The Perils of Either-Or Thinking?

relevantAccording to Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, the scandal of the evangelical mind “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going love affair between evangelical Christianity and postmodern thinking. We’re sorry to say it, but it’s a dangerous liaison. And sadly, if Noll is right, evangelicals, since they don’t have much of a mind, will be the last ones to see it. Having eyes, they yet fail to see.Here’s a recent illustration. In an article entitled “The Problem with Black-and-White” (Relevant magazine, 14 Oct 2010), emerging church leader and best selling author, Donald Miller, asks his readers the following question:

We think…we are Democratic or Marxists, evolutionists or creationists. There is either right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or profane, right?

That’s right. But there is a problem, he says. “Such thinking wouldn’t make it through the door of an undergraduate course in logic, yet it’s commonplace in our arguments.” Here we have to wonder where Miller took his logic. In our logic courses – we teach the subject every semester– you’re more than welcome to say such things as “it’s either true that the earth is spherical or it’s false.” In fact, you can even “make it through the door” if you tell us that it’s both true and false. Indeed, in that case, we’d insist you join the class.

So what’s the real problem? Well, in Miller’s view, “Black-and-white, either-or thinking polarizes people and stunts progressive thought.” No doubt Miller is worried about this sort of scenario. Suppose we’re given—say, by the conversational context—just two alternatives: either theism or atheism. (We recognize polytheism is a third option, but both agree that it’s wholly untenable, and neither of us is worried a jot that it will stunt our thinking if we fail to consider it – at least on this occasion.) Then suppose I affirm the truth of theism. Given our initial either-or set up, that sends you the message (if you’re an atheist) that I think you’re wrong. And since there is scarcely anything more offensive these days than being told that you are wrong about anything, this will erect a personal barrier between us. You may become upset that I think your view is false. Miller’s pastoral advice is to throw out that troublesome either-or thinking that led to this tragic relational breakdown in the first place.

But this is also advice for you, if you’re the atheist. You affirm the truth of atheism (which, as we all know, is the negation of theism), and so must on pain of contradiction maintain that I am wrong. The only way for you and I to avoid being polarized, it seems, is for each to admit that the other is right. In other words, we can neatly avoid polarization if only we are prepared to believe in contradictions! Now you can see the importance of either-or thinking. It enables us to “logically separate” contradictories. It involves the very, very basic recognition that if “P & not-P” cannot be true, it inevitably follows that “Either P or not-P” is necessarily the case. But now consider Miller’s original anti-either-or claim:

(ANTI)   Black-and-white, either-or thinking polarizes people and stunts progressive thought.

If ANTI is contradictory, then it is false. If it’s not contradictory, then it is either true or it is false. But if that is so, what we have is a perfect example of just the kind of either-or thinking Miller deplores, in which case there is no way for him to advance ANTI without polarizing people and stunting progressive thought.

One wonders, too, what Miller thinks of Jesus. Given ANTI, it looks as though he’s a classic polarizer and anti-progressive:

  • “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Mt 10:34-36).
  • “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Lk 11:23).

We could multiply the passages, but you get the point. If it’s bad to engage in either-or thinking, then Jesus was bad a lot of the time.

Well, what does Miller have to put in the place of either-or thinking? Hedges. To facilitate conversation and relationship, he recommends the following:

Use these phrases often: ‘At this point,’ ‘I’ve come to believe’ or ‘I’ll never stop learning, but I’m attracted to the idea that …’  Some will read these statements as weak, and wonder at what point we should take a stand, but I see these as strong and humble statements.

Here we have a couple of observations. First, it’s interesting that Miller doesn’t introduce ANTI to us with the preface “I’ve been wrong many times before, and I’m struggling to be a better learner, but I feel attracted to ANTI.” In fact, it’s quite obvious that he thinks he’s right about this, and those who disagree have been committing a big communications error. This leads to our second observation: it is misleading and an example of false humility to tell someone that you’re merely attracted to a belief for which you actually have powerful evidence – evidence sufficient for knowledge. You’re not merely attracted to your belief that 2 + 2 =4; you have strong a priori reasons for thinking it is true. It’s not just your opinion; it’s knowledge. Or think of Jesus. What would his disciples have thought if he’d merely announced, “Hey guys, I’m always learning and my thinking on this topic is far from complete, but in my humble opinion, I might be the Messiah. You never know.” Would you give up all to follow someone who was that uncertain?

Sadly, the anti-intellectual sentiments of Donald Miller abound in the postmodern, emerging literature. So perhaps you’ll permit us to offer our own piece of advice. Rather than directing students and lay people to this morass of biblical and cognitive confusion, help them to think clearly, critically, and biblically first. And once they do, we submit, their taste for evangelical irrationalism (under the guise of fresh insight) will quickly dissipate. And then, God willing, we might just make some strides towards erasing Noll’s painful reminder of how little we value the life of the mind.

Rich Davis & Paul Franks

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