The thought of some of the greatest and most influential persons in history seems, at times, riddled with inconsistencies. Jesus, Augustine, Socrates, Aristotle, among others, appear at times to contradicting themselves. It’s not always easy to see how everything squares with everything else in their teachings.
That’s why the great religions and philosophies of the world are so prone to multiple interpretations. For example, given the depth and scope of Jesus’ teaching, Christianity is particularly open to different kinds of understanding. It’s no accident that there are hundreds of denominations within Christianity and every variation of spirituality and worship inside of these. The teaching is so rich that none of us, the disciples, it would seem, can carry it off as did the master. We each pick our parts selectively, end up consistent, but also much narrower than the master.
Consistency, someone once quipped, is the product of a small mind, just as inconsistency is the mark of a great one. There’s a truth in that, though it must be carefully understood. For instance, sometimes we achieve a certain consistency, a view of things that holds together and has no contradictions within it, but at a high price, namely, we end up too narrow, too non-inclusive, too one-sided, impoverished, reductionistic. Racism, bigotry, fundamentalism, anarchy, and wantonness are, whatever else, consistent. But their consistency is based upon a fragile synthesis, too narrowly drawn, that eventually suffocates important areas of life.
Conversely, sometimes what looks like inconsistency is really a person holding together a number of important truths in a higher synthesis. She may look inconsistent, but what she is really doing is holding and juggling a number of different truths in a creative tension. The person who tries this juggling act, and it is a juggling act, will often find herself in great tension, but, she will also find that she has no blocked arteries and very resilient lungs, that blood flows freely to every part of her person and she is able draw life-giving oxygen from whatever kind of air she finds around her.
Jesus was like that. He held so many great truths together in one synthesis that he was misunderstood by just about everyone and he scandalized persons on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In his teaching, it’s more “both/and” than “either/or”. We struggle with that. It’s easier to carry one truth or another than try to carry them all.
What are some of the great truths that Jesus carried in tension that we tend to reduce too easily? Allow me to name ten of these, chosen precisely because a healthy spirituality must always carry both ends of these:
1) A strong sense of individuality, a focus on private integrity and private prayer – coupled with an equally strong commitment to community, family, civic and ecclesial involvement, and social justice.
2) A healthy capacity to drink in life and enjoy it without guilt – but one that befriends an equally healthy capacity for asceticism, selflessness, and discipline.
3) A healthy development of the individual gifts that God has given us, a healthy self-assertion, complete with a certain healthy exhibitionism – held always in tension with a healthy sense of duty, a capacity for obedience, and an habitual self-effacement.
4) An itch for the prophetic, an eye and a sympathy for what lies outside the centre, for what is marginalized, a challenging voice for the excluded – even as one recognizes the importance of the institutional, defends against anarchy, and helps nurture what’s sacred within family, church, and tradition.
5) A perpetual openness to what’s new, what’s strange, what causes discomfort, to what’s liberal – even as one works to ground oneself and others in the familiar, in routine, in what conserves, gives rhythm, and makes for family and stability.
6) A eye and a love for the sacred, for God, for the other-world, for the eternal horizon – coupled with an unabashed love for this world, for its joys, for its achievements, its present moment.
7) A passion for sexuality and a defense of its goodness – coupled with an equally strong defense of purity and chastity.
8) An eye for world-community, for stretching all the boundaries we were born into, for an ever-widening hospitality – even as one is deeply loyal to family, personal roots, and the fact that hospitality begins at home.
9) An idealism and a hope that defies the facts, that relies on God’s promises and does not let the deep, inchoate desires of the human heart be deflected by the accidents of history – held together with a realism that is pragmatic, programmatic, and doing its share of the work.
10) A focus on the next-life, on life after death, on the fact that our lives here are but a short time in expectation of something else – even as we focus on the reality and goodness of life after birth, this life, its importance.
Jesus held all of these as one, playing every kind of tune and breathing every kind of air, both human and divine.