Dichotomies and the Certainty of Humans

Definition: a dichotomy is a division or contrast between two things that are represented as being opposed or entirely different

Certain cultures gravitate toward dichotomies, and American culture is one of them.   Americans love dichotomies.  Love ’em!

Birthed in the feudal European culture of the Dark Ages (peasant/lord), formed in the crucible of the Great Reformation (Catholic/Protestant), glorified through the Enlightenment (education/ignorance), founded on the spiritual rigor of the Puritans (clean/unclean), and developed under the influence of the American dream (have/have not)…dichotomous thinking is a major part of our DNA.

Who is in and who is out? (if I’m presenting the dichotomy, then I am definitely in)
Who is right and who is wrong? (if I’m presenting the dichotomy, then I am definitely right)
Who is good and who is evil? (if I’m presenting the dichotomy, then I am definitely good)

Democrat/Republican.
Black/White.
Inductive/Deductive.
East Coast/West Coast.
Save/Spend.
Michael Jordan/Lebron James. (if you think Lebron is better than Michael, then I forbid you to read the rest of this post)
Female/Male.
Spontaneity/Caution.
Spiritual/Physical.
Evolution/Creation.
Evangelical/Catholic.
CNN/Fox News.
Sacred/Secular.
Love/War.
Fun/Serious.

Dichotomies are usually rooted in dualism.  From a theological perspective, dualism is a philosophical construct saying there are two equal and opposing forces: good and evil.  God is the good; Satan is the evil.  Your job as a person is to navigate this dualistic world, choosing one or the other for whichever serves the greater good in the moment.  As those sentences insinuate, it is quite the slippery slope.  Dualism leads to Gnosticism, an ancient church heresy that spirit is good and physical is evil.  Ultimately, this leads to a denial of the humanity of Jesus and a denial of our own humanity.  Dangerous stuff.

Dichotomies provide a measure of safety, security and certainty — three things in short supply for every natural person.  Knowing an issue or ethic, what opposes it, and where I land on that issue or ethic, gives me a feeling of “so this is who I am” and “that is is who you are”.  Ultimately, it leads me to community because there are other people who also land in the same place I do, so I go hang out with them.  Together we bask in our dichotomous certainties, reading books and listening to teachers who affirm and re-affirm our notions of surety to and with one another, graciously lifting up the opposing side in prayer.

Here’s the thought I’m toying with: God doesn’t deal in dichotomies.  Most certainly (get it?), dualism is out.  Evil is not an equal and opposing force to God.  God forever destroyed sin, death, the grave, and the power of the Enemy forever through the blood-soaked cross and empty tomb of His Son.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”)  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.   For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.  — John 1.14-18

Christians tend to talk about dichotomous structures that are very existent to us, but not so to God.  For example, we often seek the “balance” between mercy and judgment.  Spirit and truth are another distinct Christian cultural dichotomy.  Faith and works.  Paul and James.  Heaven and earth.  Predestination and free will.  First commandment and second commandment.  Obviously in these verses from John 1, grace and truth can be can be thought of as dichotomous in nature, but that does not mean it is how God sees them.

God is One.
God is whole.
God is wholly Himself.
God is wholly Himself all the time.
God is wholly without contradiction in His nature and character.

So when God chooses mercy, it is not in contradiction to His justice.  Justice and mercy are not balanced in God; He does not live in any tension regarding His justice and mercy.  When He is just, He is still fully merciful.  When He is merciful, He is still fully just.  All at the same time.  It is not contradictory or juxtaposed.  It is God.

In John 1, Jesus is the Word who becomes flesh and makes His home with us, bringing heaven to earth.  Heaven and earth are not in tension when Jesus is here bodily; heaven and earth are in harmony.  When Jesus walked this earth, putting flesh on dirt day after day, the earth was more at rest than it had ever been in all its creative time of being.  The wind and seas were glad to obey Him.  The fig tree happily withered.  The earth blotted out its light, mourning the brutal crucifixion of its great Lover.  All that He was came and lived among us, and we saw and felt the weight of His glory (tip of the hat to CS Lewis).

With the coming of Christ to earth, grace and truth took up residence too.  The law had come through Moses.  Truth.  For thousands of years, truth was staring them right in the face.  They received its blessing and its curses.  The law was strong and powerful, solid and true, but it was not gracious.  Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.  “I set before you this day life and death, choose life.”  But time and again, the people chose death, and indeed, they died.

This Word came with fulness of truth as well.  Jesus was fully truth, to the point He declared His identity to be truth (John 14.6).  And Jesus was fully grace.  He was “full of grace and truth”.  They both existed in Him at once.  Not dichotomous at all; rather essential to one another and fully expressed in the person of Christ.  I read somewhere once — think it was Warren Wiersbe — that:

Truth without grace is condemning.  Grace without truth is not needed.  Grace and truth together is life.

When Jesus moved in truth, it was full of grace.  When He poured out grace, it was full of truth.  Remember the woman caught in adultery and her release?  Peter’s denial and restoration?  The Father receiving His lost sons?  The rich young ruler?  Nicodemus?  Mary and Martha?  The Last Supper?  The Sons of Thunder?  John the Baptist in prison?  All of these are grace and truth fully present together.  We could go forever.

Which is primary for humans?
Can there be grace without truth?
Get honest with yourself!
Can there be truth without grace?
We’ve all been there!
Who knows?  And who cares?
Jesus came with fulness of both, so they are both there for the receiving.

But whatever you do, resist dichotomizing them.
When we’ve done something wrong, we really want grace.
When we’ve been wronged, we really want truth.
What we need though, is God.

The goal is not to walk in “balance” between grace and truth, rather, it is to fully and deeply drink of God.  This means I am truthful with myself and my relationships about who I am and what I’ve done, owning my actions and attitudes for what they really are.

The goal is not to “live in tension” with grace and truth, rather, it is to fully and deeply drink of God. This means I am open and vulnerable to the ways in which God pours out His grace on me, receiving His grace and living graciously toward others like He has been gracious to me.

Jesus does not pray for unity among His people in John 17; He prays for oneness.  The goal of all things is to be brought into oneness with its Creator, under and in Him, for sake of His singular name and primary glory.  This means moving away from dichotomies and more deeply into God, where all things hold together and have their being — even things that, to us, don’t make sense.

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6 thoughts on “Dichotomies and the Certainty of Humans

  1. First of all…this post had a very Eugene Peterson feel. Almost like I was reading passages from the Message. Obviously not the point, but I did rather enjoy it.

    On a more serious note, as I find myself immersed in a culture that is not my own on a daily basis I find that I am continually seeking out norms and patterns to try to try to gain a deeper understanding of who I am am, who my students are and how to meet some place in the middle. Then, I watched the movie “Dear White People” last week and while the films overt intention was to provide insight to people who are white about living as a person who is black what I walked away with was an overwhelming sense that while people of certain cultures may share some common characteristics that that does not mean they all do and at the end of they day I have to engage the actual, individual person who is in front of me – my individual students and neighbors who are with me daily. It is fine to live aware of the common traits of their culture (as well as my own) but completely unfair to project onto them that that is who they are and assume they will act accordingly. All in all, what I am really trying to say is how deeply I need to see the image of God as the primary common denominator in all of my relationships rather than trying to categorize people and missing what God has for us through these relationships that constantly want to be dichotomized – keeping everything at a safe distance from one another and ultimately from God and the oneness you mention that He desires.

  2. Relational uncertainty is called romance.
    Siritual uncertainty is called mystery.
    Occupational uncertainty is called destiny.
    Emotional uncertainty….is joy.
    Intellectual uncertainty is called revelation.

    God doesn’t make sense…which makes absolute perfect sense.

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