Between Jerusalem and Athens is a 7-part essay series on worldviews.
Since last year, I’ve been thinking about meta-questions: What caused us to think in a certain way? Where did ideas—those I subscribe to and those I don’t understand—come from? What influenced the prevailing thoughts in a given society? What are their strengths and shortcomings?
You may say it’s an exercise of intellectual empathy, an attempt to understand others and myself, and to learn the vocabularies by which we can converse across different worldviews.
Between Jerusalem and Athens as a title represents this cross-cultural look at the world, which is probably more a reflection of me than of the world itself. Jerusalem and Athens are not to be interpreted as two ends of a spectrum—the ideas in this series of essay extend beyond these—but as an analog of the cultural blends that shape my thinking. Jerusalem is an analog of the East, although there are many versions of “East”, which influences me through my heritage, birthplace, faith, and early education. Athens is an analog of the West, the intellectual culture inherited from ancient Greece, in which my life and work are immersed. Between Jerusalem and Athens is also a tribute to Abraham J. Heschel, whose writings have opened up new horizons in the way I see faith and spirituality—a peek into the philosophy of Judaism.
The 7 essays in this series, split into 9 posts, are descriptions of the world through my lens. Looking around, I see a siloed world—academically, in the workplace, spiritually, personally, in public service, media—segmented based on certain artificial categorizations. In many cases, these categories and classes have helped us focus, analyze, and make much progress as a species. But they are not without downfalls, as the categorizations may turn into barriers, dividing people. These essays are my response to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and my quest to find solutions by exploring other worldviews.
On avoiding single-mindedness and telling a one-sided story. “The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.”
On the silos of knowledge that prevent communication and collaborations across artificial barriers that are much needed to solve complex real world problems. This is a vote for multidisciplinary thinking, the widening of the scope of our thinking beyond conventional academic categorizations.
On the separation between the mind, body, and soul—the components that make up our humanity—that causes an unfulfilling life. Addressing the need for a balanced development on all aspects of our being.
Asian and Western cultures are descendants of two different ancient philosophies, namely the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures, respectively. This essay is on the core principles of each culture and how they affect today’s societies.
When a paradigm categorizes things too much and has difficulties reconciling paradoxes. Real life is messier than theoretical analyses.
There is a book that I return to many times, titled Education by the insightful Ellen White. Its profound first paragraph never fails to strike me every time I read it, and it serves as inspiration for the essays above. It is an argument for a life of learning that is wide is scope, multidisciplinary, practical, and well integrated. This, to me, is the perfect way to end this series.
Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim. True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.
This article on either-or thinking is the seventh and last essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth here and here, and sixth here and here.
In Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ, one of the ways that Eastern and Western mindsets differ is in resolving contradictions. Easterners tend to transcend different and opposing views, seeking the middle way and finding the truth on both sides (i.e., dialectical reasoning), while Westerners tend to insist more on the “rightness” of one view over the other. The laws that govern much of the Western intellectual culture–the law of identity and the law of noncontradiction–lead to a method of thinking dubbed either-or thinking.
What is Either-Or Thinking?
Either-or thinking is a method of parsing concepts by dividing them into a dichotomy–two opposing options–where the alternatives cannot coexist with each other. It is absolutely one or the other, also known as black and white thinking. This methodology can be useful, such as in solving math problems, but it is not without weakness.
Observant readers may say, Isn’t the Western vs. Eastern comparison itself a false dichotomy? To which I would answer, yes, if it is seen as an either-or situation. Ideas don’t belong exclusively in the East or West, and anyone in the East or West is likely a hybrid of world cultures. These are abstractions, general categorizations to represent sets of ideas, models to represent real life. In other words, they are theoretical dichotomies, and as such, they involve simplifications of reality.
In real life, Western and Eastern ideas travel and mix together. General trends may be observed, but the details are far messier than what essays can describe. Further, the world is not divided into just two mindsets–there’s a spectrum of thoughts and paradigms in across Earth’s geography.
What then is the point of discussing these concepts at all, as I have for many extensive posts (see links above)? Well, models and simplifications are still useful in getting some modicum of understanding. The danger is in extrapolating the lessons too much, beyond what the models are intended to represent.
