By Lynn Paris
(Reprinted from 6-7-09)
I just read a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that I found quite comforting. He said, “The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” See, all along, I’ve thought that so-called “ability” was my fatal flaw or, at best, a sign of my growing confusion.
Who knew that it might mean I had a first-rate mind. What, after all, is so first-rate about not being positive of anything anymore? When I was young, I was positive about so much. It seemed so easy to be “for” or “against” something with the carefree enthusiasm of youth. I left that period to enter a far longer one of searching, questioning, and change. Finally, though, I hit a 5-year period when I thought I’d entertained enough ideas during my lifetime to settle in on the ones I could be sure of . . . the ones that would serve me well as I grew older. I had drifted back and forth between competing worldviews, ideologies, and opinions long enough; now I could rest easy.
But it hasn’t really worked out that way. That doesn’t mean I was ever so close-minded as to not have doubts. In fact, I believe a small measure of doubt is a good thing; it keeps one from blindly adhering to any idea. People who believe in something so unwaveringly that they never, even in the furthest recesses of their minds, see any reason to struggle with an occasional doubt are those we sometimes think of as zealots, fanatics.
I know a great many people who behave that way about their politics. They are so far to the left, or to the right, that they don’t simply disagree; they are vitriolic in their opposition to anyone who represents the opposite viewpoint. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher for a few hours. They have two different realities, each equally positive they are right. They can’t both be, and the disdain with which each views the other is apparent.
And I see the same kind of zealotry in religion. I’m not just talking about fanatical Muslim terrorists, either. I’m talking about those who are so positive, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that no one will enter the gates of heaven except those who’ve accepted Jesus as their Savior that they’d die to defend their belief. As a practicing Christian, I realize that I should be positive about that too. And for five or so years I was, despite wrestling with some doubt.
But it’s in those two arenas especially—politics and religion—that I’m now forced to admit to having a “first-rate” mind. I can’t help it. I hold two contradictory ideas, and I hold them at the same time.
For example, I believe in conservatism. I believe in a small federal government, less taxes, and less government intervention in people’s lives. I believe in free market capitalism. That’s what distinguishes us from a socialist society; that’s what has given rise to our incredible ingenuity and fueled our remarkable ascendance as the greatest nation on earth. We have thrived on competition, the individual’s inalienable right to make a profit from their hard work, their creativity, or even their marketability. I believe in the Constitution and in the wisdom of the founding fathers, who, as my friend Joseph Phillips puts it, “believed that liberty could be had only if built upon a strong moral and religious foundation.” And I believe that liberty can be best defended by overpowering military strength and a refusal to negotiate with sworn enemies.
I believe all of the above. But, I also believe that a nation as advanced, prosperous and moral as ours has a responsibility to assure each of its citizens access to basic and affordable health care as well as to a quality pre-school through college education. I believe that if the economy is falling apart, it is the responsibility of the federal government to intervene: to create jobs that will be help its citizens in the short term and address this country’s glaring needs in the long term. I believe that the extremely rich ought to pay more taxes, and that there’s such a thing as too much profit at the expense of others’ rights to the pursuit of happiness. I believe the Constitution is a brilliant document that lays out the constants of our government and our society. But it was written by men, fallible men, at a particular time in history. On occasion it requires interpretation and modification. The Constitution considered black men to be property, and women as undeserving of the vote. They got those parts wrong . . . so they fixed them. And, I believe that there are times that call for us to sit across the table from our enemies and make every attempt humanly possible to find common ground.
The two paragraphs above are totally contradictory. No true believer could accept them both; it’s impossible. Most often, they set off heated debate and bitter controversy. But with my “first-rate mind,” I make the impossible possible. I have to. There is so much to be gained from understanding and respecting both ideologies. To some, that makes me insane. To others, merely confused. I suspect it makes me a relativist at a time in my life when I was sure I was not. I now know that I am, except when it comes to morality. With good and evil, I believe in absolutes. But with something as fraught with nuance as political ideology, I live with contradictions.
The same holds true for religion. I believe that almighty God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that they are at once one God and separate aspects of God. I believe in an intervening God, one who answers prayers for those who have faith in Him. I believe in miracles: the bush burned; the Red Sea parted; Jesus rose from the dead and WE wound up living in central Texas. Miracles all. And I believe in God’s amazing grace, and in His infinite capacity to forgive.
And yet . . . I believe all of that, but I also believe in a God infinitely bigger than the one I just described. Big enough to embrace everyone, from every tribe and nation. Big enough, perhaps, to have sent His message of love and mercy in a variety of ways, through a variety of messengers. I think that in the end, it is our hearts that God will judge, and not the church, mosque or synagogue we attend. It will be the faith we carry in our hearts rather than the faith we profess. I think there is too much professing, and not enough action, or, as James put it, that “faith without works is dead.” I believe that the Bible may have been inspired by God, but that it was written by men, fallible men, and translated by other fallible men, again and again and again. I believe that much of it was meant to be taken figuratively, not literally, and that its most important message is contained in very few words: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It was written during a particular time in history. And I cannot accept that parts of it pertain to ALL of time, but other parts only pertain to the past . . . and that fallible men get to choose which is which. I believe the Bible should be read for its universal truths, and interpreted to meet the needs of the 21st century. It must be read with a healthy understanding of context, and a generous dose of compassion.
Again, the two ideas contradict each other. And no true believer accepts both views. Yet I hold them both in my mind, nestled side by side like two puppies in a litter. I can’t part with them, and I can’t choose between them. I hold them simultaneously.
So you decide. Is this the true test of a first-rate mind, or evidence of a badly confused one? Is it better to be positive about something (it certainly seems easier) than to admit to having more than one idea about it? And can the ideas actually be reconciled? I don’t have an answer; I only know that this is what I’ve come to. It may be just a phase, but I doubt it. I think, for better or worse, it’s the way my mind will remain.