I hear what Don Miller is saying and I suspect that he’s concerned with Christ-followers who demonstrate less than loving behavior. He would be right to be concerned. Indeed, Christ is the most loving person that ever existed or will ever exist. But Christ was also a black-and-white thinker. The prophets were black-and-white thinkers. The apostles were black-and-white thinkers. And the martyrs were black-and-white thinkers.
Donald Miller raises the banner for “fuzzy thinking” in a recent blog post entitled, “The Problem with Black-and-White Thinking” (re-posted on relevantmagazine.com). His main thought: “Black-and-white, either-or thinking polarizes people and stunts progressive thought.” Additionally, he holds that this kind of thinking stunts our “ability to find truth.”
Defending the Good in Miller’s Proposal
Miller admits that there is such a thing as right and wrong. He also admits the existence of absolute truth. So Miller does not advocate full-fledged relativism. For this, we can be thankful. In fact, even though his posting is loaded with difficulties, Miller does include some helpful suggestions worth considering:
First, Miller suggests, “Disengage your ego from your ideas.” This point is well taken because many times a particular view is so tied to one’s ego that it becomes virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction.
Second, Miller encourages, “Understand there is much you don’t understand.” He rightly adds, “We begin to think in black-and-white when we assume we know everything.” While he does not press the point of Christian humility (as he should – pardon the black- and white thinking), it seems to be a part of his overall argument.
Third, Miller seems to argue in essence, that charity and grace ought to be a part of conversations and even arguments. This implied pointer ought to be a part of daily life, where conversations and arguments produce more light than heat and stimulate deeper thinking about a given subject.
Dismantling the Bad in Miller’s Proposal
There are four problems that emerge, including unwarranted assumptions that must be dismantled.
Black-and-White Thinking Demonizes the Opposition
Miller advances the common notion that black-and-white thinking is polarizing; a bad thing. Again, “Black-and-white, either-or thinking polarizes people and stunts progressive thought.” He adds, “… We begin to believe whatever thought-camp we subscribe to is morally good and the other morally bad, thus demonizing a threatening position.”
But this is not necessarily the case. One can advance a dogmatic view but do so in a humble, yet decisive way. After gaining a hearing with the philosophers in Athens, Paul presents an argument that could be construed as black-and-white: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30, ESV).
Paul does polarize his audience. Notice their response. “Now then they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32). The polarization that occurs is a necessary part of proclaiming the gospel message. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, ESV).
Jesus employs a similar strategy when he confronts the Jews in John 8: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (v. 47, ESV). Jesus does not demonize his hearers. He merely tells them the truth. Again, polarizing – but necessary.
These Jews maintained, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you can say, ‘You will become free?’” (John 8:33, ESV). Jesus polarizes his Jewish audience when he says,”Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34, ESV). Oh, the horror of polarization! But Jesus does not leave them without hope. He adds, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
I would argue that when people are polarized, this can prove to be very helpful. When a truth claim is presented, one either accepts or rejects the claim. If one accepts the claim but disagrees, thoughtful dialogue may continue. So instead of “stunting progressive thought” and “stunting our ability to think and find truth” as Miller claims, black-and-white thinking can actually lead to the discovery of truth.
Black-and-White Thinking Assumes Arrogance
Miller continues in his diatribe against black-and-white thinking: “It [black-and-white thinking] allows us to feel intelligent without understanding, and once we are intelligent, we feel superior. People who don’t agree with us are just dumb.” Honestly, Miller’s charge may prove quite accurate at times. It is true that black-and-white thinking may lead to arrogant behavior and a haughty spirit. But this does not have to be the case. One can embrace and promote a dogmatic view and do so in a spirit of gentleness and humility. This much is demanded in the Scripture.
Scripture instructs believers to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and demonstrate compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience with one another (Col. 3:12). Additionally, God’s Word instructs believers to speak in a way that demonstrates gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:16). Paul admonishes Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness …” (2 Tim. 2:24-25a). In other words, there is a place for admonition (which by the way requires black-and-white thinking). But the admonition must be laced with gentleness and kindness.
For instance, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, ESV). What is Jesus saying here? He graciously tells his listeners that if they reject his lordship, they will walk in darkness. Again, he polarizes his audience but speaks the truth in love. There is no hint of arrogance. Indeed, this is the sinless Son of God! Jesus adds, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24, ESV).
It is simply naive to automatically assume that black-and-white thinking inevitably leads to arrogance. Christ-followers, then, must make truth claims with boldness and humility. Recognizing the danger of pride and arrogance, they must season their words with grace and gentleness. They must be winsome in their approach to communicating the truth.
Black-and-White Thinking Discourages Open Dialogue
This point is implied when Miller encourages people to walk away from a conversation that becomes characterized as black-and-white. He says, “When the conversation becomes about defending one’s identity, it’s time to politely move on.” He goes on to say that “these discussions go nowhere and don’t help me find truth.” Miller unfairly draws a conclusion that black-and-white arguments result in “defending one’s identity.” This is certainly a possibility – but is not inevitable.
A few years ago, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off their own set on The View when the conversation got heated with Bill O’Reilly. They walked away from a black-and-white conversation as Miller encourages. O’Reilly who was and is usually unashamedly black-and-white was construed as an uncaring and insensitive person, based on some comments he made about the 911 attacks. Some would argue that Miller’s prediction came to pass; that O’Reilly’s strong stand was tied to his identity. The fact is that when Goldberg and Behar made their exit, the dialogue stopped – and became even more heated and controversial. Moreover, O’Reilly was not the only person on the set who promoted black-and-white thinking!
Black-and-White Thinking Assumes the Impossibility of Certainty
Built into the framework of Miller’s argument is at the very least, an implicit suspicion of certainty. Since Miller admits the existence of absolute truth and since he rejects relativism, he must embrace that some truth is certain. But where will this suspicion of certainty lead in the long run?
Some progressive-types may be tempted to hop on the postmodern bandwagon and condemn “certainty” as a worn out product of the Enlightenment (a position that is amusing because it is dripping with so much certainty!)
I am less concerned with Don Miller at this point. He’s too smart to make absolute statements against absolute truth. What concerns me is what some will do with his antipathy to black-and-white thinking. What concerns me deeply are those who take the next step into uncertainty because they have not examined the logic (or irrationality) of their presuppositions. What concerns me is that full-fledged relativism is just around the corner.
John Piper sums up the essence of relativism: “No one standard of true and false, right and wrong, good and bad, or beautiful and ugly, can preempt any other standard. No standard is valid for everyone” (Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, 98). This relativistic way of thinking is knocking on the door of the church and in some cases has already barged in.