#17 Both/And is Generally Better and More Nearly True than Either/Or

IT WAS IN TRUEBLOOD’S chapter “Faith and Reason” that I first learned about philosophers and ideas that would be highly influential upon my thinking for the rest of my life—at least up to this point. It was by reading that chapter in his Philosophy of Religion that I first learned about the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard and his “Christian existentialism” as well as about the French mathematician/ physicist/philosopher Blaise Pascal and the idea of paradox as a serious philosophical concept.[1]

The use of paradox as a literary device is widely recognized as a legitimate, and often helpful, means of enlarging one’s perspective and consideration of complex issues. In 1936, Ralph W. Sockman, a prominent New York City pastor, wrote a book published under the title The Paradoxes of Jesus.[2] Four years later, Gerald Kennedy, who became a Methodist bishop, published The Lion and the Lamb: Paradoxes of the Christian Faith.[3] Still, in the English speaking world, it was not until the 1950s that paradox became the subject of serious theological consideration.

Of course, the idea of paradox as a way to comprehend reality goes back far earlier than to the last century or to the centuries in which Kierkegaard and Pascal lived. The concept of yin and yang, for example, is an ancient Chinese concept. Taken together, yin and yang describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent. So, according to that perspective, reality is not just unitary (one) but neither is it dual. It is, as is sometimes expressed in East Asia, “not-two.” It is the combination or unity of opposites. That is the philosophical or theological idea behind the concept of paradox and the reason I assert that in most cases both/and is better than and more nearly true than either/or.

In the 1960s I became so interested in the concept of paradox that I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on that topic, titling it The Meaning of Paradox.[4] And in all the years since, I have tried to maintain a paradoxical view of reality, for I think that that is the way we are most likely to come the closest to finding truth. This perspective sees paradox as more than a literary device, although it can be used effectively in that way. Paradox is a key that helps us toward grasping the truth about reality. Consequently, both/and thinking is almost always better than either/or thinking.

Where Do We Find Truth?

The quest for truth (or perhaps we should say Truth) is the never-ending search of those creatures (us) known as homo sapiens. That quest has usually resulted in only partial understanding. That is often mainly because only one side of complex issues is seen, whereas both sides need to be seriously considered for a more nearly adequate comprehension of the truth. (Of course, some complex issues may have more than two sides.)

My previous two books are titled Fed Up with Fundamentalism and The Limits of Liberalism.[5] The last chapter of the second book is about seeking the “radiant center” between fundamentalism and liberalism. And I truly believe that in many theological matters, as in many others, truth is somewhere between the extremes rather than on one side or the other. But often truth is more likely found in a combination of the extremes, in affirming opposing positions at the same time. That calls for holding the extremes in tension or in balance. Truth is not always just in the center alone, except as that center is broadened so as to take in the partial truths found on both sides.

Just a few years ago I came across a significant statement by Charles Simeon, who emphasized that “truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”[6] That idea, which I think is an accurate one, can be traced back in Christian circles at least to Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century.[7] Nicholas wrote about the “coincidence of the opposites,” the idea that truth is usually found by holding opposing ideas together. In many cases, the truth is not on one side or the other—or even in the middle between the opposites. The truth is in both extremes held simultaneously.

This seems to have been the position of Kierkegaard, who referred to Jesus Christ as the Absolute Paradox. What he meant by that is that Jesus is not only wholly God and wholly human but also wholly unexpected and wholly incomprehensible to normal rational thought. Kierkegaard and those who accepted his way of thinking were often called irrationalists, and their emphasis on paradox was dismissed as being illogical. But, as I contend in my doctoral dissertation, it is more accurate to speak of them as superrationalists, that is, those who believe that Truth cannot be grasped by human reason alone.

In the history of Christianity, Jesus has often been understood primarily as divine or primarily as human, or sometimes as some sort of being who was in between, neither fully human nor fully divine. But the paradox that Kierkegaard emphasized is in keeping with the ancient creeds of the church: “Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.”[8]

The nature of Jesus Christ is just one of many Christian doctrines that have a paradoxical nature, at least the way that I and many others understand the matter. But there are also many from olden times until the present day who do not like the idea of paradox, at least the idea of unresolved paradox.

Criticism of Paradox

In the previous chapter, I had good things to say about Professor Roger E. Olson and his book Questions to All Your Answers. In that book, he asserts that “paradox is always a task for further thought.” But he goes ahead to warn against jumping too quickly to embrace paradox. Rather, he writes, we should “think long and hard about . . . whether paradox is really necessary (or the result of some misunderstanding), and whether there might be a way to relieve it that is both faithful and reasonable.”[9] Fair enough; I have no problem with those assertions.

Olson concludes the chapter on mystery and paradox with these words: “Reflective Christianity will always sit uncomfortably with paradox and seek ways to relieve the apparent contradiction without doing violence to Scripture.” Well, that may be true, too. But that is in a section of his book titled “Relieving Paradoxes of Faith,” and he seems to think that all paradoxes can be resolved. I am not so sure about that.

During the heyday of neo-orthodox theology, which was perhaps the predominant theological “school” in the so-called mainline Christian denominations from about 1920 to 1970, some people had problems with that school’s proclivity to accept paradoxical thinking. L. Harold DeWolf, a leading liberal theologian wrote a book called The Religious Revolt against Reason (1949), in which he criticized the thinking of Kierkegaard and leading twentieth-century theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr.[10] Those leading theologians were all considered by DeWolf to be irrationalists.

