08/14/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Why Faith -- and We -- Need Contradictions

I had never seen a collection of bumper stickers quite like this. The trunk lid of the car before me proclaimed three messages:
  • Imagine all the people living life in peace
  • Coexist (written in the symbols of various faith traditions)
  • Bush/Cheney 2004
I'm willing to bet that no other car in the U.S. ever sported those three bumper stickers, at least not at the same time. They stood together in silent, quirky testimony to the power of contradictions to make our heads hurt.

Maybe this kind of headache is precisely what we need.

So many of us, it seems, don't like contradictions. They upset the apple carts of our certainty. We're confident that our faith tradition, or our political party, or our stance on the federal deficit is correct. With that confidence as our foundation, we do everything we can to make the contradictions go away.

This can happen in any sphere of our lives. We begin to realize that a close friend has a mean streak, and we refuse to acknowledge it. A state government tries out a controversial solution to a national problem; when it succeeds, we write it off as an anomaly. Scientific evidence contradicts our religious beliefs and we blame the source: "Well, of course PBS said that; they're part of the liberal media!" Bottom line, we see contradictions as something to resolve -- quickly, in favor of our established beliefs.

It's getting harder to do that. With populations growing ever more diverse -- in ethnicity, faith tradition, gender expression, family situation, country of origin, etc. -- we cannot help but bump up against reasonable people whose ideas contradict our own. As scientific discovery advances, we cannot help but encounter new evidence that contradicts our ideas. The more we explore the avalanche of information at our fingertips, the more likely the contradictions will confront us.

True, we often try to separate ourselves from all this, to live out our lives with people just like us. But that has consequences. Individually, we close ourselves off from the unexpected opportunities for growth that often come from openness. We end up as less than our full selves, and we contribute less to the world than we otherwise could. Collectively, we lose the impact that those contributions could make to our public square -- at a time in history when we need collaboration to move forward on the immense problems that face us.

What if we treated contradictions differently, then? What if we let them change us?

Surely they have the power to do so. Contradictions bring us up short. They force us into an "and yet..." line of thinking: "Wow, I know I'm right on this issue, and yet..." If we spend enough time with the contradiction, we start to probe deeper, to revisit our certainties. Our minds open up to the possibility that our way of thinking is not the only valid way. That can open our hearts too, not only to new ideas, but to the people who hold them.

The power of contradictions to change us is hardly a new idea. Buddhist thinkers have long used contradiction to achieve, among other things, spiritual awakening. "In some schools of Ch'an/Zen, awakening can occur suddenly, and this sudden awakening can be triggered by a certain kind of shock," write scholars Yasuo Deguchi, Jay Garfield and Graham Priest in a paper on the topic. "The shock that triggers awakening is often ... produced precisely by the contradictory content of an utterance." The Zen koan is a classic example of such an "utterance."

On the cognitive level, contradictions can also force us to consider new connections. I wonder whether the thinkers of Athens had this experience upon hearing St. Paul preach the Christian gospel. Even though the biblical account (Acts 17:16-32) describes them as extraordinarily curious and open-minded, they still greeted Paul with bafflement and derision. "Some said, 'What does this babbler want to say?' Others said, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.'"

In response, Paul connects two systems of thought that seem contradictory: Athenian religion and Christianity. Not everyone was convinced, but apparently Paul moved the needle: "When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, 'We will hear you again about this.'"

What if we lived with, even embraced, the contradictions? What if we allowed them to make new connections between ideas? What if we "heard them again about this"?

We might grow larger in spirit.

Our ideas might gain nuance and complexity. Even more important, we would foster a sense of openness to others that can contribute to personal interconnectedness and peacemaking. Goodness knows, the world could use more of both.

No one, nothing, has all the answers to anything. Contradictions happen constantly. Let's make use of them.