Two truths that need each other
Christian writer G.K. Chesterton said a paradox is a truth standing on its head to get attention. When two ideas clash, yet both are true, the debate might never end.
So it is with the mysteries of Scripture. Faith and works, law and grace, judgment and mercy. And why do the righteous suffer? Or lesser puzzles: “Carry each other’s burdens,” says Gal. 6:2, but three verses later, “all must carry their own loads.” It seems the biblical writers liked a good paradox.
Scripture speaks in polarities because that is the nature of truth. The wisdom God desires for us doesn’t come from one extreme but from both sides of a question.
The linking of belief and action, of faith and works, is a prime example. Different parts of Scripture hold in tension two poles that do not easily fit together.
Eph. 2:8-9 declares faith is the source of salvation. To make the point even more clear, it rules out any influence of works, “so that no one can boast.” But James 2:14-20 says faith without deeds is dead and useless: “Can such faith save?” The contrast could not be more stark.
The tension between belief and action might look like a problem to solve. Actually, it’s what some today call a polarity to manage. Resolving the contradiction would mean neglecting part of the truth. We need to accept the tension and fully embrace each pole.
Scripture seems to be saying that God wants us to have a faith so strong that it is as if our belief is all that matters. And, at the same time, God wants us to be so dedicated to doing good that it is as if our actions are all that matters. We shouldn’t be on one side or the other. We shouldn’t be somewhere in the middle. God wants extreme commitment, both ways.
The body of Christ needs members who connect truths that exist in tension. We need to be able to find the higher truth that embraces both poles.
Power struggles, both in the secular world and in the church, pull us toward the trap of either/or. Those entrenched in a conflict want us to think the truth is all on one side. Instead, we need to look for the answer of both/and. Even the thorniest disputes often contain underlying truths that establish common ground and enable positive outcomes.
At the Mennonite Church USA convention this summer, keynote speaker Shane Hipps suggested that justice and purity might be two virtues upheld by opposing sides in a dispute. Finding points of agreement on these virtues might lead to a higher virtue: reconciliation.
One definition of a polarity is a pair of truths that need each other. MC USA has identified several polarities it needs to manage. Among them: 1) Being culturally relevant and rooted in our heritage; and 2) Creating the new and preserving what is good of the old.
“Healthy churches may experience a ‘virtuous cycle’ of movement back and forth between the poles,” says an MC USA planning document released this summer.
The church that holds its polarities together will hold its people together.
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