Chapter 3: The Excluded Middle

There’s an axiom of formal logic and philosophy called the Law of the Excluded Middle (sorry, I’m a mathematician at heart, so I can’t help but bring it up from time to time). Now, despite the fact that this thing is called a “Law”, it’s really an axiom. That means you can’t prove it or disprove it; you either accept it as true, or you don’t. And if you accept it as true, then you can prove a whole bunch of things, and if you don’t accept it as true, you can prove a whole bunch of other things. None of that’s really relevant to what I want to talk about, though.

The Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM) states the following, roughly: “If a statement is not true, then it must be false.” Think about that for a minute — it seems to be obviously true, and in fact, most of traditional mathematics is built on the assumption that LEM holds. But what if it’s not? What if the “excluded middle” — some mysterious third state that is neither true nor false — is a better characterization of the world we live in?

This is an uncomfortable idea. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I believe it to be true. Life is full of contradictory ideas, values, morals, and beliefs: Republicans and Democrats; creation and evolution; pro-life and pro-choice; and on and on and on. I used to look at these contradicting ideas and say, “These ideas cannot both be correct. One must be right, and the other must be wrong. I just need to figure out which one is which.” In essence, I applied LEM to the contradiction. And I think this is a part of human nature; I want life to be black and white, right and wrong. These ideas are comfortable to me; I understand them, and I can wrap my head around them. But what if life isn’t black and white? What if LEM is wrong?

The Bible has a lot to say about contradiction, and for good reason — it’s chock full of them! There are people (in fact, most people I know, and myself much of the time) that try to reason away the contradictions in the Bible by studying the ancient Greek, or by reading Biblical scholars, or by trying to argue the contradiction away rationally. And I don’t think there’s a thing that’s wrong with that! In fact, I love a good theological argument as much as, well, I dunno, the next guy who loves to debate about theology and philosophy. But the more I study the Bible, I see a picture of a God who lives in the excluded middle. It’s all over the place — the wrathful, judgment-filled God of the Old Testament together with the loving, merciful God of the New Testament; the God who asked told a man he was going to be the father of a nation, and then asked him to sacrifice his only child; a God who saves us by faith, but asks us to change how we behave; in fact, the quintessential descriptor of Jesus, the man Christians are supposed to emulate, is the “servant leader”. If that isn’t a contradiction in terms, I don’t know what is!

I struggle with these sorts of contradictions all the time, every single day — it’s not just about what’s in the Bible. How can a God who is good allow all of these bad things to happen in the world? The two are contradictory, and yet I believe that somehow both are true. Do miracles occur? Did they ever? If so, how do they fit in with established scientific understanding, or do they? Again, these two ideas are contradictory, and yet somehow, they are there. What about heaven and hell? Do they exist? Where are they? What are they? Who decides who goes where, and on what basis is that decision made? I don’t even have the faintest idea how to answer any of these questions, and you can collect ten different people from ten different churches, and they will give you ten different answers to these questions. Who is right? Not all of them can be right, can they? Surely someone must be wrong.

There’s an ancient fable that talks about a group of blind philosopher dudes that are trying to create as accurate of a picture of the world as possible, despite the fact that they’re blind. One day this group of philosophers comes across an elephant; one of the blind guys feels the trunk, and says “An elephant must be sort of like a snake, long and slithery.” Another feels a leg, and says “No, you’re wrong. An elephant is like a great giant tree with leathery bark.” A third blind guy grabs an ear, and says, “You’re both full of it. An elephant is like a giant bat with huge, flexible wings.” And so on and so forth, and the blind guys get into a huge argument about what the elephant actually is until the elephant, tired of being poked and prodded, squishes them all (maybe I’m paraphrasing a little).

But this is exactly the situation I’m talking about — none of the philosophers were wrong, exactly, but none of them were really right, either. To the philosophers, the elephant occupied the excluded middle — a place where things are both true and false, or perhaps are neither. And this is, I believe, exactly our perception of God. Each of us sees different aspects of God, and thus we each gain a picture of Him that is neither wholly accurate or wholly inaccurate. God lives in the excluded middle; He is not true, at least not as we understand truth, but neither is He false. He is something else.

OK, great. I’m not even 3 chapters into this book thing, and I’m sure I’ve completely lost you. Why am I talking about this esoteric theology philosophy stuff anyways? What relevance does it have in a book that’s supposed to be about me? Because I believe that the contradictions in life are also the place where the most growth occurs and growth leads to beauty. I am tired of trying to resolve all of the contradictions that are placed before me. I don’t know how to say “This thing is true” and “This thing is false”, and the process of endlessly debating their merits in my head is exhausting. I aim to live in the excluded middle, the place where contradictions flourish, because I believe that is where God manifests Himself most powerfully.

Do please note, however, that I am not arguing for moral relativism. That is, I do not believe that what is wrong for me is right for you, or vice versa. This viewpoint is logically flawed, and flies directly in the face of Christian teaching. Yes, I know, I can hear your objection already: isn’t this just another contradiction? And wasn’t I just making the case that contradictions are central and important? Yes, I was, but note that LEM does not say that everything only exists in the excluded middle. Things may still be true or false — it just simply says that being “not true” does not imply being “false”.

Right, anyways. You’d better stop me before I go any further with this, because I could really go on all night long about this stuff, and pretty soon I wouldn’t even know what I was talking about. I don’t know if anything I just wrote makes any sense to anyone besides me, and sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to me. I don’t know if I’m expressing the ideas that I want to express well, and I promise that next chapter I’ll talk about more tangible stuff, so if you hated this chapter, please don’t give up reading just yet!

One thing I do know for certain, however: the next time someone tells me that they can’t believe in Christianity because there are too many contradictions in it, I’m just going to respond “You’re right. There are contradictions, and I don’t know how to answer them. Sometimes I don’t think they can be answered. But that’s what makes it all so beautiful.”

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