Growing with Intention: Positive-Positive Polarities, or, Dialectical Epistemology

The great physicist Niels Bohr famously wrote: “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” This is an idea that I have come to appreciate more and more over the years: The opposites of so many basic values are not falsehoods, but equally profound values. Think of pairs like ‘individual and community’, or ‘freedom and order’; none of these concepts is inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’; rather they are all profoundly true values of our world. The problem (evil’ or ‘sin‘) comes precisely when these pairs cease being in balance, when we double down on one side of the equation and reject the other. Sadly, we see this increasingly in our social and cultural life, where nuance and intellectual caution are out of favour, and our secular social and political movements have come to demand a doctrinal purity rarely seen in even history’s most demanding religious communities. This is certainly a political problem, but it’s also a profound spiritual problem. For it closes our hearts and minds by insisting one group has all of the truth and another none of it. And this is where the idea behind today’s post on Growing with Intention comes in. Integral thinker Steve McIntosh, in his wise book The Presence of the Infinite, has proposed that working with these opposites intentionally — the fancy term he uses is ‘dialectical epistemology’ — can be a powerful source of spiritual growth. And this is the practice of intentional growth I’d like to explore today.

Dialectic itself is not a new idea, with roots in pre-Socratic philosophy (ca. 5th century BCE), and given its most influential form by Hegel in the early 19th century. Its basic premise is that genuine truth is found, or change happens, through the natural working out of tension between opposites. There is a thesis — usually the given nature of things — that is countered by an antithesis — its opposite; and from this tension emerges a synthesis, a new ‘normal’. We might use the process of healthy dynamics between parents and children as an example of this. Children begin their lives totally reliant upon and enmeshed with their parents (thesis); then in their teenage years, they reject the family’s norms and values (antithesis); and then, eventually come back to family life, albeit in a new kind of relationship (synthesis).

What McIntosh does that makes dialectic ‘integral‘ is to try to harness it intentionally for our growth and development. If we see values not as a choice between true-false or positive-negative opposites but a creative tension between true-true opposites, we can use the energy of these tensions to help us grow. He writes: “[T]hese permanent positive-positive polarities function as miniature systems of development. Simply put, existential polarities are localized engines of evolution…” (108).

While there is nothing like an authoritative list of such basic polarities, between MacIntosh’s writing, the work of Ignatian spiritual director Wilkie Au (By Way of the Heart), and my own reflection, I’ve come up with the following examples:

  • part and whole
  • self (or individual) and community
  • order and freedom
  • competition and cooperation
  • simplicity and complexity
  • self-esteem and self-denial
  • ministry (or ‘work’) and leisure
  • friendship and generativity
  • seriousness and humour
  • emotion and reason
  • demanding more of oneself and demanding less of oneself

The goal of working with such tensions is not to resolve them on one side or the other, and not to meet in the middle, but to affirm something new that upholds the truths of both poles. Let’s take competition and cooperation as an example. Affirming competition while rejecting cooperation sets people working towards similar goals as enemies rather than allies, and wastes time and energy through duplication of efforts. But affirming cooperation while rejecting competition stifles creativity and the energy that can come from wanting to be the best. Splitting the difference between them could work, but it could also create a situation that has the disadvantages of both without their advantages. What we need is to find an approach that harnesses the advantages of both. (As a side note, this kind of synthesis of competition and cooperation is likely part of the reason why so many good, effective, and safe vaccines for COVID-19 were developed so quickly; groups around the world worked collaboratively, by dividing up different approaches to avoid duplication of effort, but were still motivated to be the first to make the breakthrough.)

