Our contemporary world of extremes is actually a way of viewing reality that has often been prominent in the western world. It has to do with literal interpretations of texts, contexts, people groups, power structures, and more. And its prominence has made it more dangerous and more harmful to how we interact with each other in a world dependent on relationships.

Further, categorizing reality into extremes doesn’t carry much nuance. When it pokes its ugly little head to the front, it simply manifests in slightly different ways.

By the way, I’ll be using a simplistic fruit juice example throughout this post.

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tyranny of the literal

Modernism was the domain of “either/or” thinking. That is to say, “either” you were this “or” you were that. Some scholars have referred to this as binary thinking. There can be more than two options, however one must choose only one of the options. The basic premise is that there are specified and clear categories, and each choice, each person, each way of being is in one of these categories.

So (and here comes the fruit juice), EITHER you like apple juice OR you like orange juice.

Post-modernism became the domain of “both/and” thinking. Post-modernism looked down its nose at the simplistic modern mindset that forced persons to make one choice. It declared that more than one category could be claimed. That is to say, a person may choose several of the available options, and if there really are only two options, than the individual can claim “both” this “and” that.

So, post-modernism gives you the freedom to like BOTH apple juice AND orange juice.

We’ve missed something significant in these expressions of differing paradigms.

We’ve missed something significant in these expressions of differing paradigms. Modernism and post-modernism both deal in a world of extremes, they just take a different posture toward extremes. Modernism says we must choose one extreme. Post-modernism says we can choose several extremes, and the choice of extremes that another individual takes is all good. But both paradigms are limited only to this view of reality that deals in extremes. And because of this, they both suffer from literal interpretations of reality.

What about the individual or community that does not see a choice available in the realm of, say, fruit juices?

Let’s say I am just such a person: fruit juice is not something I consume. If I’m told to choose EITHER apple juice OR orange juice, I choose neither. And if I’m told I can have BOTH apple juice AND orange juice, that doesn’t change my choice one bit.

Let’s further say the reason I consume fruit juice rarely or not at all is because I prefer a whole food, plant-based diet. As such, fruit juice tends to be too much sugar, not enough caloric density, and scarcely any nutrients coursing through my veins. By eating the whole fruit, I get all the nutrients it has too offer, which metabolize in my body over a longer period of time, along with all the fiber of the flesh, skin, etc.

Modernism would suggest I’m an outsider because my only choices should be consuming EITHER apple juice OR orange juice. Post-modernism would suggest I don’t quite fit, because even though I don’t have to choose between the juices, I should accept having BOTH apple juice AND orange juice, but having no juice isn’t a good option.

Neither paradigm takes into account my context, my history, who I am as an individual, nor the reasons for why I am the way I am. In other words, there is no place for empathy in modern and post-modern structures. And this lack of empathy should be something we lament.

There is no place for empathy in modern and post-modern structures. Click To Tweet

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What we’ve missed, or perhaps misinterpreted, is the AND of that “both/and” paradigm and how it is a continuation and enhancement of the modernist “either/or.” Maybe my choices would be more accurately described as EITHER one juice OR the other, BOTH kinds of juices, AND something different entirely.

What if “both/and” is an expansion of “either/or,” with the AND meaning something not yet experienced?

This is a more honest way to view reality. Viewing the AND this way criticizes both modern and post-modern thinking, and it rejects only literal interpretations. Let’s take this out of the fruit juice example into something else.

You can’t possibly be both.

US American politics — a tricky topic, I know, but hey let’s have some fun with it — can be viewed through the lens of modernity and post-modernity. A modernist lens tells you that you can be either conservative or liberal. You can’t possibly be both. And if you can’t choose the either/or, then you can be one of those useless independents who don’t really count in a binary reality anyway.

A post-modernist lens tells you that you can be both conservative and liberal. You can be fiscally conservative while being socially liberal, for example. That’s cool. Maybe you won’t get many votes if you run for office because your base is confused, and you’ll feel out of place sometimes in your chosen party, but, hey, this is post-modernism so it’s all good.

Modernism forces an unacceptable restriction and a false categorical imperative that ignores complexity, whereas post-modernism forces a tepid tolerance that doesn’t appreciate complexity.

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What I’m trying to communicate, in way too few words, is the tyranny of the literal.

The dominant means of viewing reality in the western world are variations of literal interpretations. And because of that, they are both tyrannical. To force a categorical imperative that outlines options into clear, defined categories is a tyranny. A non-comittal tolerance is also tyranny.

I wonder if we have not yet explored the AND of all this. Have we prevented ourselves from knowing something beyond modernist and post-modernist paradigms? It seems we have limited ourselves considerably when

  • our feckless leaders narrate reality as a zero-sum game in which everyone is EITHER this OR that;
  • our humanitarian organizations insist that we have figured out all the categories and must accept BOTH this AND that;
  •  we have lost our imagination, or perhaps not exercised it enough in recent memory.

This may be why we are stuck with perpetuating modernist and post-modernist myths.

Part of why I follow Jesus of Nazareth is because he creatively narrates and re-narrates the AND for those who have ears to hear. Sometimes I’ve got my ears working, though many times I don’t.

As I think about the recent racial tension, unrest, and violence in my country, I want Jesus to show me a better way beyond either/or/both/and.

Racial violence and tension is part of what this country is, and therefore part of what we are as Americans. It’s not what we should be, it’s not what we could be. But it is what is. A tepid tolerance would force me to deny this reality and declare, “This isn’t who we are!” A forced categorical imperative would insist that I choose sides.

I say “No!” to all of that.

Jesus shows me that there aren’t binary sides in this context.

There are racists who should be denounced, and then there are all shades of humanity trying to figure out how to move forward with varying levels of success.

And yet, even in denouncing someone who hates, I hope and pray for their transformation. As a white male, I know I’m somewhere on the same spectrum as the neo-Nazi. It’s not something I can avoid, because of who I am: a white male. And so if I wish to see transformation in a person who embodies hate, then I must begin with empathy.

And though I believe that black lives matter, I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to exist as a black person in America. But I can be silent, and listen. And if I wish to see transformation of hurt and injustice within the individual, then I must, again, begin with empathy.

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tyranny of the literal title

Maybe empathy has something to do with the AND of Jesus. Maybe it is an alternative way that does not accept the realities as they are currently narrated. Maybe it is a practice of employing our imaginations to lead with love rather than fear, misunderstanding, or any of a myriad of lesser choices. If we explore this line of thinking just a bit more, maybe we can become a little more like Jesus.

Relationships are what we have and how we constitute and navigate the world. And in a landscape of relationships we cannot afford to be literal.

We cannot force categorical imperatives and we cannot stand on a tepid tolerance.

We cannot force categorical imperatives and we cannot stand on a tepid tolerance. Click To Tweet

We must be raw, and vulnerable, and transparent, and imaginative, and metaphorical in our interactions. Otherwise, we have no place for things like empathy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

I refuse to let literal paradigms tyrannize the potential of love that I know exists in and through and beyond forgiveness. What about you?

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