Either/Or Thinking (Fractured Prayer, Part 5)

I’m not sure how it happened, but again I got into a tangle with someone on Facebook.  And I got a bit trashed for being concerned with the future of the Church as an institution, but wanting both flexibility and structure–my interlocutor firmly asserted that “you can’t have it both ways.”  You can’t have a strong institutional structure that is also sensitive, responsive, and creative.

I challenged him that “either/or” thinking often leads to false dichotomies and bad decisions, and that the exercise of leadership (a term I don’t much like) usually requires not making binary decisions where there is one singular way forward and one way that must be rejected.  Rather, a number of goods must be taken into account, they must be prioritized both in terms of their importance and the sequence in which they will be honored, and although there is some compromise involved, the way forward is likely to be better for all concerned.  Often that’s called “both/and” thinking.  This interlocutor (an ordained minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination) dismissed my foolishness with the following words:

“Both/and” is rarely an answer in practice.  I’m a leader.  Leaders choose.  Leaders decide.  My desk is where “both/and” goes to die, and I’m rather proud of that.

I’m really quite glad I am not part of this person’s congregation.  That’s another discussion, though.

I think there is a blunt stupidity in being “proud” that you are a murderer of “both/and” thinking.  Because binary thinking leaves out the best of possibilities.  Or even basically desirable outcomes that may not be perfect.  My insistence on this was met with a further dismissal, worded as follows:

Stick with theory and stay out of actual work.

So, thinking beyond the binary is just “theory”, and has no place in actual practical decision making or planning.

Strong language to follow.

That is pure, utter bullshit, and no ordained person should be on board with this.

Very few decisions that involve human relationships–and I would hope the Church mainly has decisions that involve human relationships–are purely binary.  Anyone with basic training in ethics knows about competing and paradoxical goods.  And I would further hope that an ordained minister has at least basic training in ethics.

If these criteria are not met, the Church (whatever denomination) is in deep trouble.  And all the leadership seminars and church growth/congregational development crap is not going to help it.

What would?  My suggestion is that anyone who thinks good decision making is primarily a matter of binary choices should do what I did a few years ago:  Break their kneecap in half.  Yes, I know that most people would say, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy”, and will think I am exceptionally heartless for thinking this is helpful.  (My heartlessness is another discussion for another day.)

But recovering from a fractured patella is the biggest practical experience of how stupid binary decision making can be–and especially when you’re talking about bodies. You can’t be “either/or”.  You can’t decide that either I will have that bone rigid again, or I will have the muscles and connective tissues flexible.  You don’t choose between either strength in the quadriceps that will hold the kneecap in place or toning the calf muscle so you can flex your foot to go down stairs.  There isn’t the option of either the balance that allows you to adjust to uneven terrain or  the coordination to take a step backward if you need to. You need it all, or you’re not going to walk very well again.

You can’t have it all at once–in the six weeks between repairing the fracture and it healing enough to bear weight, there is going to be atrophy while the joint is immobilized.  You’re going to need support in the form of walkers or crutches to get around.  You do some exercises early on in rehab, and discard those as you get stronger.

And you develop rigidity and flexibility; strength and toning; sensitivity and agility.   In the process, you get better balanced, you possibly shed some weight and carry only what your body needs, and return to good (if different) function.  You prevent future injury, but if it happens, you’re better able to cope with it and recover from it.

If not, other things in the body go wrong: the injured knee doesn’t recover, so doesn’t work symmetrically with the other one.  Which means you have pain and imbalance.  And that leaves you open for other injury.

Who would make these binary choices?  Who would decide that some of these things can be discarded?

Only an idiot, that’s who.

The Church likes to get all nose-in-the-air that it is the Body of Christ.  If indeed it is, that body is in bad shape, and Christ needs to put down the Game Boy, get off the couch, and hit the gym.  The Body of Christ is gimping along because it’s spent a long time thinking that it had to make binary decisions that didn’t have to be binary.  In the process, it made itself lame.

This needs to change.  The Body of Christ needs to work on the right balance of rigidity and flexibility, strength and toning, sensitivity and agility.  It needs to shed some of the crap it’s carrying around.  It needs to learn to function well, but perhaps in a different way.  And it will be healthier, more able to prevent future damage to itself and others, and to recover from damage when it happens.

Either/or is the mythology of simple people who don’t cope well with real living human bodies.  Either/or will never make the best choices.  We need more both/and–no all/and–thinking if the Body of Christ is to walk well through the uneven terrain of the future of the world God loves and to which God sent God’s son Jesus Christ.

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