Binary thinking and the “Third Way”

On the popular talent show, American Idol, David “Archie” Archuleta was faced with a choice. On the stage to his left stood several co-contestants, and to his right an equal number of singers. The emcee directed him to join the group that he thought would advance to the next level of the competition. He had friends in both groups. Which group would he join? All eyes were on Archie. The stress was apparent on his face as he stood immobile, then he did what no one predicted. He joined neither group. Archie slowly lowered himself to the stage, and he sat.

That night, Archie earned my respect. His courage resonated with me, because too often we’re hounded to decide between only two options, as if only two existed. In at least three areas, we are presented with a false choice, an insistence that we must choose one or the other.

Misguided partisans, with a rising level of urgency, call out to us:

“Is it creation or evolution?”

“Are you a conservative or a liberal?”

“Is it faith or reason?”

And to each question, my simple response is: YES.

When did we catch the flu of simplistic binary thinking ? Perhaps it’s an unwitting extension of the 1-0 coding used by computer programmers, where an infinite variety of sequences produces software. A switch is either “on” or “off.” What works well for IT, however, can be destructive when misapplied to other areas.

The debate over origins is a classic example. Two sides hurl verbal hand grenades at each other, all the while holding seminars trying to recruit people to their point-of-view. On one side are a handful of outspoken agnostic evolutionists who see only impersonal, natural forces behind the unfolding of life; on the other are young-earth creationists who insist that God created all that is in six twenty-four hour periods, and not more than a few thousand years ago. Thankfully, a good number of scientists with a faith commitment have refused to be caught in a false dilemma. They have concluded that God created and is still creating, and evolution is likely the process by which He brings it all about. There is a viable Third Way, and they have courageously staked it out.

The same kind of binary thinking that has negative effects in the scientific realm is poisoning public discourse. Politics has become a zero sum game, with ideological purity the only game in town. Strike up a political conversation and within five minutes people want to know if you consider yourself a “conservative” or a “liberal.” It’s as if they have a preconceived notion of what these terms mean, a laundry-list of items that makes you one or the other. It comes as a surprise when they realize that you fit both lists. Turn the clock back just twenty-five years and we had politicians who embodied that kind of nuance, and it got things done. Now if anyone dares espouse ideas that traditionally are associated with the “other guys,” they’re drummed out of the party. Because so few now follow this Third Way, our political life as a nation is suffering.

Besides science and politics, binary thinking can taint philosophical discussions. Some contend that religious faith is irrational, and thus indefensible. From this perspective, religious belief is not verifiable, and therefore suspect. Yet underneath the critique lurks a false choice between faith and reason, an unspoken assumption that to choose one is to reject the other.

The objection lodged against faith as contrary to reason is nothing new in the history of philosophy. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, had a great respect for the human mind and its capabilities. He observed in his Pensées: “Thought constitutes the greatness of man. ” Yet having accorded a prime role to reason, he simultaneously recognized its limitations, noting: “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” He carefully calibrated reason and faith in his most celebrated (and enigmatic) saying: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” John Wesley – more optimistically than Pascal – considered reason the candle of the soul, yet even for Wesley, it was a tool, not an end in itself. Reason points beyond itself to the One who created it. Reason and faith, therefore, work in tandem. There is no need to choose between them, no more than parents must choose which of their two children to love. There is a Third Way, a reasonable faith.

Sometimes in life, there are only two choices, but most of the time, we don’t need to be hounded into a false choice between only two alternatives. Whether it’s the debate over human origins, politics, or faith/reason, I’ll go with Archie. I’ll take my seat in the middle. Binary thinking is not for me, and I suspect you don’t like it either. Together, let’s find the Third Way.

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