Reflection #75 (10th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

It seems to me that 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 and it is a habit that I’m sure most of us fall into at times. When faced with a complex and confusing world it’s hardly surprising that there’s a temptation to cope with it by simplifying, segregating, dividing everything up into neat categories, by polarising issues and debates, by identifying ‘them’ and ‘us’.

And it is very easy to divide the world into goodies versus baddies – this is temptation I give in to on a regular basis as I think of certain politicians and I despair at their actions and attitudes – but at the same time I’m aware that the consequences of such black-and-white 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.

Our media seems to prefer simple narratives, with no ambiguity, complexity, or contradiction (and it seems likely that this preference has been to the detriment of 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 toast gives you foot-and-mouth disease’ (or something like that). Something that disregards any doubt or uncertainty that there might be in the original findings.

And we know, don’t we, that generally speaking life is not straightforward. It’s rarely simple. Even scientists are often dealing with probabilities and with data that is noisy and ambiguous. Life’s most pressing questions rarely admit clear answers, laid out in black-and-white. Whether it’s scientists, philosophers, or theologians – they all do their best to be rigorous and methodical – but they are all ultimately in the same boat as the rest of us humans trying to make sense of life. We all glean scraps of truth and insight from here and there and make what we can of them.

As I mentioned at the start of the service, Richard Holloway (quoting John Saxbee) claimed that one of the defining features of us liberal religious types is that we can “hear two tunes at once”. By this he means that 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.

Now 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.

In the reading by Amy Zucker Morgenstern which Hannah read for us earlier, she claims:
‘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 pretty important 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, as put about by the so-called “new atheists”, the likes of Dawkins et al., though their schtick is not feeling quite so box-fresh these days). As an aside, in the spirit of both-and-ness, I should acknowledge 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 are inclined to glean wisdom from wherever it can be found, we have a particular commitment to seek connections and 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.

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. But it feels really important to note – as Amy Zucker Morgenstern pointed out – we need to be alert to the limits of ‘both/and’ thinking too – we must recognise those situations where for the sake of justice we do need to take a particular side and take action. We need to be really mindful of the pitfalls of ‘both-sides-ism’ – something we see a lot of in the news media these days – a misguided attempt at balance (or at least the appearance of balance) which can create a false equivalence between positions that are not equally deserving of credit (that is, to live in the spirit of ‘both/and’ doesn’t require us to treat the opinions of, say, climate change deniers, as being equally valid to the consensus of climate scientists who have the weight of evidence behind their claims).

Of course, the both/and approach is not just about abstract ideas, religious beliefs, and political discourse. 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. And in my experience they very, very, frequently do. The love and the exasperation 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’s like that; it just keeps on rolling, and we won’t necessarily get a chance to deal with our feelings in an orderly manner, 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 their gender as non-binary, that is, their identity 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 to be helpful. She wrote: ‘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.’ (words by Angeles Arrien).

So where does that leave us? 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. But let’s see if we can embrace the spirit of ‘Both/And’.

In that spirit, I’ll conclude with an echo of the words from our meditation and also on our orders of service, those words by Barry Lopez. Just like he said: ‘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.’ May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Reflection by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: