Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Beauty of Dissonance

“Many men standing and shouting me down. Awful. Shameful. That’s the end for us here.” When I read these words in a recent email, I grieved. They were written by a church leader dealing with theological controversy, a man at the end of his rope. How does it come to this?

There is a contentious spirit on the loose, creating havoc both inside and outside of the church. It’s always been there, but it seems more pronounced these days. Wouldn’t you agree? We live in what one writer describes as “a poisonous cocktail of othering, aversion, and moralization.”  A guest essay in today’s New York Times, “How Much Does How Much We Hate Each Other Matter?” attempts to answer the question of the title, only to conclude, “Figuring out what is driving us apart and what we can do about it was never going to be easy.” Great.

Reading from a theologian by the name of Karl Barth (not that I do this often) might provide a needed answer. But you will have to stay with me. Ready?

Barth is known for his dialectical theology. Wait, hold on. I can see your eyes glazing over already. But hang on. Yes, “dialectical” sounds so academic, so foreboding, but at its root it simply implies dialogue. It was Barth’s method to get closer to the truth of things. He would seek to identify two apparent contradictions to gain insight into reality. He believed that “a full grasp of truth cannot be had by walking in a straight line, where one grasps one idea and, building on that, is ready and able to grasp the next idea” (Galli). Not, at least, in theology.

I hope I haven’t lost you. Consider, for example, the many apparent contradictions in Scripture—

-God’s majesty and God’s vulnerability

-God’s sovereign election and man’s free will

-God’s kindness and God’s severity

-God’s compassion and God’s judgment

-God’s otherness and God’s nearness

All of this can create a certain dissonance, something we are not inclined to like. We have a hard time accepting conflicting ideas. We like straight lines. We want to resolve the tension, but in the process, we often create more of it. I am reading in Isaiah these days, and God’s promises of blessing to Israel are matched by his fierce judgments—often in the same chapter! Which is it, God? Well, both. Or consider God’s wisdom. While we are exhorted to pursue it like a person on a mission to find hidden treasures, wisdom is simultaneously pursuing us. We find God, only to discover it is he who found us. Which is it? Both.

And the point?  Maybe if we learned to be more dialogical, willing to work with contradictory truths, and appreciate the dissonance, we might get to some harmony. Sort of like music, where some of its beauty is found in its discordant notes. Theologian Roger Olson used the metaphor to describe an evangelical choir (Presbyterian Calvinists are the bass, Pentecostals are soprano, Baptists are the baritone, and Wesleyans are the alto part).

Our tendency, however, is to drown the other out. We build one piece of knowledge on another, seeking to destroy the other tribe to defend our case. What if we listened to the sounds we all are making, giving more effort to embracing seemingly contradictory truths, believing this will lead to the deepest harmony, the greater truth?

Part of this requires the humility to say, “I can only see so far.” So many of these apparent contradictions (e.g. free will/election) shade into mystery. This is the dilemma of theologians. As Galli, in his biography on Barth put it, “Theologians are required to speak about that which is ultimately unknowable. It is a vocation where reason is demanded and yet where reason is shown its utter inadequacy.” (No wonder I can get so messed up!).

Maybe if we had more grace to live with some of our contradictions rather than seeking to reduce positions, resolve things quickly, and shout the other side down. There are infinite tensions and paradoxes and ambiguities that are inherent in faith (not to mention politics). We may disagree—we will disagree—but at least we should aim to live with one another, embracing words once spoken by Augustine—

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity

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