rowing illustration

Introduction: Both/And

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:39–40, NRSV). Taken out of context, this sounds a little dogmatic, doesn’t it? It appears as either/or, black and white—no room for gray here! It feels a bit like the world we live in has implicitly taken this up as a kind of battle cry. The polarization which leads to the formation of in-groups and out-groups is not only sad but is the very thing that can often lead to character assassination and even violence. And this either/or thinking even invades our internal lives, so that we become internally conflicted individuals on all kinds of matters.

Of course, this is all too familiar. One group claims their political candidate is from God, so either vote for them or be excommunicated. Another group claims that some policy, theological position, or scientific finding is “gospel-aligned,” and if you don’t believe and support it, your Christian card may be pulled!

As individuals become more and more polarized in their thinking, they literally lose the ability to think straight. Research has demonstrated that as persons become emotionally heated, their limbic systems (i.e., the emotional components of the brain) take over, shutting down their reasoning capacity—they enter a state of fight or flight.1 The “arguments” that ensue are not well reasoned, logical, or emotionally balanced discussions but are actually emotional free-for-alls about personal safety, worldviews, who’s in whose group, and who presents the greatest danger to our communities. This is the emotional fuel of either/or thinking. Unfortunately, it may be a fuel that will burn us all.

This either/or thinking doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind, even in the seemingly polarizing passage cited above. In Mark 9:38, the disciples report that they had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but because the healer was not one of Jesus’ immediate followers, they tried to stop him. It’s as if the disciples are saying, “Hey you can’t do that! You are not one of us! You are either in or you are out. What you are doing doesn’t fit our paradigm, and that makes us nervous!” This is either/or thinking in spades! Jesus, however, tells his disciples not to stop the healer and then speaks those powerful lines: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus isn’t pointing to someone who is doing something against him but to someone who is actually for and with him even though he doesn’t fit the disciples’ preconceived notions. While the disciples are locked into either/or, polarized thinking, Jesus demonstrates something else: both/and thinking.

Both/and thinking is difficult. It’s probably not our “go-to” modus operandi. The first article in this theology section will peek behind the psychological curtain as to why this is difficult, while the articles that follow are examples of both/and thinking with topics that at times may become polarized, whether internally or between groups. These articles might just reveal what it could look like if we were to all take a deep breath, settle our limbic systems, resist either/or thinking, and follow Jesus in his both/and style.

Written By

Brad D. Strawn is chief of spiritual formation and integration, dean of the chapel, Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of the Integration of Psychology and Theology, and chair of integration. Prior to joining Fuller’s faculty in 2012, Dr. Strawn was professor of psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University and also practiced as a clinical psychologist and served as vice president for spiritual development and dean of the chapel at Southern Nazarene University. He is co-author, with Warren S. Brown, of Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community and The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and The Church, and is co-editor, with Earl D. Bland, of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation. Dr. Strawn is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:39–40, NRSV). Taken out of context, this sounds a little dogmatic, doesn’t it? It appears as either/or, black and white—no room for gray here! It feels a bit like the world we live in has implicitly taken this up as a kind of battle cry. The polarization which leads to the formation of in-groups and out-groups is not only sad but is the very thing that can often lead to character assassination and even violence. And this either/or thinking even invades our internal lives, so that we become internally conflicted individuals on all kinds of matters.

Of course, this is all too familiar. One group claims their political candidate is from God, so either vote for them or be excommunicated. Another group claims that some policy, theological position, or scientific finding is “gospel-aligned,” and if you don’t believe and support it, your Christian card may be pulled!

As individuals become more and more polarized in their thinking, they literally lose the ability to think straight. Research has demonstrated that as persons become emotionally heated, their limbic systems (i.e., the emotional components of the brain) take over, shutting down their reasoning capacity—they enter a state of fight or flight.1 The “arguments” that ensue are not well reasoned, logical, or emotionally balanced discussions but are actually emotional free-for-alls about personal safety, worldviews, who’s in whose group, and who presents the greatest danger to our communities. This is the emotional fuel of either/or thinking. Unfortunately, it may be a fuel that will burn us all.

This either/or thinking doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind, even in the seemingly polarizing passage cited above. In Mark 9:38, the disciples report that they had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but because the healer was not one of Jesus’ immediate followers, they tried to stop him. It’s as if the disciples are saying, “Hey you can’t do that! You are not one of us! You are either in or you are out. What you are doing doesn’t fit our paradigm, and that makes us nervous!” This is either/or thinking in spades! Jesus, however, tells his disciples not to stop the healer and then speaks those powerful lines: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus isn’t pointing to someone who is doing something against him but to someone who is actually for and with him even though he doesn’t fit the disciples’ preconceived notions. While the disciples are locked into either/or, polarized thinking, Jesus demonstrates something else: both/and thinking.

Both/and thinking is difficult. It’s probably not our “go-to” modus operandi. The first article in this theology section will peek behind the psychological curtain as to why this is difficult, while the articles that follow are examples of both/and thinking with topics that at times may become polarized, whether internally or between groups. These articles might just reveal what it could look like if we were to all take a deep breath, settle our limbic systems, resist either/or thinking, and follow Jesus in his both/and style.

Brad Strawn

Brad D. Strawn is chief of spiritual formation and integration, dean of the chapel, Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of the Integration of Psychology and Theology, and chair of integration. Prior to joining Fuller’s faculty in 2012, Dr. Strawn was professor of psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University and also practiced as a clinical psychologist and served as vice president for spiritual development and dean of the chapel at Southern Nazarene University. He is co-author, with Warren S. Brown, of Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community and The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and The Church, and is co-editor, with Earl D. Bland, of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation. Dr. Strawn is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

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Brad Strawn, Fuller’s chief of spiritual formation and integration, explains how developing our capacity for ambivalence and ambiguity can help us resist unnecessary and harmful polarization.