Thinking About Thinking – Part 2
I concluded my previous blog with the question, “Does my religious tradition offer another path or paradigm of thinking other than polarity thinking? (read “Thinking About Thinking – Part 1”) A decade ago I questioned whether I belonged in the Christian ministry and seriously considered leaving. My views had evolved in a direction that was a departure, in many respects, from the doctrinal and creedal precepts of the orthodox Christian paradigm in which I was reared and professionally trained. I experienced lack of toleration and ridicule for my viewpoints when I expressed them. I came to the position that I could no longer call myself a Christian, at least according to most orthodox definitions.
What kept me from leaving that was a growing conviction that at the very heart of my own faith paradigm there is a different way of thinking than polarity thinking. It is a way of thinking that was intrinsic to the one who occupies the very core of my faith paradigm – the person of Jesus. It is revealed in his teachings and in his interactions with people and his own religion. I had a growing conviction it was also a characteristic of the earliest faith communities that formed around him.
Tragically, it is a way of thinking that was driven underground and has continued to exist as a minority way, especially from the time of Constantine when Christianity was legitimized politically and began to acquire imperial characteristics dwelling not on the person and life of Jesus but on doctrinal and creedal formulations. The minority way in Christianity has been kept alive largely by Christian mysticism and mystics down through the centuries. What kept me in ministry was a desire to connect with the holistic or non-dualistic thinking intrinsic to Jesus and the Christian mystics.
Jesus did not employ polarity thinking, but rather his world view was shaped by what could be called holistic thinking or non-dualistic thinking. Jesus seldom, if ever, offered rigid and dogmatic answers, but rather moved his disciples, followers and listeners away from specific answers towards engagement of others – especially those that the answers of polarity thinking had marginalized and dehumanized. Some examples:
Ø It was holistic thinking that caused Jesus to encourage his disciples beyond fear. Fear is the great ally of polarity thinking. Numerous times Jesus implored his disciples to “not fear” or ”to not be afraid.” Jesus knew all about the power of fear. He knew how fear could distort twist and disfigure human lives. He knew how quickly fear could turn into dehumanizing prejudice and even violence. Repeatedly, when fear was gripping his disciples by the throats, he led his disciples through and beyond the barrier of their fear to engage and even embrace the people and circumstances they (and their religion) feared the most.
Ø It was holistic thinking that caused Jesus to call people beyond their tribal identities. The gospels are saturated with examples of being called beyond narrow and parochial tribal identities. Simeon sings of a light to the Gentiles; Matthew describes foreigners coming from the East to worship Jesus; Luke describes diverse peoples hearing the message spoken in their own language at Pentecost. Jesus holds up Samaritans, Gentiles, women, children and even enemies as models of compassion and faith. His vision called them beyond narrow and ancient tribal identities to create a new reality, a new kind of community, a different world.
Frances of Assisi, centuries later, told his friars that if they found a page of Koran, they should kiss it and place it on the altar. His religious orientation was not fear-based or tribally restricted, which freed him to honor truth wherever he found it.
Ø It was holistic thinking that caused Jesus to call his followers beyond the strict limits of their religion. Religion, by its very nature, becomes dogmatic and draws rigid boundaries. Time after time, Jesus trumped religious law with grace, love and compassion. He and his disciples were harshly criticized for breaking sacred Sabbath laws, embracing lepers and the unclean, including those outside the boundaries of religion, and blurring the lines between the good and bad. He even affirmed the basic humanity of enemies and called upon his followers to express love toward them.
But Jesus does not have a monopoly on holistic thinking. Richard Rohr in his book “The Naked Now” offers a wonderful example of holistic thinking that comes to us from Tibetan Buddhism. Young novices, in training to be monks, are involved in a practice called “consequentialist debate”, a form of holistic thinking. Over a period of three years the young trainees are presented with each and every one of the Buddha’s teachings. Supervised by the older monks, the trainees engage in a process of naming all the difficult and problematic consequences that would follow from observing a specific teaching. After each answer, the old monks clap their hands in approval, and they smile at one another. When all of the possible negative consequences are exhausted, they move on to the positive consequences that would follow from observing a specific teaching. The same procedure is followed until all of the positive consequences are unpacked. It matters not how long it takes, how many hours or days. Again, after each answer, the masters clap their hands, and they smile at one another.
What strikes me is that there is no declaration of the perfect answer or the wrong answer. The emphasis is on the process and objective engagement. The trainee is simply being taught how to weigh and discern, see and understand the good and bad consequences – and from that openness and freedom, to learn how to wisely advise others and apply the Buddha’s teaching to real people in real life situations. What an utterly different approach to polarity thinking where answers are ultimate, or the Western debate style where winners and losers are declared; where it is “either-or” and never “both-and.”
We live in a fractured world of complex and monumental problems that polarity thinking has had a hand in creating and is seemingly powerless to address in innovative ways. Whether it be religion, politics, public discourse or the level of the deeply personal, unyielding and rigid answers are often the problem not the solution.
No matter who we are, how we describe ourselves, what tribe we belong to, or what paradigm of conviction we assert, perhaps we need to consider a different way of thinking than the cultural default setting of polarity thinking. We need a process that empowers us to engage the reality of our diversity, move us away from rigid tribal thinking; to stand before one another open and vulnerable to the other’s life and context; to see that the complexities of life often require a broader vision of “both-and” as opposed to “either-or”; the humility to perceive that life is imperfect and that the idea of a perfect answer is a delusion; to set aside the need to divide up the moments of our lives between thumbs up or thumbs down, totally right and totally wrong, you are either for me or against me.
I know that proponents of polarity thinking would call this approach wishy-washy or passive. But it is not at all. In engages us in a more positive and hopeful process that can lead to creative approaches and innovative action.
 Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, Crossword Publishing, , 2009, pp. 43-45