Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's a Christian to do with Binaries?

A binary is simply a pair of opposites.
Black and white. Up and down. Inside and outside.
In anthropology, we are introduced to binaries by Cladue-Levi Strauss in his structuralist theories, where cultures are based around binaries like sacred/ profane and core/periphery. He says all cultures can be understood in terms of these binaric opposites.
While structuralism in its purist is considered theoretically outdated by contemporary anthropologists-- after all, universal theory is dead too-- I still find that the United Stastian culture still bases much of itself around binaries.
From an early age, we are taught right and wrong and good and bad; the notions of nice/mean, share/selfish, obey/disobey, friend/enemy, safe/dangerous, us/them are so ingrained in concrete opposition that they become a part of our morality.
In school we take true and false tests to pass or fail the class.
We refer to movies or books or food with the comment, "You either love it or hate it."
Even in our humor, we use jokes that being with, "There are 2 kinds of people in this world..."
It is convenient for our intellects, it is a part of our puritanical roots, and it is easy.

But with post-modernism (and post-post modernism) came the glorification of the gray, the multi-directional, the anti-binary.
This scared Christians (with the exception of a few select groups who loved Donald Miller and listen to the Outlaw Preachers podcast). If there is no black and white there is no truth, and if there is no truth there is no Jesus, is the assumption.
But is the Bible really so binaric? Is our God really so binaric?

I think the answer is both yes and no.
  • There is the heaven/hell duo (an interesting solution to the thesis and antithesis found in Catholicism's Purgatory), and Jesus saying the only way to the Father God in heaven is through Him (John 14:6).
= Binary
  • There are the foundations of righteousness/sin and thus salvation/damnation, between which Jesus intercedes, again as the solution to the thesis and antithesis.
= Binaries
  • God wants all our lives, not just a little; He wants hot, not lukewarm, all or nothing (Revelation 3:16).
= Binary

Perhaps Christian theology is so binaric because we as humans find comfort in defining our world pairs of compartmentalized opposites. But, then, if we are created in the image of God, is God Himself also binaric in nature?

I don't think our God is two-dimensional; afterall, He is above dimension:
  • The trinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
= Not binaric (or even purely ternary for that matter)
  • God is love, righteous, holy, good, faithful, and true.
= Not binaric, but rather unilateral with no opposites to oppose. God's binaric opposer Satan reflects him backwards as being hate, evil, bad, cheating, and lies. BUT, since God made Satan, even he is beautiful (or at least was originally), and thus God has no antithesis (thanks for this interesting point, Mom!).
  • Jesus was both fully human and fully God (more than 1 verse here but see John 1:1).
= Binaric in concept, but not a true binary because man and God are not in opposition but rater agreement.

Basically, while the Christian theology may be binaric on the surface, God Himself (or Jesus or the Holy Spirit) is not. The gray lies in the interpretation of the complex doctrine in the New and Old Testament, where pure binaric legalism cannot result in a full understanding of the message of Christianity. They say Christianity is a relationship not a religion, and while most of this relationship is based on the various binaries of sinner/savior, of the earth/of the heavens, flesh/spirit, material/eternal, that separate us from God, Jesus is literally the go-between that solves the contradictions and changes the / for a -- ... 


  1. I like the use of the non-existent word 'binaric.'

    On a more serious note, I really like the idea of Jesus as a "go-between" that reorients the binaric notions of humanity. Without Jesus, the binary of God/man, Creator/creation, Perfection/sin etc. is never broken (in biblical words, the veil is torn with Jesus). This is a good metaphor.

    I also think sociologically you're right on... we are still a binary-based culture. Especially poignant are the concepts of us vs. them which literally plague us. Think about conservative/liberal, communist/capitalist, ... how about with Christians?. Calvinist/Arminian?...

    We make two sides from any proverbial coins. But again, I think that is the nature of man, and the nature of the fallen world. Old Testament- God/adam, Cain/Abel, Jacob/Essau... this rhetoric is littered throughout Israel's history. But with Jesus, we see a glimpse of the Kingdom... and perhaps a hint of the multicolored nature of our intended existence.

    But let's forget that with God, there must be absolutes because ultimately... the acceptance of Jesus/denial of Jesus is a black and white issue. We can't half call Jesus, 'Lord.' He is Lord or he is a good teacher/liar/fool/fiction.

    Some food for thought... I should proofread this probably, but I'm out of time...

    Love you KK and your sensitivity to culture,
    Yo brotha (and the anthropologist/theologian who lives inside him)

  2. I love your comment reflecting the binary that C.S. Lewis presents that Jesus is either the messiah or a liar. Good point! You are so wise, oh hermanito.