Sermon #16 (10th January 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

We don’t have to look very hard to find examples of either/or thinking. It sometimes seems to be the dominant mode of operation in the world around us. There is, perhaps, a default tendency to try and make sense of a complex and confusing world by simplifying, segregating, dividing everything up into neat categories, by polarising issues and debates, by identifying ‘them’ and ‘us’.

There is also a great temptation to divide the world into goodies versus baddies – I know this is a temptation I give in to very readily as I think of certain politicians – but ultimately the consequences of this sort of thinking can be pretty grim. Just think of the words used many times throughout history, but most famously in our time by George W. Bush: ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. And think about where that sort of outlook tends to lead us.

Our media seems to prefer simple narratives, with no ambiguity, complexity, or contradiction (and it seems likely that this preference has influenced our politics and public discourse). One example that comes to mind is the way in which new scientific findings,  first published in technical journals full of caution and nuance, buts and maybes, are often blown up and reduced to eye-catching and panic-inducing headlines screaming from the front of a certain shameless newspaper – you know the sort of thing – ‘now eating chips gives you foot-and-mouth disease’ (or something like that). Something that disregards any uncertainty that there might be the original findings.

We know though, don’t we, that in general life is not like that. It’s rarely that simple. Even scientists are often dealing with probabilities and with data that is ambiguous. Life’s most pressing questions rarely admit clear answers, laid out in black-and-white. We all glean scraps of truth and insight from here and there and make what we can of them.

As we heard in the reading from Richard Holloway earlier on, one of the defining features of us liberal religious types is that we can “hear two tunes at once”, we can be conscious of two sets of ideas which seem to be equally valid and justified, which both contain valuable truths, yet which also contain apparent contradictions.

Some of you may already be familiar with the concept of “cognitive dissonance”. We all hold all sorts of ideas and beliefs about ourselves and about the world. When two of our ideas clash, and a discrepancy within us becomes apparent to us, when it seems that two of our own personal beliefs contradict each other, it results in an unpleasant state of tension, which is known as cognitive dissonance. And because this sensation of cognitive dissonance, this state of tension, is so psychologically intolerable, we are highly motivated to make it go away. It’s said that in our haste to make the bad feeling go away we are often led to exhibit some quite irrational or self-defeating behaviour. And one way of making cognitive dissonance go away – an easy way out, but a way that can be very costly to us – is just to ditch one of the apparently contradictory beliefs in favour of the other. That’s a quick fix. Or to uncritically take sides in a dispute. This is the either/or way of thinking: You can’t have it both ways. They can’t both be right so something’s got to give.

However, as you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m not having that. The point of today’s service is to speak up for the ‘both/and’ approach. There’s so much in our culture that tries to suggest that ‘either/or’ is the only way to be. Yet it is often possible to try and resolve apparent conflicts and contradictions by taking a ‘both/and’ perspective which tries to look for the bigger picture.  It may well be that there is truth or worth or goodness on both sides and we are bound to lose out in some way if we force a choice when we don’t actually need to.

Amy Zucker Morgenstern says ‘As [Unitarians], we inherit a great legacy from generations of people who heard all the “NOs” of either/or thinking and responded with a both/and, affirming, “Why not?”’

This preference for both/and thinking does indeed seem to be quite key for Unitarians. I suspect that many of us here today might have ended up in a Unitarian community at least in part because of a feeling of unease with the clear-cut certainty that we tend to associate with some forms of religion (and indeed with the certainty of the anti-religious, in these days of the new atheism). [In the spirit of both-and-ness I should note that this is a bit of a caricature of two quite fundamentalist positions; there are thoughtful and non-dogmatic people in most traditions]. However, we liberal religious types have a particular commitment to be bridge-builders… and it’s worth acknowledging that this can be quite a hard place to be. You can end up being criticised by people on both sides of the (apparent) divide. But ‘both/and’ is, in itself, a reconciling, peace-building mentality.

The both/and approach is not just about abstract ideas and religious beliefs, of course.  It can be applied to our everyday experiences: our emotions, and even our identities.

Let’s think about some apparent contradictions we might experience in our emotional lives. We might love someone deeply and unreservedly…. and yet in a moment find them utterly incomprehensible and exasperating. Both the love and the exasperation can co-exist.  They are both real and true and do not cancel each other out.  Or we might be in the midst of deep sadness and grief…  and then experience an unexpected moment of hilarity at some absurd situation. Both the sadness and the hilarity can co-exist. Neither one denies the reality or sincerity of the other. Life just keeps on rolling and we don’t get a chance to deal with our feelings one at a time.

Whenever we are presented with an apparently binary choice in life, ‘you can have this or you can have that’, or ‘you can be this or you can be that’, we often can choose to look beyond the binary, if we need to, and ask if there are any other possibilities that don’t force us into choosing one or the other. When it comes to questions of identity it’s perhaps not so much about us making a choice to be neither this nor that, but about finding the words to express the underlying reality that already exists. Amy Zucker Morgenstern spoke of her realisation that there were other possibilities beyond heterosexual and homosexual, and she eventually identified as bisexual.  And increasingly we hear the voices of people who identify as having non-binary gender,  that is, their gender does not fit neatly within the conventional categories of male or female. In an ‘either/or’ world these ‘both/and’ identities are often marginalised or invisible.

I found these words from Angeles Arrien on the subject to be helpful:

‘[In our later years]…we will be rigorously challenged to transform opposition into paradox. The essential task is to allow all sides of an issue, or pairs of opposites, to exist in equal dignity and worth until the hidden unity is revealed. This is our initiation into the embodiment of wisdom, the entry point into spiritual maturation and personal transformation. When we shift our perspective to look beyond dualities, opposites and polarities, we can simultaneously consider many diverse options and possibilities… in our later years it becomes imperative to increase our capacity to hold creative tension, allowing far greater and more inclusive solutions and options to emerge. By befriending and strengthening our capacity to hold paradox, we can explore the realm of deep spiritual growth.’

Creative tension is an unavoidable feature of ‘both/and’ thinking. It’s not an easy state to be in but it can keep our thoughts open and alive, it can yield new insights and possibilities, and occasionally lead to win-win situations. [I should also note in passing – as Amy Zucker Morgenstern pointed out – that we need to be alert to the limits of ‘both/and’ thinking and recognise those situations where for the sake of justice we do need to take a particular side and take action.] We need to find honourable ways to live with ambiguity, complexity and contradiction, to approach our finite and somewhat baffling lives with a bit of curiosity and humility, and do our best to integrate the apparent contradictions we trip over along the way. We’re never going to have it all worked out.

In that spirit, I’ll conclude with the words of Barry Lopez, which are also on the front of your order of service: ‘One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once, life would collapse. There are simply no definitive answers to some of the great pressing questions. You just continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.’  Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio version of this sermon is available: