Contradictions: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Recently, I was listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen. Most of the discussion surrounded the release of his new album, ‘Letter to You’. They then began discussing some of his earlier work. At one point the interviewer made the observation that many of Springsteen’s songs through the years had the tendency to both celebrate the American ethos while at the very same time being critical of the short comings of American society. ‘Born in the USA’, for example, is as much a protest song (especially the Delta blues version) as it is a celebratory anthem. Springsteen replied that he thought part of becoming a thinking adult is the ability to hold seemingly contradictory points of view in one’s mind in a creative tension. For instance, you can be proud of America while at the same time being deeply critical of aspects of American society. It is not a matter of either one or the other and you have to be aware of both.
In our current time of forced binary decisions (and binary thinking) I think many of us have either lost this more nuanced approach with regard to many of the questions that confront us, or perhaps we are simply less aware of the contradictions that we all tend to carry.
Part of the problem may be that we have learned to hear only what we want to hear. By hearing only what we want to hear it allows us to classify others into identifiable simplistic categories. For instance, if someone is discussing greater economic equity in society, they can immediately be identified as a Marxist or a socialist, even if they are the chairman of a private equity firm. We only hear what we want to hear. Someone may say that they are in favor of removing a Confederate general’s name from an army base and they are a part of a “cancel culture” that denigrates America and its heritage, even though they may be a serving officer who has dedicated their entire adult life to the service of this country. Again, we only hear what we want to hear.
This limited, binary approach is not limited to politics and society. It has taken root in the Church as well.
I am an Episcopalian. There is much about the Episcopal Church that I love. There is also much that causes me grief and much of which I am deeply critical. Some of my dear friends and students have made an informed decision to leave the church. Some have gone to other Anglican bodies, some to the Roman Catholic Church, some to the Orthodox. I honor their decisions as, I believe, they honor mine. The reason that we honor each others decisions is because we know each other; we listen to each other. We decide to hear more than the slogans. We’re willing to hear more than just what we want to hear. Obviously, there are matters on which we disagree. Yet, there is much on which we are in one accord and there are issues that fall between agreement and disagreement that we can discuss in good faith. We can discuss such matters because we are willing to listen to one another with good will.
Now, there are others who, rather than listening, are waiting to hear or read something that allows them to apply a defining label of their choice (or their tribe’s choice) as quickly as slapping a bumper sticker on a car. That this takes place in the political realm is unfortunate, that it takes place in the Church is a disgrace. It used to be said that you should not preach about hell unless you do it with tears in your eyes. I’m beginning to believe that same should be said about commenting on the current state of the Church. For instance, there is much about the political aspirations of certain evangelicals that makes me angry. Yet there is even more about what is taking place that makes me enormously sad and, quite frankly, depressed. Through all these many years I have retained a deep affection for evangelicalism. It was through a loving and generous evangelicalism that I came to follow Christ. To see it politicized and aligned with self-identified nationalists and other politically motivated groups is like learning of the suicide of a beloved teacher or parent. Indeed, it may be a slow suicide in stages that we are witnessing.
So, like Bruce, I find myself holding seemingly contradictory points of view in my mind. I’m proud of America, but I see the flaws. I love the Episcopal Church, but I’m deeply critical and, at times, grief stricken. I cherish the generous evangelicalism that I knew, but I am terribly troubled by what it has become. So, I’ll keep the contradictions in a creative tension and I’ll try to listen. Listen not just to what I want to hear, but to what I need to hear. Perhaps it is the best that any of us can do in these days.