Why do we love to see things in terms of either-or rather than both-and? It seems that we have a bias towards oppositional understandings and I struggle to know to what extent this is coloured by cultural norms and to what extent psychological ones, as if it were possible to separate these things out! In any case, Western thinking, including Western religious thinking, often seems to opt for a binary model of reality. There are winners and losers and no one wins unless and until another loses. This kind of zero-sum-game is played out in so many different contexts that it’s hard to choose only one as an example. Our British political culture, of course, sets out this binary model in graphic terms with an ‘opposition’ whose job, over-against that of the government, is to contradict those sitting on the other side. The symbolism of our House of Commons is unmistakable. This is a kind of ‘social darwinism’ of the worst sort.
In religious terms, to pick up a theme from a previous post, we resist pluralism on the grounds of a perceived ‘incompatibility’ between faiths and imagine that it is only in exclusive claims of univocal truth that we thrive over against those of other faiths. I cannot be ‘right’ unless there is someone else out there whom I know to be ‘wrong’.
Of course, this kind of thinking almost inevitably leads to conflict or even to violence. So is there another way? Beginning at that most extreme end of the spectrum, where there is division that has led to a high level of conflict, Jesus introduced his most revolutionary religious idea: love of enemy. There can be no peace that is not also good for my enemy, no solution that does not include my enemy. And our love for enemy is founded on a fundamental challenge to the notion of our complete separation from our enemy. Our ‘enemy’ is our neighbour, whom we are to love ‘as one who is like ourselves’ (a better translation, I think, of the Hebrew, k’mocha). I am not separate from my enemy because I, too, am an ‘enemy’. Put more positively, I am not separate from my enemy because I share their fears, their hopes, their very nature. We are of the same stuff as those we hate.
Buddhism is, I think, correct in diagnosing our problems as being rooted in a wrong view of our understanding of reality. We imagine our ‘selves’ to be separately existing entities when, in fact, all of life exists in a fundamental flow of connectedness. We project our hates and fears onto others as if they are the cause and source of our hates and fears. They are not: these things come from our own distorted perceptions. So the solution is to change our perceptions or, to use a more loaded Christian word, to repent. We simply have to change our minds and we do that by letting go of our mind as a separated, protected thing. There can be no compassion without a radical openness to the ‘other’ that is able to see that there is, in fact, no ‘other’ at all!