Sermons: “Living With Contradictions”
About twenty years ago, I read a book that I've never discussed with anyone, but which has stayed with me and intrigued me all this time. Titled Religions of America and edited by Leo Rosten, it is an attempt to describe as clearly and as concisely as possible the variety of religious faiths in America. One chapter, written by scientist, mathematician, and educator, Dr. Warren Weaver, is titled "The Religion of a Scientist." Dr. Weaver's approach to religion was influenced by a principle from science called "the principle of complementarity." This was a principle developed by physicist Niels Bohr to try to describe the nature of the elementary units of light—electrons and photons. Under some experimental conditions, these units behaved as though they were particles, but under other experimental conditions they behaved as though they were waves.
Well, which was correct? Were they particles or were they waves? To the conventional physicist they could not be both; they had to be one or the other. But Niels Bohr said they were both. He said the observer and the circumstances of the observer make a difference, and so you need a "principle of complementarity" to understand the nature of light.
He said that under some observational circumstances the units of light must be considered particles, and under other circumstances they must be considered waves. By accepting the two contradictory descriptions and viewpoints you have a more complete picture of light than you do by either one alone.
In other words, he said the two viewpoints both contradict and complement each other. Both sets of information, even though they contradict each other, must be accepted as equally valid. One must learn to look at them as complementing each other, even though at first it may pain the mind to do so. We have to learn to live with the contradiction. This is the principle of complementarity—the principle of complementary perspectives.
Dr. Weaver said applying this principle of complementarity to religion both sustained and liberated him. He said that in religion, too:
If I ask a question from one point of view, I will have one answer; but sometimes if I ask the same question from another and quite different point of view, I may very well have a second answer. The second answer may be inconsistent with the first, but it can be viewed as complementing the first, even though it is contradictory. And the two answers together, will provide a richer, truer picture than either separately.
So, for example, when Dr. Weaver asks himself about the nature of God from two different points of view, he receives two different answers. When he asks the question within an impersonal, intellectual framework he finds it satisfying to say that God represents the impersonal law, order, and design of things which run on their own….a kind of deistic position.
On the other hand, when he is frightened, or concerned about the safety of his loved ones, or wrestling with personal problems, or emotionally moved by a well-remembered hymn, then his view of God is paradoxically different. God is no longer impersonal design and law, but God is personal, the ever-dependable friend, the loving and protecting parent.
Dr. Weaver says these two concepts seem inconsistent and contradictory. But they arise, he says, under mutually exclusive circumstances and can be viewed as complementary. We don't have to choose one to the exclusion of the other. And that provides a richer, a more complete, and a more deeply satisfying approach to life.
As I said, this idea of complementary perspectives has stayed with me—this idea of simply letting seemingly opposing and contradictory positions dangle in my mind, and of not feeling compelled to reconcile them into one consistent system or to decide for one over the other, but instead, trying to hold the value of each. Let me speak about three ways in which I find this idea of complementary perspectives helpful.
Truth and consistency
First, the principle of complementary perspectives recognizes the difference between truth and consistency: truth is not necessarily consistent, and to be consistent is not necessarily to discern truth.
G. K. Chesterton said that sanity consists in not worrying over much about consistency—that ordinary persons tend to stay sane because they care more for truth than they do for consistency. Ordinary persons, if they see two truths that seem to contradict each other, take the truths and the contradiction with them, rather than throw out one of the truths. Their sight is stereoscopic, binocular. They see two different pictures at once and are healthier and larger for it.
On the other hand, Chesterton pointed out that the extreme in consistency can be found among those suffering from certain mental illnesses. He said that often one of the characteristics of the disturbed mind is an extreme consistency and a tremendous ability to connect one thing with another in an elaborate maze which is impossible to follow. You may feel that there is an error in their thinking, but try to find it; for, given the starting point, everything is connected and consistent. The problem, therefore, is not that the logic is faulty, but that the premise is narrow. The problem is that the circle is small; too much reality has been left out.
I find the same to be true of very consistent religious and philosophical systems. One may feel that there's some error in a given system, and that it doesn't feel at all right—it seems way off. But one may be hard pressed to pinpoint the error, because, again, the problem is not one of consistency, the problem is one of size—the system is too small.
Actually, I believe one has the greatest feeling of error with the most consistent systems because such systems have reduced themselves in size in order to achieve consistency. So, in a way, the problem is really that the systems are too consistent, that is, they have chosen consistency over reality. They have chosen to be air-tight, and, thus, suffer from a lack of air.
And when we find ourselves suffocating, struggling for air, or becoming defensive and rigid or even a little paranoid; perhaps it's because in our mental outlook we are trying to be too consistent. Perhaps our system needs to breathe a little. It needs a little more air. It needs a little less concern about consistency, and a little more concern about reality.
The map is not the territory, as the saying goes. And life is larger than any system that attempts to make sense of it.
It is larger than our notion of consistency. It is larger than the intellect, which sometimes seems as if it would like to reduce reality to a sphere the size of the human head.
The Role of the Intellect
This leads me to a second comment, one that has to do with the role of the intellect in our life. It's simply this: that the intellect is to be a servant, not a master.
This is not to say the intellect is unimportant, or that we are free to be sloppy in our thinking. The intellect is terribly important. It is our great gift—our distinguishing attribute. We wouldn't know what human life would be like without this instrument. We must strive to use it well.
