poverty, universal health care, the degradation of the environment, and disparity of wealth still go largely unaddressed by many who name themselves Christians or religious.

Expanding it a bit beyond Christendom to the other monotheistic religions,

ü  Christianity, Judaism and Islam are often at great odds, live in tension and even conflict, even though they claim a common heritage of Abraham of the Old Testament record.

ü  The monotheistic religions have not been widely known for advancing shalom.  The broad brush strokes on history’s canvass reveal that things like peace-making, non-violence, compassion for the outsider and the poor, an attitude of humility, cultivating dialog have often not been the foremost characteristics of the monotheistic religions.

The question that arises out of all of this for me is, “Is there another way to think that can serve us better?”  Is there another world view that is a viable alternative to polarity thinking that can lead us down a different path that opens up possibilities for greater understanding and respect amid diversity?   Do our religious traditions offer us a different way to think even thought they have largely reflected polarity thinking?

At the very core of Christianity,  we find an alternative, but it has been buried under centuries of polarity hubris.   My next blog will offer a glimpse of this perspective.


[i] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 147.

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