The Downfall of Either-Or Thinking
In the Greek intellectual tradition that values public discourse and debates, it is easy to see how either-or thinking flourishes. It is a perfect set up for an engaging debate in pursuit of answering the question, Which side is more right?
The obsession with categories of the either/or sort runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, “mind-body” controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The “nature-nurture” controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light…nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy “emotion-reason” has obscured more than it has revealed…it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only.
Throughout Western intellectual history, there has been a conviction that it is possible to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for any category. A square is a two-dimensional object with four sides of equal length and four right angles. Nothing lacking these properties can be a square and anything having those properties is definitely a square.
While either-or thinking can produce a clean analytical narrative, a comprehensive understanding of each side, perfectly defined and characterized, it often doesn’t correspond to real life. As Nisbett says, separating a phenomenon into two ideas is convenient for theoretical analysis only, but if it is not followed by a zoomed-out view back to reality, it can lead to useless fights. Real life does not deconstruct itself neatly into two buckets.
Either-or thinking is less prevalent in the intellectual culture of the East, where things are not always defined by necessary and sufficient conditions. The ambiguity of definitions is prevalent, concepts can be fluid, and dialectical reasoning transcends the opposing views.
The West Side of the East
Nisbett’s book deals specifically with the differences between the West and the Far East, those influenced by the ancient Chinese culture. These serve as an interesting backdrop for me to compare and contrast with Near Eastern thoughts. I should note that I do resent the Euro centricity of these terminologies. The “far” and “near” designations are decidedly Western, and I will try to avoid them.
This is perhaps the right time to reveal the motivations behind the essays in Between Jerusalem and Athens (see links above). My forays into these worldviews were first prodded by certain dissatisfaction in religious dialogues, which, being a Christian, were intertwined with the culture and traditions of the Mediterranean region. I enjoy analytical readings of the Bible, which I learned largely after my move to the West (see A Child of East and West, Part 1 and Part 2). Yet, there are limits to a Western analysis of the Bible, especially because the Bible comes from an Eastern society. Its stories, language, and images come from a different world, and this discrepancy can cause misunderstandings.
I do not mean here that some Bible teachings only apply to people in the East and not the West, or vice versa. The principles it teaches transcend cultures, but they are delivered and couched in a particular societal context. An understanding of the context will allow proper understanding of the principles that are being communicated.
Being a Christian in America, one ought to be aware of the cultural differences between oneself and the writer of Biblical passages. Words and concepts can have different nuances in different place and times, and one should always fight the urge of imposing her own culture to the text, imposing meaning that is not intended by the writer.
Unfortunately, these things happen. It is not easy to escape the bent of one’s mind. Biblical concepts, which have many paradoxes, are often discussed in an either-or manner that result in debates between two camps without much edification.
Examples of either-or fallacy include questions like, Is there such thing as true altruism, as in, is an altruistic deed still altruistic when the person feels good about it? Which one is more important, the motive or the deed? The more Christian versions of these questions are on faith and works, justice and mercy, God’s love and His anger, Christ’s divine and human nature, and many others. Is obedience a condition of the heart or a deed? Each issue can make friends and enemies, dissecting a community into 2 debate teams. As for me, I am often confused at the resistance against embracing both sides of the paradox. Why can’t it be both? We don’t have to accept one side in exclusion of the other, especially when the Bible teaches both. Is this a cultural phenomenon?
The Beautiful Resolutions
For an either-or mind, paradoxes are sources of consternations. But, say, you take the either-or framework away, things may actually resolve itself. Listen to what Abraham J. Heschel, a Jewish writer, wrote in his essay Jewish Thinking:
We are essentially trained in a non-Jewish world. This is where we obtain our general training. We are inclined to think in non-Jewish terms. I am not discouraging exposure to the non-Jewish world. I am merely indicating that it is not biblical thinking… If you take biblical passages or biblical documents or rabbinic statements, and submit them to a Greek mind, they often are absurd. They make no sense.
This absurdity comes the mismatch between the mental frameworks of the source and the analyst. Understanding the Bible requires an understanding of life as seen by the Bible.
Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties. As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism, the polarity of ideas and events, of mitzvah and sin, of kavanah and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality, of halacha and agada, of law and inwardness, of love and fear, of understanding and obedience, of joy and discipline, of the good and the evil drive, of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, of revelation and response, of insight and information, of empathy and self-expression, of creed and faith, of the word and that which is beyond words, of man’s quest for God and God in search of man. Even God’s relation to the world is characterized by the polarity of justice and mercy, providence and concealment, the promise of reward and the demand to serve Him for His sake. Taken abstractly, all these terms seem to be mutually exclusive, yet in actual living they involve each other; the separation of the two is fatal to both.
God is Judge and Creator, and not only Revealer and Redeemer. Detached from the Hebrew Bible, people began to cherish one perspective of the meaning of God, preferably His promise as Redeemer, and become oblivious to His demanding presence as Judge, to His sublime transcendence as Creator. The insistence upon His love without realizing His wrath, the teaching of His immanence without stressing His transcendence, the certainty of His miracles without an awareness of the infinite darkness of His absence—these are dangerous distortions.
The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities. Deed and thought are bound into one. All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.
Spiritual aspirations are doomed to failure when we try to cultivate deeds at the expense of thoughts or thoughts at the expense of deeds. Is it the artist’s inner vision or his wrestling with the stone that brings about a work of sculpture? Right living is like a work of art, the product of a vision and of a wrestling with concrete situations.
There’s a time to atomize something, and there’s a time to see it at a distance. Life is indivisible. And Biblical concepts are also interrelated. Loving God is not separate from loving fellow mankind; being forgiven by God is not separate from forgiving others (see the Lord’s prayer); a kind deed to fellow mankind is seen as a deed towards God (see Jesus’ words).
This concept of indivisibility–in education, in academia, in engineering, in life–is really at the core of all of the past essays. And this post being the final one of this series, I’d like to close with this quote:
If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is so to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God.” – Heschel
Come back to read the overview of the Between Jerusalem and Athens series!
A chronicle of an Indonesian in America, continued. In Part 1 of A Child of East and West, I told the story of my upbringing in the East and my Western-leaning brain. This post continues the story with my life in the West.
Part 1 of A Child of East and West left off with me finding a match between my personal philosophies and approach to life in the West. The empowered sense of personal agency allowed me to discover myself without much social ties and constraints. This was the way to live, I thought.
Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was lonely and I missed, sometimes, the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.
Trapped in a Worldview
Once in graduate school, several friends and I attended one of those Christian vs. atheist debates, in line with the ancient Greek tradition from which Western thoughts emerged, on whether there could be morality without God. Debates were enjoyable intellectual exercises, where logic was the main medium to argue and persuade.
After the event, I asked my friend, a non-Christian, about what she thought. She said it was interesting, although the atheist’s arguments sounded more logical to her. Being a Christian, my thoughts were the opposite—the Christian arguments made more sense—but I didn’t contradict her and was perfectly comfortable with her answer, because by this time, I already had a growing hunch that events like this didn’t always bridge people from two sides. It was not whether one side was more logical than the other; it was about psychology.
We are more inclined to accept positions that agree with our preconceived ideas, and those arguments will literally make more sense to us. The reasoning is clearer due to familiarity, and even our physical reactions would differ when listening to someone we like and agree vs. someone we dislike and disagree with. These are natural cognitive biases, and unless we are conscious of these phenomena and fight the urge to dismiss arguments we don’t initially like, we may be fooling ourselves when we say, I came to an objective conclusion.
In one of his social psychology experiments in The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett observed that when faced with evidence contradicting one’s previous beliefs, Easterners tend to average out and seek the middle way, while Westerners show more signs of further polarization. In this experiment’s case, they should have re-balanced their views and take into account all evidence, but they instead became stronger in their beliefs. Nisbett explained this by the Westerners’ ability to generate counterarguments against an opposing view combined with the impulse to choose one or the other as correct. When a contradicting argument is weak and they are able to argue against is, their beliefs are enforced (see backgrounds of this point in here and here). Sometimes, this approach is fine. But there are certainly cases where this is unfavorable, when instead of becoming balanced, people go into extremes.
