Monday, January 31, 2011

Polar Opposites: A Cultural Observation

Ever heard the saying, "Opposites attract"? Opposites are not a bad thing.  Opposites are what keep us in balance, as a culture and as a community.  In a way, they are the counter-weight that keeps us from being trapped in a boring, monotonous society.  Without opposite opinions, everyone would be saying the same thing. Without opposite writing styles, everyone would be writing the same way (Gah!!!).  Without opposite hair color, eye color, body shape and shoe style, we would lose all of that which makes us, humanity, diverse and beautiful.  Opposites are a meaningful context in our world.

I want to clarify this understanding of the positive of opposites first, in preparation for stating that I believe there is a state where opposites become oppositional, divisive and ineffective, counter-productive to the balanced measure of opposites mentioned above. The "opposites" that I refer to tend to surround the way in which people perceive/engage/interact with culture/opinion/commentaries, both political and social, etc. The word polar means "opposite in character or action", and in today's language, I would add that there is a conceptualization of an extreme associated with the term "polar" (i.e. "my husband is the polar opposite of me!").  Thus it seems to illustrate that when two opposites become polar in function there is a gap, or the lack of connection, between the two.
Side note: Obviously, objective observations like "light" and "dark" are not what I am referring to, though it could be perceived that even between those two objective observed realities there is no real gap, as there is a state observed  called "semi-dark" or "semi-light"?  Language and our articulation of the perceptions/observations of the world, and the things around us, are intrinsically complex in form and function, not to mention when additionally impacted by language, ethnicity, culture, worldview and geographic location! 
As a perpetual student, I have had the privilege of studying under some wonderful professors who over the past several years have shared  their knowledge, wisdom and experience, opening up a vast, ever-growing awareness of language, culture and worldview, specifically, though not exclusively, within the context of God and theology.  I might suggest that God and theology have been compartmentalized into the word, religion, and though I personally have come to appreciate the term, there are many who do not.  The term religion is often viewed or understood negatively, mostly due to its association with the institution of the church.  Therefore, another term, spirituality, has been used as a  handy replacement, and carries a distinctly generic sense with regard to God and our human interaction, or lack thereof, with God.  In this, I have observed that spirituality is often conceptualized as the polar opposite of religion.  With this conceptual opposition of religion, the association of church  falls into those opposing parameters, as well.  

This oppositional thinking is not only in theological contexts, but also in the context of morals, society and worldview.  In 1900, there was an understanding that moral formation was the responsibility of the educational system, as the culture, overall, seemed to believe that metaphysical and science could be compatible.  The systematization and ultimate autonomy of Modernity instead divided this worldview into two distinct polar opposites: metaphysical (God, higher powers, ethics/morals, truth, abstract theories, etc) and science (empirical data, facts, physical/concreteness).  Surprisingly, the very academic institutions, considered responsible for the moral formation of the individual and/or community, set the pursuit of moral formation (the well-roundedness of the individual within society) for the pursuit of a more systematized, linear science academia (engineers, scientists, accountants, doctors, teachers, etc). Today, in 2011, much of what we think about truth is rooted in this oppositional tension between metaphysical (subjective) and science (objective).  
Here's the rub: We don't like to think that really, do we?  We like to believe that we make our decisions alone, without outside influence.  The reality is that we are deeply affected by our culture, which shapes our worldview, therein affecting our decisions, opinions and ultimately the way in which we live our lives. From what brand of toothpaste we use to the car we drive, we are told what is good, usually in opposition to what is bad (the other brand of toothpaste or the other manufacturer of the car). So, we may have this way of understanding that if the one thing is "good" then the other thing, opposite of it, is "bad".

My point is this--I think today we live in a world of polar opposites.  We are told by the History Channel and the Science Channel and the News that the only truth is objective (science, archaeology, "proof-positive" truth, witnesses, etc).  
We live by that and often die by it as well.  
On the other hand, we are also deeply and profoundly spiritual beings, and we know it.  I asked a class of high school students this question, "What one thing do we really know everything about? I mean everything! We know how to be this one thing--it is really all we know!"  They didn't say anything at first, then one student piped up, "A person?" Ding, ding, ding!!! Yes,  a human being.  Our perceptions of the world are, of course, human perceptions, and ever since our feet hit the "ground" running, we have been seeking after that which we cannot define or understand, that which is beyond us.  We were wired for something more, and we know it! Adam and Eve knew it, and that is where the temptation lay in secret, waiting for them to take a bite off of the tree of knowledge. We humans love knowledge. We want to know everything.  And I think this is part of our DNA, our insatiable curiousity, that has wrought us wonderful scientific discoveries, and I pray many more to come.  However, there are some things that we simply will not be able to quantify, count or analyze--these are the things that are metaphysical.  Love, truth, wisdom, justice, hope, belief, family values, etc. are things that we do not fully understand in a concrete way, yet they exist.  They are a significant part of our human experience, and we all know that they are very, very true. 
For these as well, we live by and die by, as well, will we not?  So, why do you think we set up one, against another? 

Metaphysical, in today's world, cannot determine factual truth. Yet, we are a world that is deeply concerned with social justice.  We are a world that denies the existence of God in the revelation of Jesus Christ, the son of God, yet sees no issue of using all types of magical means (tarot cards, psychics, witchcraft, voodoo, etc) to help us figure out our future or to keep us safe. 
Do you see a problem here?  What do you say to someone who says  "I can't believe in God, but I am totally on board with asking Oprah to help me find "transcendence"? Really?  I do not want to seem critical, and I am sure I have already crossed that line, but we have got to figure out a way to get balance restored here. The polar opposites are so polar that they simply do not even make sense anymore.  
If a person says that they believe that truth is science, but that person is going to a psychic for truth, then what does that one really believe?

I believe in God and science.  I believe that they are more compatible than we are "told" they are, particularly by the media.  I believe in Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate in the flesh, died on the cross for the sins of the world, and then was resurrected.  I believe in the Church, even with the tumultuous history and her struggles, because there is nothing more profoundly formative then the body of believers gathering together, in prayer and in love, in Christ's name to honor and worship Him.  There are many who think opposite of me, and that is OK.  Opposites are good. Opposites provoke dialogue and debate, all healthy and productive experiences. I don't mind opposites at all. 
So you tell me, what do you think?

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