paper illustration

The Paradox of Both/And

The Either/Or World

To say we live in a polarized world might be the understatement of the decade. It doesn’t take long for new acquaintances to start sizing one another up. On what side of an issue do you land? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Do you believe in climate change or do you think it is a hoax? Do you believe in the latest scientific findings or do you maintain a skeptical eye? Vaccine or no vaccine? Do you read Scripture as inerrant and infallible or do you have some other take? Loch Ness monster, yes or no?

Well of course this last example is silly, but you get the point. The problem isn’t that humans disagree with one another, or that we take sides and debate. Debate is good and can even be seen in the history of Christendom. The problem is that as humans become more and more polarized in their reasoning, more either/or in their thinking, we begin to lose something. We lose our ability to be empathic, to recognize the essential value of one another, to realize a person is more than their opinion, and we lose the capacity for nuanced thinking. Things are either this or that, you are with us or against us, the issue is either black or white. Extreme polarization correlates with the takeover of our emotions such as anxiety and fear. The “other” and their terrible opinion threaten my world view, which makes me anxious, and the only recourse I feel I have is to attack, maybe with words or maybe with violence. And Christians are not immune.

The Origins of Either/Or

This process of polarization takes place both at the communal and at the individual level. One way to understand certain forms of emotional difficulties are as internal conflicts where persons are essentially locked into either/or thinking. Psychologist Melanie Klein, an early female pioneer in the field of psychotherapy, did much to advance the understanding of a defense mechanism at the root of this kind of polarization. Splitting is an automatic mechanism believed to be utilized whenever persons have difficulty holding opposing feelings such as love and hate. Klein observed how children, who developmentally tend to be black and white, either/or thinkers, had difficulty feeling conflicting emotions at the same time. When a child gets hungry and the parent feeds them, there is a sense of peace, comfort, and an experience that the parent is good. But when the child is hungry and the parent is slow to feed them, the child experiences discomfort, frustration, and dysregulation, and the parent is experienced as all bad. However, it’s dangerous for a child to experience their parent as bad because the child literally needs the parent for survival. Klein posited that the child manages this dysregulated feeling by making meaning that my parent can’t be bad, so I must be bad. Young children are not developmentally capable of holding both/and thinking about their parent and themselves and therefore utilize the defense mechanism of splitting to unconsciously and rapidly move back and forth between good parent-bad parent, bad me-good me.

Through the natural course of development, children learn to manage and live with opposing feelings. Parents can be both good and bad, and I can be both good and bad. Persons develop the capacity to have mixed and nuanced feelings about others and about issues they face in life. Healthy development allows persons to hold conflicting feelings about someone (or themselves) without making the other, or the self, all bad. We don’t have to split the world into either good people and ideas or bad people and ideas. Klein, and followers, noticed that unfortunately many persons, and perhaps society at large, never fully outgrow this splitting mechanism. In order to protect ourselves from feeling bad about ourselves or experiencing unwanted feelings and threats from others, we continue to split—we make the other (group or idea) all bad. My way, my group, my ideas are good, and if you and your group think differently, you are bad, the problem, wrong, or even worse—the enemy!

Perhaps when we encounter the process of polarization today—absolutist either/or thinking—we might be witnessing splitting in action. Of course, no one wants to think of themselves as developmentally stunted. In fact, in order not to see ourselves that way, we might use splitting and say, “It’s really those other people who split, not me!” Nevertheless, the sociological observation that individual psychological phenomena can become enacted in communal and social contexts suggests that perhaps we are all prone to ongoing either/or splitting. This is not simply an individual issue but a cultural and national one. 

How are we to disengage from this splitting—this either/or thinking—and this way of living?

Moving Toward Both/And

The psychological phenomena that may develop in healthy adults, which is the opposite of splitting, is the growing capacity to sit with ambivalence and ambiguity. Ambivalence is the ability to hold mixed or even contradictory feelings about something or someone. I can have positive and negative feelings about someone—or an idea. For example, many Christians have ambivalent feelings about reproductive rights. They may be essentially pro-life but struggle with the complexity of unwanted pregnancies as a result of sexual assault or bringing to full-term fetuses with severe genetic or developmental deficits. This kind of nuanced thinking isn’t what we typically hear in the media. What we hear is polarization, either/or thinking, acting, and rhetoric. We hear shouting and name calling! What we don’t typically hear are followers of Christ struggling, wrestling, and seeking wisdom. We hear you are either with us or against us! For some Christians, an issue like reproductive rights is complicated and nuanced, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach might not work. Perhaps true dialogue could occur if we, individually and collectively, develop the faculty to hold on to our ambivalent feelings rather than fight over our concretized conclusions.