As both an engineer and a student of nature, I see many contrasts between human designs and nature. Human designs are often too linear: take raw materials, convert into something for a single purpose, then throw away the wastes, which pile and pile in a location unseen by the general public, creating the illusion that they don’t exist. Until one day, the wastes overstress nature and a crisis emerges. Ocean pollution, air pollution, and global warming are results of this type of behavior. The economists would say, externalized social and environmental costs; these are outside the scope of the polluters’ work, so no one’s paying for it.
Natural processes, on the other hand, work in cycles. One’s discards are raw materials for another process, creating a system with net zero waste. The linear thinking starts with one objective–say, making money from selling meat–and optimizes everything to serve that one purpose. Along the way, people forget that animals are part of an ecosystem and that we can’t isolate them only to serve our economic goals (see objects vs. environment). The more I see this single narrative approach, the more I’m drawn to ecological models–holistic approaches that see interconnections between factors, appreciate complexity, see the whole and not just the parts. These are things that align more naturally to the ancient Eastern culture, although the linear thinking practice is now pervasive all around the world.
Life in General
As for my personal life, I crave certain integration between my intellectual, physical, and spiritual realms. I want to do engineering with soul, to have a vocation and not just a job, and I don’t want to be a fragmented or isolated human being. I miss robust communities, the human relationships that give life meaning. In the spiritual realm, the cerebral style of Bible studies and listening to sermons that nurtured my budding faith, eventually hit diminishing returns. As my knowledge increased, it became easier and easier to say the profound things, but with no real change in the life. How many more new sermons does one need if they don’t translate into tangible changes and actions?
In an over-intellectualized world, ideas face the danger of being disembodied, widening the mind-body separation that Plato might have liked, between what we know and what we do. The poignant question is, If we know so much, why are we still doing the same things time after time? This, as I see it, is a symptom of intellectual gluttony.
Yet there are times when I feel the most growth, the most integrated. These are when I can engage mind, body, and soul in the service of others. It is as if the fragmented pieces of me finally come together to form one whole person–me.
Re-discovering the East
It’s funny that while my body travelled geographically from East to West, I am only now rediscovering the East again. The sources of consternations above, the many years of questionings and seeking answers, along with serendipitous encounters with authors from various cultures, become an education that no school can give me. I should say that on a day-to-day basis, I am still very much Hellenized—logic and reason are still my modus operandi, especially in my line of work—but at least I am now aware that people reason differently around the world, and that there are strengths and downfalls to each paradigm. Life is messier than abstract concepts.
As for my church experience, it turns out that churches in the East and West–or at least my church in Indonesia and in the US–operate differently. In a culture where arguing with logic can sometimes be seen as immature, it makes sense that reasoning faith out is not always the primary focus of in the life of the church. People come and stay, perhaps compelled first and foremost by the community before they are convinced by the tenets of truth. I see this many times and it is incomprehensible to me because I’m not wired that way. But people are different, and cultural tendencies are also different.
Indeed, the community aspect in Eastern churches is so strong that, to me, they seem more integrated than Western ones; more people are involved in the day-to-day life and business of the church and members are more involved in each other’s lives. Of course, this level of involvement can be both good and bad, but in terms of the bond between people, it is definitely stronger. Personal connections do not only happen during the weekends, but throughout the week. I felt the strength of this community the most when my father passed away and my home church community held my family up day in and day out.
Which way is better? Well, that may in itself be a Western question–the insistence that there is a correct and incorrect way. Maybe the Eastern in me wants to seek the middle way, that there’s something each culture can learn from each other.
As a child of East and West, I am wishing for a convergence of these cultures that is symbiotic in my own life. At the very least, I can contextualize better now, taking cultures into account in my evaluation of things.
Honestly, I wish I understood these things sooner. Things are much clearer now than they were 10 or 15 years ago; this knowledge would have helped me in my younger years. Perhaps there is something to say about cultural studies for kids, especially in today’s connected world, to help us understand each other in this global village.
Which leads me to think about my future kids and their cultural heritage. While their parents are hybrids of East and West, they will be much more Western than me or my husband. In this sense, we will be of different cultures—their upbringing will starkly differ from mine, and I’m certain there will be conflicts resulting from this difference. Hopefully, knowing what I know now, I can understand them better and help them triangulate themselves in this world.