The Either/Or Syndrome

May 21, 1995


The “Either-Or” Syndrome

Once upon a time — a very distant time — ten cents would buy a whole afternoon of those cowboy-and-Indian movies at the Orpheum Theater in my hometown, which is where I first learned about the “Either-Or” syndrome I chose as the title for this morning’s sermon. It describes the tendency most of us have to see events or persons or philosophies in terms of extremes: right or wrong, good or bad — and no middle ground. Everybody knows the form it took in those early western movies: the pioneers in their Conestoga wagons doing the will of God, the Indians painted devils without a single redeeming human quality. Among the cowboys, we knew instantly who was the good guy because he rode a white horse or a golden palomino, and wore a white hat. Bad guys wore black hats. Life was simple: “us” and “them” — black or white – Yes or No.
Years later, in a philosophy class, I learned that this great over-simplification is called in logic “the fallacy of insufficient options” — the Either-Or syndrome — the notion that all questions can be settled by a simple Yes or No. Some can, of course. “Do you own the house you live in? Do you work for Pizza Hut?” For all practical purposes, such questions are answered Yes or No, for there is no other option. If I remember, logicians call this “the law of the excluded middle.” But the law of the excluded middle doesn’t apply to very many of the judgments we have to make, including such moral questions as: “Is she a saint or a sinner? Is he a liar or or is he truthful? Is she greedy or is she generous?” Most of us, it turns out, are a mix of saint and sinner, and even when we are usually truthful and generous we are sometimes liars and greedy. An artist told me once that there are thousands of shades of gray between pure white and pure black, and life has told me that I and the people I deal with fall somewhere within the gray.
But those who are afflicted with the Either-Or syndrome have a hard time accepting that idea. Once, in another church, I mentioned how Jesus once reminded his audience, made up of fellow Jews, that God had sometimes preferred those who were not Jews — and I said that probably went over about the way it would go over in a rich American church if its minister were to hint that even capitalism is not a perfect expression of the will of God. After the sermon I was approached in Fellowship Hall by a man who had turned capitalism into a religion and who said something quite wild to me about how I must be a Communist, bent on destroying the very system that allowed me to preach. I wondered that day, as I have many times since: “What is this strange sickness, this inability to admit a single flaw or weakness in something we have embraced?” I live happily and well under the capitalistic system and I remain a loyal and patriotic American not because I must but because I want to. And yet, I am under no illusion that we have evolved an absolutely perfect system. Devised and operated by human beings, there is no way it can be infallible. One who truly wants it to succeed in the best possible way for the greatest number of people, as I do, will have a lover’s quarrel with it and will not hesitate to say how it might be better.
But for my parishioner on that long-ago Sunday, it was an Either-Or proposition. He followed up his verbal remarks with written correspondence, to which I responded in such a way as to avoid, if I could, the Either-Or labels he had attached to my remarks. I spoke of my faith in the free enterprise system. I said I wanted no part of Marxist communism as witnessed in Russia and her satellites, but that I was grateful for certain checks and balances built into the American system. I said I was not at all sorry to have some monitoring of big business, although I freely admit that the monitoring is sometimes excessive and often bungling. I wish I could get the moni-toring without the defects, but human nature being what it is, I know I can’t. I try also to be honest enough about myself to say that if I were a corporation executive I would probably find it hard to be patient with government interference. But I’m glad that Upton Sinclair’s famous book caused meat to be inspected, and I’ve been glad since thalidomide that drugs are monitored, and I’m glad for any mother’s son or daughter who works at the bottom of a ditch that the walls have to be shored up to meet federal guidelines.
This is not a simple Either-Or matter for me. I really prefer the least amount of government which is consistent with the welfare of all of us, but my close reading of American history makes me distrust a completely laissez-faire economy in which it is assumed that my capitalist friends and relatives will always give adequate consideration to my safety and my health. What I really want is a government that cares about everyone it serves, and big business that earns a deserved profit by selling us a good product, and the right to criticize both of them when they fail to be efficient or responsive to basic human rights and needs.
But my correspondent would not allow me to be in the middle. Things for him were black or white, so he wrote back to say: “We obviously have chosen two differ-ent routes to a better world. You conclude that government can do it better for you than you can do it for yourself.” There’s a perfect example of the Either-Or syndrome at work. What he says is my conclusion is not my conclusion at all, but if it were I would be in a much more vulnerable position so I am placed there whether I like it or not. You can see why the black hat, white hat game is so popular: it simplifies every-thing. You can live happily off at one end of the universe and assume that everything between where you sit and the other end of it is hopelessly wrong.
Two people who truly love each other, and have gotten past the early courtship phase of their romance, do not feel the need to pretend that the other is perfect. If they are secure in their love they can even joke about the imperfections. Criticism of themselves, or even of their marriage, does not throw them into a tantrum or a deep depression. They laugh and say, “Of course we’re imperfect. Who isn’t?” But there are ideologues and dogmatists in all areas of human life who feel that a criticism means a complete denial and rejection. If you don’t like my tie, it must mean you don’t love me. If you think capitalism has a flaw, you must be a Communist. If you think our church ritual is not elaborate enough, you must want to be an Episcopalian so why don’t you go away and be one?