The capacity to tolerate ambiguity is to be open to more than one interpretation of an idea, event, or even person. While ambivalence is the emotional component of a both/and approach, ambiguity is the intellectual aspect. My father was a college math professor and his doctorate was in math education. He specialized in teaching teachers. I remember coming to my father in junior high and high school to get help with math. I could never stump my dad, and I’ll never forget how he would show me not just one way to interpret and solve a problem but several ways. Dad, I just wanted one way! At the time, I wasn’t interested in how turning a problem on its head, looking at it another way, or getting another opinion might create nuance, creativity, and even excitement. But this is the core of ambiguity. Something can be more than one thing.

This “something being more than one thing” is the heart of paradox. If ambivalence is the emotion and ambiguity the intellect, paradox is the heart of both/and thinking. It’s the space in which we sit with both ambivalence and ambiguity. Parker Palmer quotes Nobel prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr as having said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” Palmer says it well:

Thinking paradoxically is key to creativity, which depends on the ability to hold divergent ideas in a way that opens the mind and heart to something new. Living paradoxically is key to personal wholeness, which depends on the ability to embrace one’s self-contradictions.

Rabbi Jesus frequently used paradox. Answering a disciple’s question with a question or a story pushed the disciple into a paradoxical space where they had to wrestle with both/and rather than either/or. Consider Jesus’ parable about workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1–16) or how he responded to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). In the parable, the question is posed of how much a vineyard owner should pay the workers who have worked one hour compared to workers who have worked an entire day. Yet the vineyard owner pays each worker the standard wage, no matter how long they have worked. But that can’t be right. You either worked all day and get the full pay or you don’t. If you didn’t work all day, you can’t possibly get the full pay. Or consider the reasoning of the legal experts and the Pharisees who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery. If you did the crime, you must do the time—or in this case pay the consequences: death! Yet Jesus challenges the crowd so that they ultimately let the woman go. Both these stories pull for either/or thinking and being, but Jesus demonstrated a both/and paradoxical way, and most importantly, a different way of being in the world with others. God will both recognize one’s work and reward according to his abundant riches. God will recognize sin and forgive according to his abundant grace.

Living Into the Paradox of Both/And

Living into both/and paradoxical thinking may lead to two important realizations. First, the “other” over there—that person who is day to my night—is a whole embodied person just like me. They are not the sum of all their opinions, or even behaviors. They can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker (even if they have one on their car that I find offensive). They are complex, perhaps more complex than I imagine—maybe even just like me! Second, I am both light and shadow. I’m a complex person, and it is a developmental achievement to have ambivalent feelings and to live with ambiguity. I can bring myself down from my self-created idealistic pedestal. I can see that perhaps I am not without sin and maybe shouldn’t “cast the first stone.” Maybe these two truths, amid paradox, might just create a kinder me and a kinder world.

To live into the paradox of both/and, we need new imaginations and we need new behaviors. This is why it is important that we don’t just read about new ideas but we do new things. Human minds are embodied and extended into the world around us. We don’t individualistically think our way to new behaviors. Engagement with others literally changes the way we feel, think, and live.

The great news is that we can enhance our capacity for both/and thinking by building up our muscles to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence. We may do this in a number of different ways.

Spend time with others who are different from yourself.

Engage in projects and ministries that push you out of your comfort zone.

Read and listen to opinions different from yours.

Consider that you might be wrong.

When you feel anxious or defensive, get curious as to why.

Practice hospitality, empathy, and understanding toward differentness.

Find a blunt friend who will tell you the painful truth about yourself. This might be a therapist or counselor.

Become involved in a community that teaches, models, and lives out paradoxical both/and living.

As Scott Peck famously wrote in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” I’d add, “Change is hard.” In certain ways it may feel easier, or more comfortable, to stay living in our old ways of being—clinging to either/or thinking. While the unexamined life might not be worth living, the examined life is no picnic! So, we can stay polarized individuals and polarized communities lobbing emotional hand grenades at one another all the while experiencing the fallout in our own selves, or we can do the hard work (and make no mistake: it is work) of following the paradoxical rabbi, Jesus, the one who taught and lived both/and, and listening to the “still small” voice of the Spirit who will guide us in this difficult yet worthwhile way.

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.