As another example, let’s look at work and leisure. There is no question that human life requires work, and this is true if we’re in a hunter-gatherer society, an agricultural society, or our current post-industrial economies. However, this value has become overemphasized in our culture. Many employees have bought into unrealistic expectations of their employers, and feel guilty about taking time for rest and leisure. This tendency is also strong in the Church, among both clergy and committed lay people. Without a doubt, ministry must be a part of every Christian’s life. But, with Christianity’s strong historical emphasis on values such as self-denial, ‘taking up one’s cross’, perseverance, and ‘praying without ceasing’, a life of ministry can easily become imbalanced to the point that burnout becomes the norm rather than a shocking exception. (As of three years ago, the average time spent in ordained ministry by newly ordained clergy in my diocese was a mere five years!) Even as the needs of the world are overwhelming and unrelenting, in order to be healthy, in order for our ministry to be sustainable, we must recover the value of leisure and rest. Au puts it well when he writes:

[A]ny spirituality that leaves out leisure will lack depth and balance because leisure lies at the heart of prayer, solitude, community, and friendship. Our relationship with ourselves, others, and God requires that quality time be devoted to such ‘non-productive’ activities as prayer and play, solitude and interpersonal sharing. Without leisure we not only jeopardize our humanity, but also endanger the Spirit’s work in our lives (By Way of the Heart, 39).

This example leads us to a deeper question: even if intentionally working with opposites can help us grow, is it a Christian approach to faith? I think the answer is absolutely ‘yes’. To begin with, bringing together opposites is at the heart of all religion (and indeed, our word ‘religion’ derives from a Latin word meaning ‘to bind again’). Whether understood as bridging the spiritual and material, the temporal and the eternal, the yin and the yang, or the created and Creator, the basic purpose of human religious life — in all its diversity — is fundamentally about bringing together what we so easily experience as separate, and achieving balance between opposing realities. As psychologist Robert A. Johnson writes:

There is no such thing as a religious act or list of characteristics. There can only be a religious insight that bridges or heals. This is what restores and reconciles the opposites that have been torturing each of us. The religious faculty is the art of taking the opposites and binding them back together again, surmounting the split that has been causing so much suffering. (Owning Your Own Shadow, chapter 2)

In this sense, for Christians, the ultimate ‘religious’ act is the Incarnation, in which the human and the divine are united in the person of Jesus in a way that opens up the possibilities of such union for all of us by grace.

Working with opposites is also ‘Christian’ because Jesus did it, in example if not in explicit teaching. For example, there is no doubt that he gave selflessly of himself to others in ministry; and yet, he also fled the crowds when they got to be overwhelming, took time for himself, rested, prayed, and was known — even criticized — for enjoying a good meal with friends. His approach to the Law similarly demonstrated a desire to uphold both order (for he came to fulfill the law, and criticized the Pharisees for their hypocritical interpretations of it) and freedom (his upholding of the Law never devolved into legalism, as demonstrated by his healing on the Sabbath, his grace towards the bleeding woman, and his interactions with people outside the Jewish community). Or if we look at the polarity of individual and community, we see that Jesus upheld the importance of community and created one of his own, but also challenged the gate-keeping, exclusivity, and judgmentalism that so often mar the experience of community for individuals. Elsewhere, the New Testament speaks of what I have called the “fractal” nature of faith, in which the very same spiritual processes are to work their way through us as individuals and as communities: We are personally temples of the Holy Spirit, yet are stones in a temple; God is alive and at work in our bodies, yet our bodies are ‘body-parts’ in the larger body of the Church. So again we see that both sides of a dynamic we often experience as conflicting opposites — the individual and the community — are upheld in our faith as important, good, and true. One is not subsumed into or erased by the other.

This post has explored the paradox that the opposite of a profound truth is also true. Once we accept this, we can work with it, and harness the energy that exists in the tension between such opposites for our own growth and maturity. We can see more that is true in the world, integrate it into our perspectives, and in so doing become more at one with ourselves, the world, and our God.

Some suggested activities to work with this engine of growth include:

  1. Journal about each of the pairs of opposites presented here (and any others you can think of). What are the limitations of each pole when its opposite is not also upheld? Which pole are you more inclined to? What are some ways you can live into each one in a balanced way?
  2. When you think about a difficult social or political issue, try to find the good, positive value in the opposing point of view, and think about how you can incorporate it into your own perspective.

2 thoughts on “Growing with Intention: Positive-Positive Polarities, or, Dialectical Epistemology

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