Developing an “Opposable” Theology: Part 1 of 5

Some years ago, I heard a United Methodist bishop give a leadership presentation based on Roger Martin’s book, Opposable Minds: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking

Martin’s premise is, average (or less-than-average) leaders tend to err on the side of simplistic binary, either/or, this/that, option A vs. option B thinking, which inevitably leads to making lists of pros vs. cons, and eventuates in settling for the alternative that (hopefully) promises the most pros and the least cons.  But, Martin observed, strong leaders seem to master the ability to hold two-or-more seemingly-opposing ideas in tension, long enough to consider the validity of both, and to seek ways to incorporate the best of the “pros” from all possible options, while eliminating “cons,” thereby finding a far superior option C.

Martin likens the ability to consider two opposing ideas as being similar to how humans utilize the opposable thumb.  The primary function of the human thumb is to provide an opposing counter-force to the other four fingers.  The opposable thumb serves two basic functions.

  1. The Power Grip: Though our four other fingers are capable of grabbing and holding, there’s not much strength in their ability to grip. But, the opposing strength of the thumb increases the overall strength of the grip exponentially.
  2. The Precision Grip: The opposing force of the thumb and finger, combined, allows for the manual dexterity to thread a needle, or use a pair of tweezers, or write with a pencil, or assemble a wrist watch, etc..

Power and precision, made possible by opposing force. Hold on to that idea.

Or, think about the way a body-builder uses weights to build muscles. As the weight is lifted, with repetition, the muscle is strained and exhausted, encouraging new muscle development. The same motion, without weight, won’t build muscle mass. Strength and muscle growth is a result of strenuously pressing against the heaviest weight one can manage.

Or, conversely, think of the muscularity of a rock climber, who keeps all of their muscles in tension for an extended time, as they carefully move from one hand-grip or toe-hold to another. Prolonged muscular tension results less in muscular mass, and more in long, lean muscular density.

Or, think of yoga stances that are held for a seemingly long time, for the purpose of gaining core strength.

Or, perhaps you recall the Charles Atlas ads in the back of old comic books, featuring a cartoon of a skinny kid getting roughed up by the bigger bully. Atlas claimed that in just 15 minutes-a-day, one could develop big, strong muscles using a technique he called “dynamic tension.” Though I never ordered his book, my understanding is that his technique was basically using one arm to resist the other as it pushed up, down, or out.

Martin describes “integrative thinking” as, “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

What if Martin’s idea of the “Opposable Mind” is applicable to theological concepts, as well as leadership? Theology is our belief, or beliefs, about the character and nature of God. And, everyone has a theology – whether they know it or not.

What if, rather than taking sides, theologically, claiming which belief or doctrine is right, or Truth, while declaring everything else false, or even heretical, what if deeper theological comprehension results from the “dynamic tension” of holding and pressing two or more theological concepts in prolonged tension? What if a “muscular” theology requires holding multiple, weighty theological positions for an extended time?

My observation is, when it comes to our spiritual beliefs, most of us fall into one of two categories. Either we blindly default to the religious dogmas we were taught, or we pick and choose what we want to believe. This seems especially true for some of the more complex theological concepts (Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, Biblical interpretation, etc.). The problem is, different religious traditions emphasize differing theological viewpoints. Who is right? Or, when we pick and choose which theological concepts we accept or reject, we ultimately make ourselves the ultimate authority.

This is the first of five blogs in which I will be exploring the concept of developing a capacity for an “Opposable Theology” (Which, by the way, is not the same as an “oppositional” theology! That’s entirely different.).

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