The Either/Or World

To say we live in a polarized world might be the understatement of the decade. It doesn’t take long for new acquaintances to start sizing one another up. On what side of an issue do you land? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Do you believe in climate change or do you think it is a hoax? Do you believe in the latest scientific findings or do you maintain a skeptical eye? Vaccine or no vaccine? Do you read Scripture as inerrant and infallible or do you have some other take? Loch Ness monster, yes or no?

Well of course this last example is silly, but you get the point. The problem isn’t that humans disagree with one another, or that we take sides and debate. Debate is good and can even be seen in the history of Christendom. The problem is that as humans become more and more polarized in their reasoning, more either/or in their thinking, we begin to lose something. We lose our ability to be empathic, to recognize the essential value of one another, to realize a person is more than their opinion, and we lose the capacity for nuanced thinking. Things are either this or that, you are with us or against us, the issue is either black or white. Extreme polarization correlates with the takeover of our emotions such as anxiety and fear. The “other” and their terrible opinion threaten my world view, which makes me anxious, and the only recourse I feel I have is to attack, maybe with words or maybe with violence. And Christians are not immune.

The Origins of Either/Or

This process of polarization takes place both at the communal and at the individual level. One way to understand certain forms of emotional difficulties are as internal conflicts where persons are essentially locked into either/or thinking. Psychologist Melanie Klein, an early female pioneer in the field of psychotherapy, did much to advance the understanding of a defense mechanism at the root of this kind of polarization. Splitting is an automatic mechanism believed to be utilized whenever persons have difficulty holding opposing feelings such as love and hate. Klein observed how children, who developmentally tend to be black and white, either/or thinkers, had difficulty feeling conflicting emotions at the same time. When a child gets hungry and the parent feeds them, there is a sense of peace, comfort, and an experience that the parent is good. But when the child is hungry and the parent is slow to feed them, the child experiences discomfort, frustration, and dysregulation, and the parent is experienced as all bad. However, it’s dangerous for a child to experience their parent as bad because the child literally needs the parent for survival. Klein posited that the child manages this dysregulated feeling by making meaning that my parent can’t be bad, so I must be bad. Young children are not developmentally capable of holding both/and thinking about their parent and themselves and therefore utilize the defense mechanism of splitting to unconsciously and rapidly move back and forth between good parent-bad parent, bad me-good me.

Through the natural course of development, children learn to manage and live with opposing feelings. Parents can be both good and bad, and I can be both good and bad. Persons develop the capacity to have mixed and nuanced feelings about others and about issues they face in life. Healthy development allows persons to hold conflicting feelings about someone (or themselves) without making the other, or the self, all bad. We don’t have to split the world into either good people and ideas or bad people and ideas. Klein, and followers, noticed that unfortunately many persons, and perhaps society at large, never fully outgrow this splitting mechanism. In order to protect ourselves from feeling bad about ourselves or experiencing unwanted feelings and threats from others, we continue to split—we make the other (group or idea) all bad. My way, my group, my ideas are good, and if you and your group think differently, you are bad, the problem, wrong, or even worse—the enemy!

Perhaps when we encounter the process of polarization today—absolutist either/or thinking—we might be witnessing splitting in action. Of course, no one wants to think of themselves as developmentally stunted. In fact, in order not to see ourselves that way, we might use splitting and say, “It’s really those other people who split, not me!” Nevertheless, the sociological observation that individual psychological phenomena can become enacted in communal and social contexts suggests that perhaps we are all prone to ongoing either/or splitting. This is not simply an individual issue but a cultural and national one. 

How are we to disengage from this splitting—this either/or thinking—and this way of living?

Moving Toward Both/And

The psychological phenomena that may develop in healthy adults, which is the opposite of splitting, is the growing capacity to sit with ambivalence and ambiguity. Ambivalence is the ability to hold mixed or even contradictory feelings about something or someone. I can have positive and negative feelings about someone—or an idea. For example, many Christians have ambivalent feelings about reproductive rights. They may be essentially pro-life but struggle with the complexity of unwanted pregnancies as a result of sexual assault or bringing to full-term fetuses with severe genetic or developmental deficits. This kind of nuanced thinking isn’t what we typically hear in the media. What we hear is polarization, either/or thinking, acting, and rhetoric. We hear shouting and name calling! What we don’t typically hear are followers of Christ struggling, wrestling, and seeking wisdom. We hear you are either with us or against us! For some Christians, an issue like reproductive rights is complicated and nuanced, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach might not work. Perhaps true dialogue could occur if we, individually and collectively, develop the faculty to hold on to our ambivalent feelings rather than fight over our concretized conclusions.

