An Encouraging Word – Tolerating paradox

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

For you, Lord, darkness and light are the same. Psalm 139:12

Will this election ever be over? It seems to have been going on for eternity. I am sick to death of noisy people who see things as either all black or all white, all good or all evil, all one or all the other. They have been screaming at us every day, trying to convince us that either Republicans or Democrats have all the answers, that self-sufficiency is always good and dependency is always bad, that this religion is all right and that one is all wrong, that individual rights always trump communal rights … on and on and on.

The Wall Street Journal said back in a January 16 article, “We are in a time of complicated questions in search of simple answers.” I agree, but I would have changed the phrase “simple answers” to “simplistic answers.” For those who have been following this election cycle, it seems the subtlety and nuanced responses to serious questions are a thing of the past.

It appears that deep thinking in our culture is sadly being replaced by sound bites filled with platitudes, bromides and stereotypes. I believe that the American journalist, satirist and cultural critic, H. L. Mencken, was so right when he said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

The Internet is now full of articles about the growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism in American culture marked by a dismissal of science, the arts and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, ignorance and deliberate gullibility.

Part of the reason for the rising anti-intellectualism can be found in the declining state of education in the U.S. compared to other advanced countries: After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place.

Gregg Levoy, in one of my favorite books, describes where I take my stand. “I have heard it said that heroism can be redefined for our age as the ability to tolerate paradox, to embrace seemingly opposing forces without rejecting one or the other just for the sheer relief of it, and to understand that life is the game played between two paradoxical goalposts: winning is good and so is losing; freedom is good and so is authority; having and giving; action and passivity; sex and celibacy; income and outgo; courage and fear.

Both are true. They may sit on opposite sides of the table, but underneath it their legs are entwined.”

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald seems to have said it even more clearly when he said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

We live in a dangerous world when we are forced to choose between overly simplistic answers to complex questions and overly complex answers to simple questions. The truth must be somewhere in the middle.

To read more from Father Knott, visit his blog:

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