But we need to recognize its function, its role, its value, its utility as a tool or instrument to help us find our way through life.
And I believe that ideas and concepts are also tools. And, like tools, they need to be sharpened when they have become dull, or replaced when they have been worn out. Just think how many ideas and concepts and beliefs you have worn out over your lifetime! Think how many beliefs you have believed, how many opinions you have held—ideas that once served you well, beliefs that were important to you. How they change! How they shift! How they wear out! How they lose their importance!
Take one's childhood idea and image of God, for example. Children easily pick up and are attracted to an image of God as an all-knowing and all-powerful and all-loving parent. They love to speak and pray to God. They love to pour out their hearts to God. They know that God is an advocate for them. It's an idea and image that works for them.
But later, as they grow older, they may need a new concept and image of God to keep pace with new needs and new experiences and new understandings and new knowledge. It may be a concept that in certain ways contradicts and is inconsistent with the former image and idea. But I think it can be viewed as complementary. It's not necessary to call the former idea false, or to belittle it from a present superior position. It was true to that age and to those experiences and to those needs and those understandings. There was something true about it. As parents we are right not to rob our children of their childhood image of God or, for that matter, to look disrespectfully on our own childhood image and idea of God.
On the other hand, we need to be able to move on to new ideas and beliefs and images when that becomes necessary. We ought not let our ego and identity get too attached to what we have always believed. That is how we lose our youthfulness of spirit. When we try to hold on when a concept isn't working for us anymore, we diminish, flatten and shrink ourselves. We become stuck. This is the refusal of the call of life.
So ideas, concepts, and beliefs are tools for us and we need a whole lot of them to make it through a lifetime. Who knows what beliefs we may yet come to find helpful? As we build and build, idea complements idea, thought builds upon thought. Sometimes we need to remodel. Sometimes we need to retool. And there's no need to be embarrassed by our past or to beat up on ourselves for what we may now regard as worn-out or childish ideas. The present complements the past.
The Truth of the Opposite
A third thing the complementary approach can do is to open us to the value of what is rejected by one idea. The intellect tends to work by setting one thing against another, perhaps necessarily so. It says "yes" to one proposition and "no" to another. It conquers by dividing. Do we have free will or are we determined? Are we products of nature or products of nurture? Is the universe purposeful or purposeless? In pursuing one of these pairs, the truth of the other side tends to get rejected.
But what about that which is rejected? We have little sayings which try to correct this one-sidedness. One of my favorites is: "For every truth there is an opposite, which is also true."
The complementary approach tries to keep us open to looking for the truth in what the intellect tosses aside in pursuing one path. It's a both/and approach. So the universe can be both purposeful and purposeless at the same time. It depends on our context. We don't have to decide for just one over the other. Find the truth in each one, even though we can't fit them together in a consistent way. We can follow the arguments of each position, so just keep both of them going at the same time. Keep the vision stereoscopic. There's more reality in it.
One of my favorite plays and movies is Fiddler on the Roof. And one of my favorite scenes from it is one in which Tevye, the main character, after listening to one person's argument on a subject, says, "You know, he's right." Then a second person, directly contradicting the first, says, "But that's nonsense, it's like this." And Tevye again says, "Yes, that's right." A third person interjects saying, "He's right, and he's right, too. They can't both be right." To which Tevye sheepishly replies, "You know, you are also right."
This is the complementary approach, the both/and approach. If something comes along that makes sense, that has some truth in it for you, don't get too concerned even if it seems to contradict previous beliefs and positions. Don't reject it just because it doesn't fit well into the already existing compartments of your mind. Simply add a new compartment, or add a new belief, or add a new perspective. Fit the beliefs to the evidence, rather than discarding the evidence simply because it doesn't fit the beliefs. Ralph Waldo Emerson would approve: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
For example, is there life after death? Try out the approach of complementary perspectives. On the one hand, surely we are part of nature and cycle and recycle in the way nature does. "From dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return." We die and nothing remains—only the residue of memory for a time.
On the other hand, can anything once conscious just disappear? Our departed loved ones sometimes return in our dreams and visions with more reality than they ever had in the flesh. The psyche has a reality of own; it is not bound by the dimensions of space and time; there's a vertical dimension, not just a horizontal dimension. This is another perspective. And they can both play in us, and other perspectives as well.
So the complementarity principle holds that we do not have to choose just one belief out of many on a given subject. Instead, we can take different perspectives and stay with the truth and the feeling that appeals to us in each of them without worrying, first of all, about how or whether they fit with other ideas.
With respect to an image of God, for example, we can be theist, deist, polytheist, pantheist, atheist, and agnostic all at once. There can be something in each perspective that speaks to us and carries a truth for us. At one time we may lean more in one direction, and at another time in another.
We are never one thing only for the whole of our lives. We are never one thing at any given time. More than one spirit can live in us at once. Our intellects and ideas have a hard time keeping up with the immensity of reality. So, it seems to me, that a principle of complementary perspectives, and a willingness to live with paradox and even flat-out contradiction, can help to keep us alive and open to this beautiful, terrible world in which we live.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
- Words for Worship
- Holidays & Ceremonies
- Copyright & Worship
- Worship Theory
- Contemporary Worship
- Lay Programs
- Young Adults
- Congregational Stories
- Wayside Quotations
- Submission Form