A couple of years earlier, James Bissett Pratt, another liberal religious thinker, accused neo-orthodox theologians of glorying “in the thought that contradictory opposites may both be true in the same sense at the same time.” He also asserted that the paradoxes of the neo-orthodox theologians “are the firecrackers with which they celebrate their Declaration of Independence from the restrictions of reason.”[11]

But Pratt, DeWolf, and many others who have followed in their wake don’t seem to realize adequately the transcendent nature of God, the realm of Mystery, and the limitations of human rationality. Nor do they sufficiently realize that the theologians they criticize don’t accept or advocate superrationality in place of rationality. Not at all. The neo-orthodox thinkers who were influenced by Kierkegaard are proponents of both superrationality and rationality. And this is the very point I am seeking to make in this chapter: both/and is better and more nearly true than either/or.

Recognizing the Importance of Paradox

The same week I was reading Olson’s book, I was also reading Frank Schaeffer’s Patience with God.[12] In that captivating book, Schaeffer writes about “the paradox” of human existence, contending that “paradox is the way things are.”[13] And, in contrast to Olson, he declares, “Paradoxes should not be resolved but celebrated.” And, “Grace, mystery, love, and (above all) embracing paradox are what count.” 14] 

[Scott Peck is a name most readers will recognize, as he is the author of the bestselling book The Road Less Traveled. His second book is People of the Lie was also highly regarded.[15] Peck received his M.D. in 1963 and went on to become a psychiatrist. As one who had earned a degree from a first-rate medical school (Case Western Reserve University), one would find it difficult to suggest that Peck could be an irrationalist. Yet he writes about positively about paradox.

“Toward a Psychology of Evil” is the second chapter in Peck’s People of the Lie, and near the end of that chapter he asserts that in his view, “the issue of free will, like so many great truths, is a paradox.” He writes about paradox again near the end of the book, and then he explains: “The path of love is a dynamic balance of opposites, a painful creative tension of uncertainties, a difficult tightrope between extreme but easier courses of action.”[16]

These two examples, a Christian who has repudiated fundamentalist Christianity (Schaeffer) and a psychiatrist whose reflections led him to the Christian faith (Peck), are only two of many people who might be cited as being advocates of paradox, and in agreement with my point in this chapter: both/and is generally better and more nearly true than either/or. But not always.

The Limits of Both/And Thinking

While generally, or in most instances, both/and thinking is better than either/or, that is not always true. It is especially not true when it comes to ultimate commitments. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24, NRSV). Here is a case of either/or; both/and doesn’t work.

The same is true in other situations where commitment is called for. A man with two close women friends cannot legally marry them both at the same time, at least not in the United States. Here is another case where both/and doesn’t work. It has to be either/or. And after the marriage when the new couple seeks to start a family, the wife is either pregnant or not. She can’t be both “with child” and “not with child” at the same time. Some things are clearly either/or.

So, this section turns out to be an illustration of the point of the chapter. Rather than say we should always use both/and thinking or always use either/or thinking, it is far better to realize that both “both/and” and “either/or” thinking should be used at times and that neither can nor should be used exclusively. Both/and is generally better and nearer to the truth than either/or.


[1] Pascal (1623-62) is best known through the posthumous publication of Pensées (Thoughts). Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a prolific writer; one of his most significant philosophical/theological books was Philosophical Fragments, first published in 1844.

[2] (Abingdon Press, 1936). Sockman (1889-1970) was pastor of Christ Church, New York, from 1916 to 1961. He was also the featured speaker on the weekly NBC radio program, National Radio Pulpit, which aired from 1928 to 1962.

[3] (Abingdon Press, 1940). Kennedy (1907-1980) appeared on the cover of the May 8, 1964, issue of Time magazine.

[4] That dissertation was submitted to the faculty of the graduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in August 1966; the subtitle is A Study of the Use of the Word “Paradox” in Contemporary Theological and Philosophical Writings with Special Reference to Søren Kierkegaard. In the first chapter I have a section called “The Polaric Meaning of ‘Paradox,” and there I briefly introduce the concept of yin and yang (p. 47).

[5] Both books were published by 4-L Publications and are, unfortunately, no longer in print. The sub-titles of the books are the same: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism/Liberalism.

[6] Simeon (1759-1836) was an English evangelical clergyman introduced by Philip Yancey in his July 16 entry in Grace Notes: Daily Readings with a Fellow Pilgrim (Zondervan, 2009).

[7] Nicholas (1401-64), also known as Cusanus, was a Roman Catholic Cardinal. He developed the idea of the coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of opposites) in his philosophical masterpiece De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance, 1440).

[8] From the Chalcedonian Creed of 451.

[9] Pp. 30-31. This is in the first chapter, “It’s a Mystery, Just Accept It”; one section of that chapter (pp. 36-41) is called “Bad Paradox.”

[10] (Harper, 1949). DeWolf (1905-86) was a professor at Boston University School of Theology from 1943 to 1965. He was also the author of The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective (Westminster Press, 1959).

[11] James Bissett Pratt, “The New Supernaturalism: Peril to 20th Century Christianity,” in Religious Liberals Reply (The Beacon Press, 1947), p. 113. Pratt (1875-1944) was a professor at Williams College from 1905 to 1943.

[12] (Da Capo Press, 2009). Schaeffer (b. 1952) is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, the well-known Religious Right leader who also rather strongly criticized some of Kierkegaard’s core ideas. The subtitle of the younger Schaeffer’s book is Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).

[13] P. 151, italics in the original.

[14] Pp. 163 and 169. Other important statements about paradox are made on pages 180 and 194. It is interesting, especially in light of his father’s dislike for Kierkegaard, Frank Schaeffer has a quote by Kierkegaard at the beginning of each chapter in his book.

[15] People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1983. Peck (1936-2005) became a Christian in 1980 partly as a result of the research he did for the writing of The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth, which was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1978.

[16] Pp. 83 and 267. The latter statement is in “A Methodology of Love,” a section in which he contends that only love can overcome evil.

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