Fathom Mag

The Great I AND

An excerpt from Jen Pollock Michel’s Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "And" in an Either-Or World

Published on:
May 20, 2019
Read time:
5 min.
Share this article:

You and Ryan seemed tired Friday,” Janey said when she saw me at church. “Everything okay?” We had been to their house for a Christmas party two days earlier.

“Oh, we weren’t tired,” I said, laughing. “We were fighting.” The sky had been falling in thick flakes that Friday, the city roads becoming a congested crawl under a whitened sky. A few more stolen moments in the car alone had afforded just enough time for an argument.

“Oh, we weren’t tired,” I said, laughing. “We were fighting.”

“When are you taking your vacation days?” I had asked Ryan days earlier. It wasn’t exactly his answer that I had been brooding about for days and finally took up on the way to Janey’s. He did, in fact, plan to catch up while the office was quiet over the Christmas holidays. Instead, it was more that he hadn’t asked me the same question, carelessly presuming that I either had no pressing deadlines or that I would squirrel away time for meeting them as I had made a convenient habit of doing. This has been a recurrent place of tension in the middle years of our marriage, this sharing of domestic responsibility, this supporting of other respective ambitions. 

I don’t relish an argument, but neither have I wanted the kind of polite and distant marriage my own parents modeled for me. After twenty odd years at this domestic project, I’ve come to believe that it isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. Our wedding vows don’t simply bind us to the politeness of yes; they also bind us to the courage of and, which is to say the bravery of moving toward places of paradox. In Christian marriage, we choose to love, serve, and submit to one another, even on the days that wring us out bone-tired. But Christian marriage isn’t built on mute self-sacrifice alone. We must also learn to practice rigorous, risky honesty. We name our desires (however fearfully) and admit our disappointments (however angrily). Yes is the daily work of marital faithfulness and is our practiced resistance to apathy. In marriage, I am, paradoxically, called to a daily dying and a daily showing up—because as the Holy Spirit has whispered, “There is only one wife in this relationship.” It is a lot of muddled, messy work, especially when you try doing it on the way to a dinner party.

Marriage demands that we abide paradox, that we hold to principles at variance with one another, not in spite of love but because of it. And we know from Scripture that marital love is a picture of God’s love for his church (cf. Eph 5). God said yes and and in Christ to love the world well. The incarnation is the act of God fulfilling all his promises with his own hearty yes of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 1:20). In the incarnation, God embraced contradiction in his own being and sustained tension in his own flesh. The incarnation suggests to God’s people the holy possibilities of and, this little word that rests at the bottom of every paradox. It reminds us that God’s ways will surprise us more than we think.

It reminds us that God’s ways will surprise us more than we think.

There is virtue in the little word and, a humility that it can form in us. And helped the early church learn to love each other well. It wasn’t easy when the contradictions of Jew and Gentile were joined together in the holy matrimony of Christ’s body; God was reconciling tremendous difference for the sake of unity in his new kingdom of priests. How were these people to eat dinner together, much less share a common faith? There were very practical questions to resolve when the 

Gentiles were grafted into the people of God: did they need to be circumcised and keep kosher? When Peter stood in the assembly of God’s people, he was clear to commend grace, not law-keeping, as the basis for salvation: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” 

But grace didn’t settle the matter entirely. The church kept insisting on and: exercise your freedom and love your brother. Obey your own conscience and “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” There was liberty in Christ to eat freely and gratefully, and there was also the constraining obligation to love. “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15). This little three-letter word and had the power to bind together a church that might easily have been polarized by their food preferences and their festal calendars. As the apostle Paul outlines in Romans 14, care needed to be exercised for belonging as well as for belief. In fact, Paul deliberately withholds arbitrating some of the debates of his day (Do we eat meat or merely vegetables? Do we observe the Sabbath or esteem every day alike?) and insists instead on this: that our brothers and sisters are worthy of honor, and that each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God. 

But grace didn’t settle the matter entirely.

“Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” 

Imagine and as a measure of healing some of the hostilities of our either-or world. Indeed, that’s something suggested by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. As his subtitle illustrates, Haidt seeks to understand “why good people are divided by politics and religion.” He posits a moral foundations theory, which teases out five different emphases in human morality: care (vs. harm), fairness (vs. cheating), loyalty (vs. betrayal), authority (vs. subversion), and sanctity (vs. degradation). A major difference between political liberals and political conservatives, Haidt writes, is the relative degree of importance they’d ascribe to each of these areas. As his research has shown, liberals are most concerned with care and fairness while conservatives tend to grant equal importance to all five. It’s not simply that liberals or conservatives are more or less concerned with morality, rather their conceptions of morality differ in concern. Haidt believes there’s a mutual respect to be built according to his research: that our society will flourish from the counterbalance of varying perspectives. We’re helped beyond polarization and paralysis, in his words, by an “and” approach.

In this book, I’m inviting readers to imagine the possibilities of and. I am not, however, dismissing that either and or are God’s words too. As philosopher Isaiah Berlin has written, “I am not a relativist. I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without. I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps.’” Scripture’s revelation is often less murky than we wish, especially for deciding many contemporary ethical issues at the center of fierce public debate. However, much to our chagrin, God is not afraid to pronounce, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” 

Yet one important lesson of paradox is that we are not always confined to choosing between two dreaded alternatives. Faith doesn’t always divide the world into two clean halves of right and wrong. In those places of seeming paralysis, such as I describe at the opening of this chapter, when either and or seem to bind our hands, we can surrender our straightjacketed imagination and look for the creativity of the incarnate God—And the love of the great I AND.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox, and A Habit Called Faith. Her fifth book, In Good Time releases in December 2022. She is the lead editor for Imprint magazine, published by The Grace Centre for the Arts, and host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel and also subscribe to her substack, Post Script.

Taken from Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of "And" in an Either-Or World by Jen Pollock Michell. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Cover photo by TJ Arnold.

Next story