This is an infantile response to life. In my career as a professor of literature I was fascinated once when John Ciardi, a superb literary critic, dared to point out some faults in the poetry of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. He had spoken judiciously of both strength and weakness in her work, but those who adored Mrs. Lindbergh as person and poet were enraged and told Mr. Ciardi he was not fit to touch the hem of her garment. They had bestowed literary sainthood, and either the critic worshipped at the same shrine or the critic should find another line of work. In my other life, as a person obsessed with religion, I was equally fascinated when a spate of letters were printed in the Christian Century about Mother Teresa, the saintly woman who spent years of her life giving compassion and comfort to the hopeless sick and poor in the slums of Calcutta. What provoked the letters was an article by someone who heaped lavish praise on Mother Teresa but deplored the fact that she did not use her tremendous influence to speak out in favor of birth control. Instantly, the all-or-nothing-at-all clubmembers exploded. “How dare you fail to appreciate this magnificent woman? What are you, anyway? Some envious Protestant who hates Catholic women?” I read the letters and marveled: the man who wrote about her first had praised her in ways usually reserved for angels, but a single criticism brought massive fire and brimstone down on his head.
We must accept our System and our personal heroes as infallible, it seems, or be seen as muckrakers. I said once in public that I thought Ronald Reagan was a fine decent man with whom I would feel at home and whom I would probably enjoy as a friend — that I considered him basically loyal, sincere, upright and compassionate — but that as my president I also found him not well informed, capable of frequent and sometimes harmful mistakes, and embarrassingly clumsy at times when questioned by the press. For some in the audience, my praise was instantly forgotten, my reservations were magnified, and I was labeled with indelible ink as a hopeless partisan with whom constructive dialogue was impossible. When the Either-Or syndrome traps people, their positions harden, the gulf between them grows wider, and the profit and the joy of discovery comes to an end.
I came back once, several years ago, from a Congregational convention which I thought was 95% successful. I pointed out all sorts of good things I had heard or seen, and then — because I really think praise is worthless unless one has demonstrated enough critical judgment to see defects — I spoke of an exercise at the convention which I thought was rather weak. A lady listening was incensed and told me later that I was negative and unkind, that unless we had positive things to say we should simply be quiet. I protested that 95% praise and 5% criticism hardly qualified as negativism, but in her uncritical devotion to the group that sponsored the convention she was like those people who will tolerate no criticism of America and put bumper stickers on their cars which say: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. I may have it wrong, but I think if you love something you want it to realize its highest potential and that constructive criticism is proof of your love.
My love of Jewish and Christian scripture has been much wiser and more useful to me since I resolved to be honest in dealing with it and to admit that along with its beauty and its inspiration it also has moments of banality and discrepancy and even cruelty which pose serious problems for one who reads it carefully. But the moment I point out one of those problems in a class or a sermon, the Either-Or syndrome kicks in. Someone says, “If every single thing in the Bible is not literally true or permanently relevant, then we should toss out the whole book as nothing but a lie.” At that point labels start to fly: he’s a radical, she’s a mossbacked reactionary — and the dialogue of discovery becomes impossible. For purposes of convenience — as a kind of shorthand — I am willing to say to someone that in theology I am liberal….but I want the right to define what I mean by that, and to resist being put into any kind of box that makes me a prisoner. It seems to me that in religion, as in all other complex matters, a person who is open to change and growth is caught up forever in a balancing act. It’s probably safer in some ways to be glued to your seat, so that no matter how hard the winds of time and change blow, you can sit there firmly anchored. At the end of such a life you may not have gone anywhere, but neither have you slipped into a ditch. That has some merit. It’s bound to have some merit, or there would not be so many who prefer it.
But in religion, at least in the Christian life, I see no way to reconcile that with how Ckhrist taught. His friends were called “disciples,” which means “learners,” and I don’t see how one can be a learner without turning life into a constant, ongoing adventure. To be a learner is to make a journey, and to make a journey is to get somewhere, and to get somewhere means that you are forever ending up in a place a little different from the one you left. It means, I suppose, that you travel intellectually in a kind of mobile home, so that wherever you arrive at the end of a day is where you feel at home — because all the baggage that counts is right with you.
And yet there is a kind of conservatism even in that, if you think about it. You do hang on to the mobile home and the useful baggage; there are things you feel you must keep so as not to be utterly naked and vulnerable in the world. And that’s exactly how I feel about the Christian faith and the preaching of it. I cherish the words of a woman who once tried to analyze what I sometimes do from the pulpit. She said to a friend, “He brings into the open certain things we have intellectually doubted but emotionally cherished, and as he talks about them he leads us right up to the edge of destruction, but at the last moment he builds a shelf of faith and comfort and invites us to stand on it.” I hope so! Because I want you to know that the Bible is not an easy and simple book, but a very complex one, and that the Either-Or syndrome is not useful in dealing with it. But I also want you to be attracted irresistibly to the beauty of the life of Christ — and I think both are possible.
But to occupy that middle ground is to leave oneself open to ridicule from those who insist on black or white, Yes or No. To hold a great many opinions tentatively, always open to new ideas, is to risk the accusation that you don’t believe in anything. You’ve heard the jokes. “What do you get when you cross a Congregationalist and a Jehovah’s Witness?” “Someone who rings the doorbell….and then has nothing to say.” Or the one about the man who is asked who the Congregationalists are, and says brightly: “Oh, they’re the people who believe in nothing, and believe it so passion-ately.” It is the whole objective of my ministry that you should believe in something, and know why. And I will not accept a judgment that we must either be emotional about our faith, or be intellectual about it, but that we cannot be both. A religion with no feeling in it would leave me cold. A religion with no brains in it would embarrass me. My hope is that this church can create “whole” people by offering both. I believe more strongly each year of my life that one of the most thrilling challenges Christ ever threw out was this one: “You shall know the truth — and the truth shall make you free.”

Balance us, Spirit of love and truth, between the strong feelings
that have power to make us DO something….and the good sense
that helps us do the right thing. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.