Two Things at Once: Polarized Public Discourse and the Mosaic of Intellectual Maturity

JugglerJuggling takes practice. It’s not easy to keep three things moving between two hands. Without some level of ambidexterity, a lot of things will be hitting the floor.

American public discourse is rarely ambidextrous. In a society saturated with click-bait, sound bites, and hashtag activism, public dialogue often proves unable to keep even two things mentally airborne at once.

If you offer “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of a mass shooting, you’re accused of being an active proponent of inaction. If you think #BlackLivesMatter, you’re surely a bleeding-heart, anti-police liberal spewing reverse racism. If you’re pushing to defund Planned Parenthood over baby-harvesting, you must be waging a war on women.

We’re becoming a circus of one-ball jugglers. And that kind of circus is entertaining not for its skill but for its stupidity. We can barely believe, much less do, two things at once.

MosaicBut isn’t intellectual maturity more about learning to construct truth-reflecting mosaics from the shards of information scattered around our fallen world than lugging around monochromatic blocks and dropping them on people who disagree?

You know, a person can hold defensible religious beliefs and push informed political action. Someone else can protest systemic racism and respect the police. Yet another can value women and oppose abortion. You may not agree with the way their moral and political stars align to form the constellation of their worldview. You likely won’t agree with all their intellectual configurations. They may even be dead wrong on some things.

But isn’t it possible, just possible, that they actually value both the principle that underlies the point they’re making and the principle that underlies the point you’re making? Isn’t it possible that they’re worth hearing, and not just so you can seize on the one weak analogy in their explanation and exploit it to your advantage? Isn’t it possible that you could listen, and learn, and grow, even if you walk away disagreeing as much as (or more than) you did before? Isn’t it possible that there’s a little both-and involved in the most mature views of the most complex issues?

But partisan public discourse hates that three-letter word, that simplest of coordinating conjunctions, because it muddies the waters of our ideological lagoons. We get mentally lazy and intellectually impatient, so we’re anti-and.

PokerInstead, we go either-or, often recklessly, like some cockamamie game of Texas Hold’em where every player, in every round, no matter his hand, must go all-in. No waiting to see the flop or the turn, and most certainly not the river.

What happened to the basic function of holding two things at once in the intricate operational miracle that is the human brain?

To stick with our three examples: Can’t we believe in a higher power while leveraging lower powers? Can’t we critique our authorities while respecting their office? And can’t we value both the womb’s possessor and its inhabitant? We actually have the capacity, though it takes a juggler’s training, to hold one value in the right hand, another in the left, and a third in the air of our ripening thoughts. We actually have the capacity to think through things and not just think at them. We can actually learn to honor diverse values at once — it’s called wisdom.

Now, no sane person believes that all ideas, arguments, and principles are equally valid, and I’m certainly not arguing that here. There are plenty of times and places for either-or thinking. I’m not advocating some sort of naïve diplomacy that levels all ideas, effectively discounting the best and amplifying the worst.

But the opposite error is equally dangerous. Polarization crucifies complexity, and reductionism turns both sides into the most extreme versions of themselves. Public discourse then becomes a ratings game and a ragefest where both sides turn into caricatures of their own principles and proposals that probably held some sort of original beauty somewhere upstream.

Reductionism scores points and polarization boosts ratings because rabid followers and raging enemies both tend toward bombastic pronouncements that feed the media frenzy and fuel the prideful bloodlust deep within us all. But the true complexity of the problems and the hard nuances of the solutions? We don’t have time for those. We have opinions to protect and arguments to win.

In this kind of environment, we don’t need more bombast, more single-ball jugglers, or more block-luggers. So what do we need?

In our relationships, we need to develop an intellectual humility that produces conversational diplomacy where we work toward wisdom together instead of napalming all opposing views out of the gate. We need to have long, rich conversations where all sides are heard and considered. We need to get away from those rhetorical questions that are more sarcastic than sincere (and more self-congratulatory than anything). We need to make friendships with people who disagree with us, and not just for our academic street cred. We need to know that there’s a time for Churchillian conviction that charges the hill with flamethrowing rhetoric, but we also need to remember that it’s not Hitler sitting atop every hill.

In our opinions, we need to sit in intellectual tension long enough to develop webbed and networked ideas rather than simply entrenching our earliest assumptions. We need to learn the art of intellectual crochet which is best done in the rocking chair of reflection between tours of duty. We need to stop stomping across the wet concrete of our unformed opinions.

In our politics, we need to relearn how to think two things at once — then three, then four, then a dozen. We need to think with depth and texture and flavor, with combinations and intricacies and distinctions and objections. We need to escape the common trap of the simple answer, not so we can bask in paralysis by analysis, but so we can avoid being stupid. Because we get the best simple answers in the end when we reject the simple answers in the beginning.

In our leaders, we need cross-disciplinarians who can swim straight when crossing political, cultural, and international currents. We need 3-D thinkers who can navigate more than one intellectual level at once. We need to blend biblical studies with political theory with scientific engagement with practical knowhow. After all, if you only know one thing, you’re bound to be duped, like those proverbial blind men each grabbing one part of the elephant and drawing laughable conclusions.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to become an intellectual Jason Bourne or a sanctified version of The Most Interesting Man in the World. I’m just saying that we need to push back against a culture of outrage that plays whack-a-mole with all opposing views.

In short: We need the basic intellectual maturity that knows how to form a view without foaming at the mouth, and we need the basic human dignity that knows how to hold a view without hating an opponent.

And more than anything, in the church of Jesus Christ, we need to stand up and bear humble witness to the full-orbed wisdom of God’s kingdom, a wisdom that always accords with reality, because that kingdom tells the true meaning of the world and everything in it. For this difficult task, which has always earned opposition, we’ll need to be a cross-bearing church that loves our Savior and loves our enemies. We’ll need to keep a kingdom mindset that blends conviction with kindness, courage with compassion, and truth with love. We’ll need discerners, not just debaters, because then, even when we need to debate (and we often will), we’ll know what we’re talking about and why it matters and how truth-filled love must adorn each word.

If this all sounds idealistic and downright impossible — keeping so many values in place at once — we have to come back to the logic of the ancient message that Christians have always believed. We can be the people of the cross, loving both justice and mercy, because we worship a God whose perfect mercy absorbs his perfect wrath through his perfect Son.

At the cross, the Son of God did not just juggle disparate elements of his Father’s character, but held them together in perfect unity, so that justice and mercy kissed outside Jerusalem’s gates. Then he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven where even now he holds all things together by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).

These principles — justice and mercy, stewardship and generosity, order and freedom, holy law and holy love — these are united in the perfect maturity of the Son of God. For this profoundly God-centered reason, these principles are also what hold families, communities, and societies together. They’re hard-wired into our moral DNA, and mercifully, they’re re-wired into the hearts of all who have been born again, so that we can once again love God and others not only with acts of kindness but also with the art of reason.

If grace and truth are the twin pillars of the Son’s perfect maturity (John 1:14), and if truth and love are the main nutrients of the church’s growth (Ephesians 4:15-16), then we must believe that these fundamental values will indeed be foundation stones of the new creation. Therefore, as current citizens of that future country, we should start building our lives on them now — learning to value two things at once — until all things are new.


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