17 February 2018

Against Black and White Thinking: The Case for Color, Part 1

When we're talking about photography or old movies, black and white is a wonderful thing. Black and white thinking, however, is anything but. It's incredibly short-sighted and limiting.

Some people think in black and white (this is also known as "all or nothing" thinking) because that's all they've ever known. Others believe they have to think in black and white, because if they don't, "shades of gray" is their only other choice. Many of them consider this to be unacceptable. Seeing things in shades of gray, they say, means we lose our sense of morals. The lines between right and wrong become blurred, and we wander into "moral relativism" territory. Of course that's a dangerous place to be, so to avoid this pitfall we must organize everything into tightly defined right and wrong (or black and white) categories. That's the only surefire way to stay safely on the straight and narrow path.

I'm not so sure about that.

What if there was a third option, one that wasn't black, white, or gray? What if we learned to think in color, where not every situation in life is polarized, where there are differing shades (and hues and tints and tones) and it's not a negative thing? Thinking in color gives you more freedom than thinking in black and white, but it doesn't mean that everything is all muddled together like shades of gray. Right and wrong still exist, but it's up to you to know how they apply to different people, contexts, and situations.

This is not always easy to do. In fact, most of the time it's much more difficult! And it won't always give you a tidy solution to every problem. But if you learn to appreciate the complexities of color, you'll be a better person for it. At the very least, you'll find yourself less often at the mercy of irrational thinking patterns (your own or other people's).

How do you do it? I will give you some tips and tricks that have worked for me.

The first step is: Don't take anything for granted. Get in the habit of questioning everything you hear -- not for the sake of arguing or debating, but to know for yourself what is really right. As Roger Olson says, "Take everything you're told and put a big question mark next to it." This is especially important for anything that provokes an emotional response or knee-jerk reaction. Learn to put these aside long enough to really think through a matter.

You'll find this comes in especially handy at those times when someone tells you, "The Bible says..." or "God wants you to..." (If you're a churchgoer, you'll get this opportunity at least once a week!) A lot of conscientious Christians will simply accept a statement that begins with these words. After all, who wants to be guilty of arguing with God or disobeying Scripture? Keep in mind, though, that the message is being mediated to you through a fallible human, so you are accepting it at your own risk. It's always possible that the person might be sincere, but mistaken. Or they may be confusing their own personal conviction with a moral absolute (this is a very, very common occurrence).

This practice is also helpful when evaluating "false choice" statements, wherein the key to a given situation is supposedly either A or B: for example, "You're either an optimist or a pessimist", or "If you don't donate to this homeless ministry, you don't care about the poor." Challenge claims like these. (You can do this internally; no need to have a confrontation -- unless you want to!) What evidence are they using to support their assertion? Is there any reason why the answer couldn't be both A and B? Or neither A nor B?

A big one that you will hear in Christian circles is: God's will for everyone is to do X, and this applies at all times, in all places. There are untold numbers of pastors, seminar speakers, and Christian book authors who make a very comfortable living dishing out advice along these lines. However, you don't have to take their word for it! Here's a helpful hint: When evaluating the validity of a moral statement, take it to its logical conclusion. Imagine what would happen if everyone put the advice in question into practice, and play that scenario out to its likely finish. What is the result?

Case in point: There's a common philosophy in ultra-conservative evangelical circles that, unfortunately, has been elevated to the status of doctrine. It says: God's highest calling for women is to be married and raise godly children; everything else in life pales in comparison to this. Also, women should not work outside the home -- the man is to be the sole provider, the only one in salaried employment. Please note the following excerpt from a sermon by John MacArthur, on behalf of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW):

Many of the same women who in their twenties pursued career, didn't want children intruding in their life, now find themselves in their thirties and forties with an emptiness and a terrible dissatisfaction, a hollowness, a sense of unfulfillment. And the reality that they missed the whole purpose of life and they can't ever get it back." (source)
"I was created to be a helpmeet, that was the stated purpose in Genesis 2:18 when God gave woman to man, to rid man of his loneliness and to be a helper to him. Just as I most perfectly fulfill my purpose as a human when I am glorifying and enjoying God, when I am being a helpmeet I am most perfectly fulfilling my purpose as a woman... God's standard is for the wife and mother to work inside the home and not outside... a woman's only opportunity to fulfill God's plan for her role as wife and mother is in the home." (source)

Gee whiz. Well, let's give this one the logical conclusion test, and see how it fares.

First of all, if every woman was absent from the workforce, certain industries such as education and nursing that are statistically populated with higher numbers of women would be severely handicapped. Not good. Even those areas that aren't dominated by women would be worse off without their contribution. Society suffers when over half of its population is prevented from contributing in direct, tangible ways.

What about a woman who has no choice but to work because her husband is disabled? Or how about families who simply can't sustain themselves on one income? This is the case in a great many developing countries, where all able-bodied family members must work and earn money to put bread on the table: if they don't, they won't survive. (Bonus tip: if your theology requires a certain level of income in order to work, you may want to rethink it!)

Most importantly, on what grounds do we say that raising children is "the whole purpose of life"? (And where does this leave couples who experience infertility?) If we're going to stand by this statement, then what's our answer to the question of what future those children have when they grow up? except to have their own children, and then those children will have children... but to what end, ultimately? That's where this philosophy really falls apart: It's circular, because it can't identify a goal or purpose outside of itself. (And, I remind you, this is only the logic test. We don't even need to get into all the ways this view fails theologically -- though we certainly could do that as well!)

Obviously, there's no shame in being married and having children. And it's true that for some people -- women in particular -- marriage and parenting are the only vocational callings they sense on their lives. Imagine, though, if this was the case for everyone on the planet, as John MacArthur and CBMW idealize? What a mess!

Now on the other hand, there are all kinds of other moral statements that do pass the logical conclusion test with flying colors, such as: You should treat others the way you want to be treated. You should work hard and excel at whatever job you have. If you have children, you should teach them truth about God so that they will come to know Him better. To the question, "What will happen if everyone does this?" we can confidently answer: Only good things.

All of the above comes with one caveat, which I already mentioned: You are questioning, evaluating, and looking at things in new ways so that you can know, first and foremost, what is right. Personal convictions are just that -- personal. Whether or not anyone else is moved to adopt those same convictions is between the Holy Spirit and themselves. Though others may benefit from your point of view, they may not share it for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

(A.) You could be wrong. (Never rule that one out completely!)
(B.) They're at a different place in their life and haven't yet come to the same realizations you have about certain things.
(C.) God is calling them to something different from what He has called you to.

In the New Testament, "thinking in color" goes by another name: It's called living by grace. And it requires humility, flexibility, and healthy doses of patience.

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