The capacity to tolerate ambiguity is to be open to more than one interpretation of an idea, event, or even person. While ambivalence is the emotional component of a both/and approach, ambiguity is the intellectual aspect. My father was a college math professor and his doctorate was in math education. He specialized in teaching teachers. I remember coming to my father in junior high and high school to get help with math. I could never stump my dad, and I’ll never forget how he would show me not just one way to interpret and solve a problem but several ways. Dad, I just wanted one way! At the time, I wasn’t interested in how turning a problem on its head, looking at it another way, or getting another opinion might create nuance, creativity, and even excitement. But this is the core of ambiguity. Something can be more than one thing.

This “something being more than one thing” is the heart of paradox. If ambivalence is the emotion and ambiguity the intellect, paradox is the heart of both/and thinking. It’s the space in which we sit with both ambivalence and ambiguity. Parker Palmer quotes Nobel prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr as having said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” Palmer says it well:

Thinking paradoxically is key to creativity, which depends on the ability to hold divergent ideas in a way that opens the mind and heart to something new. Living paradoxically is key to personal wholeness, which depends on the ability to embrace one’s self-contradictions.

Rabbi Jesus frequently used paradox. Answering a disciple’s question with a question or a story pushed the disciple into a paradoxical space where they had to wrestle with both/and rather than either/or. Consider Jesus’ parable about workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1–16) or how he responded to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). In the parable, the question is posed of how much a vineyard owner should pay the workers who have worked one hour compared to workers who have worked an entire day. Yet the vineyard owner pays each worker the standard wage, no matter how long they have worked. But that can’t be right. You either worked all day and get the full pay or you don’t. If you didn’t work all day, you can’t possibly get the full pay. Or consider the reasoning of the legal experts and the Pharisees who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery. If you did the crime, you must do the time—or in this case pay the consequences: death! Yet Jesus challenges the crowd so that they ultimately let the woman go. Both these stories pull for either/or thinking and being, but Jesus demonstrated a both/and paradoxical way, and most importantly, a different way of being in the world with others. God will both recognize one’s work and reward according to his abundant riches. God will recognize sin and forgive according to his abundant grace.

Living Into the Paradox of Both/And

Living into both/and paradoxical thinking may lead to two important realizations. First, the “other” over there—that person who is day to my night—is a whole embodied person just like me. They are not the sum of all their opinions, or even behaviors. They can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker (even if they have one on their car that I find offensive). They are complex, perhaps more complex than I imagine—maybe even just like me! Second, I am both light and shadow. I’m a complex person, and it is a developmental achievement to have ambivalent feelings and to live with ambiguity. I can bring myself down from my self-created idealistic pedestal. I can see that perhaps I am not without sin and maybe shouldn’t “cast the first stone.” Maybe these two truths, amid paradox, might just create a kinder me and a kinder world.

To live into the paradox of both/and, we need new imaginations and we need new behaviors. This is why it is important that we don’t just read about new ideas but we do new things. Human minds are embodied and extended into the world around us. We don’t individualistically think our way to new behaviors. Engagement with others literally changes the way we feel, think, and live.

The great news is that we can enhance our capacity for both/and thinking by building up our muscles to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence. We may do this in a number of different ways.

Spend time with others who are different from yourself.

Engage in projects and ministries that push you out of your comfort zone.

Read and listen to opinions different from yours.

Consider that you might be wrong.

When you feel anxious or defensive, get curious as to why.

Practice hospitality, empathy, and understanding toward differentness.

Find a blunt friend who will tell you the painful truth about yourself. This might be a therapist or counselor.

Become involved in a community that teaches, models, and lives out paradoxical both/and living.

As Scott Peck famously wrote in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” I’d add, “Change is hard.” In certain ways it may feel easier, or more comfortable, to stay living in our old ways of being—clinging to either/or thinking. While the unexamined life might not be worth living, the examined life is no picnic! So, we can stay polarized individuals and polarized communities lobbing emotional hand grenades at one another all the while experiencing the fallout in our own selves, or we can do the hard work (and make no mistake: it is work) of following the paradoxical rabbi, Jesus, the one who taught and lived both/and, and listening to the “still small” voice of the Spirit who will guide us in this difficult yet worthwhile way.

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.

Up Next

Alexis Abernethy, Fuller’s chief academic officer, considers how the redemptive work of Christ—which we are meant to be part of—involves both accountability and grace.