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A both/and life

Posted: April 30, 2011 - 3:01pm

When I was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, our student association was called the Franz Bibfeldt Society. It was named after the mythical proponent of “Both/And” theology that values more than one way of looking at things and emphasizes what we agree on rather than what separates us. Some students scoffed at “both/and” theology. They thought academic study required the “either/or” precision of finding the one right way of seeing things.

But I think Bibfeldt was on to something, as least when it comes to life in church and society. Many yearn for an alternative to the either/or divisiveness of partisan politics and cutthroat economic competition. Even sporting events can overemphasize winning and losing rather than how the game is played. Religious communities can also get caught up in an either/or perspective when they concentrate on which beliefs and practices are acceptable or unacceptable. Even when the lines are not starkly drawn, either/or division can emerge. For instance, some concentrate on social justice and ignore spiritual growth and vice versa. Some are focused on this world and others on the next, not to mention those who prefer venison to salmon at church potlucks.

In the midst of either/or, can we find the common ground of both/and? In a 1733 sermon, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, embraced a catholic (universal) spirit that resonates with the notion of both/and when he said “…although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”

I am often “forwarded” by others with varying perspectives and surprised by how much I have in common with those with whom I had assumed I was diametrically opposed. I was once part of a “pro-choice/pro-life” dialog group that found common ground in our support for strengthening adoption options. As we met and discussed, we grew to care about each other and found a way, despite our differences, to work together on a common cause.

Both/and theology does not address every question, of course. There are things we cannot do simultaneously. A parishioner at a congregation I was serving at the beginning of the Gulf War told me she liked being part of a church where individual conscience was respected with regard to the war. But when I mentioned that ultimately, as a country, we have to make a decision one way or the other, she said thinking about that made her head hurt.

Still, many times there is more that unites us than separates us, and I believe we can discover it if we take time to really listen to and learn from each other. In his book “The Feast of Fools,” Harvard theologian Harvey Cox asserted his conviction the time had come to close one either/or gap that exists for some. He wrote his book to heal the rift between what he called “world changers” and “life celebrators.” Sometimes the myriad injustices that plague the globe foster a severity in world changers that keep them from enjoying life. And some are so caught up in having a good time, they are oblivious to the pain and suffering of millions with whom they share the planet.

World changing and life celebrating should not be “either/or,” but “both/and,” and today is a great day to unite them. May Day — today — is a quintessential both/and holiday. May 1 is International Worker’s Day, a day dedicated to world-changing social justice that demands safe and humane working conditions for all who labor. May Day is also a time of life-celebrating revelry as we dance around the Maypole and give thanks for the renewal of spring. This May Day, I hope to make Franz Bibfeldt proud by recommitting both to working for justice for all and to appreciating the beauty and wonder that fill each day. It is a both/and way to live and grow.

• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church

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