Look at the current state of our national political discourse—or rather, the lack of discourse. Everything is about taking sides, being right, living from binaries that are over often over-simplified. You’re either Fox or MSNBC, and then you’re enlightened or an idiot, depending on which side you’re on. Social media and the proliferation of media in general have amplified our propensity to takes sides in order to escape wrestling, being in thoughtful tension, or having to admit we don’t have everything figured out.
I always laugh when someone jokingly posts, “Wow, you’re angry political rant has totally changed my mind!” It’s funny because it’s true: we resist being forcefully told why or how we are wrong. But sadly, there’s very little thoughtful political conversation that might actually change our opinion or help us form a new one. Most of the “conversation” now is, “You don’t see things the way I do so you’re an idiot!” Obviously I’m speaking in caricatured terms to make a point, but I think it’s basically right: we have less and less spaces for thoughtful, nuanced dialogue. Most of what we get is monologue that fails to persuade and actually make us defensive rather than curious. No wonder anger and offense seem to be the great constants of our time.
This lack of listening is now pervasive. Indeed, the average sound bite on the evening news dropped from 43 seconds during the presidential election of 1968 to a mere 9 seconds in the election of 1988. We aren’t asked to follow even ten seconds worth of thought before we are ushered on to the next datum to mindlessly consume. We aren't trained to hold and live in tension!
This is okay with most of us because we are living at such a quick pace that we don’t have a lot of time to think or listen thoughtfully, and even more because we actually don’t like being in an uncomfortable tension. We just like being right and pressing on!
The problem is, Jesus calls us into a lot of wrestling and a lot of thoughtful nuance. It's only in thoughtful listening that we learn to hear and discern the voice of his Spirit, which gives us a healthy dose of self-knowledge and an interior life, which is the breeding ground for transformation.
After many of his parables, Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The very purpose of telling a parable rather than making a statement is that the listener has to wrestle. They have to dig through the story to get to the meaning. Jesus often calls us right into the uncomfortable tension of wrestling with ourselves and with God, much like Jacob wrestled with the angel.
I’m not saying, of course, there aren’t black and whites in life nor that there aren’t truths we can fully know and rely on. Of course not. It’s simply that ultimately, Truth was revealed as a person, not as a set of propositions. We are relational beings and we only know the deepest truths at an experiential level, which goes deeper than mere mental assent. Jesus leads us into places where we wrestle because it’s in tension and in learning to hold tension that we are transformed. The truth gets inside us and goes deeper than our minds, fully penetrating us. This journey of faith always involves releasing some level of certitude in order to create space for something new we had no space to hold before. It’s the journey of unlearning so that we can learn.
Any one who has journeyed through suffering or a season of darkness—what St. John called ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’—can attest that transformation happens on the margins of our existence. In these liminal spaces (spaces that are in-between where we’ve been and where we’re going), our defenses are torn down, and this reality finally forces us to become open to life and to God. Look at the Scripture and the pattern is clear: Abram becomes Abraham in the liminal space between Ur and Israel, the Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness, the disciples wait for 50 days for Pentecost. We are always led by the Spirit into these in-between places where transformation happens. They deconstruct us, as it were.
But what comes after? We develop within us a maturity that allows us to live in tension, especially the tension of Both-And thinking. This is reconstruction. To walk into this maturity, you have to develop a mind for paradox, being able to hold two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time. It’s precisely this practice that our society discourages. You’re either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, but apparently in many minds you can’t be both. Except of course, that you can!
Just consider the realities that God invites us to believe and hold at the same time: God is three and one. God is sovereign and we have free will. We are sinners and saints, completely unworthy and completely worthy. We have great responsibility and yet we aren’t in ultimate control.
If we allow them to, these sorts of apparent contradictions—paradoxes—will drive us to get our eyes off of our ourselves and onto God and others, which is the very thing that fuels transformation. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease.” We may not have the ministry of John the Baptist, but this is a truth that must become true for all of us if we are to live into the transformation that comes from God.