The 14th century bishop, Nicholas of Cusa, proffered the idea that we might well find truth precisely in the conjunction of opposites: ‘and I have learned that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein Thou dost abide’. (The Vision of God) For Nicholas of Cusa God is the font of all truth. But we needn’t be religious to appreciate that potentially the meeting of opposites may be productive of genuine insight, deep understanding and help us to get closer to the truth a the matter. But the key is not the assorted ‘facts’ assembled by one side of the other but the attitude with which we approach one another’s account of reality.
My philosophy professor at Heythrop, Peter Vardy, was fond of saying to his students that, however confident we were in our point of view, there should always be space for the small qualifying voice that says, but I could be wrong’. Behind this comment there was an assumption about the nature of faith: it has less to do with confidence in iron clad certainties and more to do with our capacity to live with questions and uncertainties of life. This attitude toward our different ‘truths’ is as relevant for secular humanists and religious believers alike.
The problem with rock hard certainties from faith and secular camps is that they are seldom as certain they seem. More seriously is the tendencies for iron clad truths to morph into justifications for violence. The violence may not always be physical in nature. It may be expressed in an unwholesome contempt for the human being before us or even regard the person as one underserving of respect. The atheist Richard Dawkins and the religious right share a similar rhetoric. At worse the certainties become a source of actual violence. The long and bloody conflict playing out in Israel is fed by the rock hard certainties of people on both sides of the divide. They have become each other with tragic and devastating results. (Rene Girard would call it ‘bad mimesis’.)
Whether in hotspots of conflict around the globe, here in the UK or amid post election tumult in the USA, we need to commit to commit ourselves to creating spaces for authentic listening. Too often voices are drowned out by the mutual shouting of slogans and abuse and the root issues are seldom thoughtfully explored. News agencies, media pundits, politicians and grassroots people carry a responsibility here. And amid the noise of polarised opinion and inflaming stories we need to, in the words of Jesus, ‘take heed how we hear’. Is it possible to bracket my certainties, connect for a moment on the limits of my own vision and,rather than dismissing the other side as a bunch of ‘nutters, bigots and half-wits in the pocket of corporate interests’, ask about their fears? Fear is the real ‘mind-killer’ and the font of hate and violence. Or instead of dismissing the other as ‘God-hating, fetus-aborting liberals’ can we ask about their motivating concerns and values? All of us benefit from nurturing our capacity for compassionate and critical listening. The ‘other’ may prove to be our guide and guru insofar as they help us grow in an understanding of a position different form our own– even if we continue to disagree. At the very least, the climate of debate and discussion can change. We might discover that reality is a bit more complex than can be cast in terms of either pro-life or pro-choice / liberal or conservative / pro Israeli / pro Palestine alternatives. You might even be surprised by some common ground. There can be peace amid the coincidence of opposites.