The pendulum, Hegel and Christ

Life in the Postmodern Shift

March 8, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 5
Troy Watson | Columnist
(Photo by Sunder Muthukumaran/Unsplash)

Some have described history as a series of pendulum swings, oscillating from one extreme to the other, between tyranny and freedom, conservatism and liberalism, progress and tradition. It has also been said, the pendulum always swings too far, meaning when we find ourselves in one extreme, there tends to be an overcorrection that takes us too far in the other direction. This pattern has been observed in politics, religion, social values, nutrition and fitness, among other areas of life.

I am learning to accept this pendulum swing, even the extreme overcorrections it often brings, for two reasons:

  • I realize some kind of correction is usually needed. I trust this correction will stick, while the more fanatical, false and less helpful dynamics fade away; and
  • I know the pendulum will swing back the other way, eventually. I know whatever stage we find ourselves in the pendulum swing, this too shall pass.

Understandably, many people are tired of the pendulum swing. They rally against it. When the pendulum is favouring the extreme they value, they try to hold the pendulum in place, preventing it from moving back in the other direction. Then they try to force the pendulum back as soon as it moves in a direction they are uncomfortable with. It doesn’t matter where we are on the pendulum swing, there are always people resisting it and others trying to speed it up. They typically balance each other out. As a result, the pendulum maintains its motion.

Whether this pendulum swing is good or bad seems inconsequential. It is part of our reality and how change often occurs in the world.

The German philosopher Hegel proposed another model for how change and progress works. It’s called the Hegelian Dialectic. It is a three-step process that begins with a thesis, which results in a reaction, called the anti-thesis. The tension between the two is resolved by finding a synthesis.

For example, in church history one thesis was that faith is an intellectual agreement with the basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy, overseen by church authorities. This gave rise to a counter movement that demonstrated true faith is personally experiencing the love and presence of God, and being filled with the Holy Spirit. The synthesis between the two was that both are important, that we must balance the head and the heart, personal experience and community, freedom and accountability.

I believe this dialectic dynamic has happened repeatedly throughout church history. In fact, it has been proposed that America has had a revival or spiritual awakening every 80 years or so. Apparently, we are due for another in about 20 years, as the last one started in the mid-1960s, depicted in the recent film, Jesus Revolution. Eventually these movements go too far or fade away. Some go completely off the rails, but most simply reveal their insufficiencies over time. Then a correction in the opposite direction comes. And the process repeats itself.

In a sense, this process resembles Hegelian dialectics, in that there is often a thesis, an anti-thesis and a synthesis. It also resembles the pendulum swing, in that the same three positions of its arc keep being revisited over and over again, the left extreme, the right extreme and the middle.

As followers of Jesus, I believe we are called to another way of approaching the dialectics and pendulum swings of life. We are called to give expression to the qualities and values of the divine found in both extremes. I don’t believe we are called to hold watered-down versions of both extremes as moderates, but to embody the bold and radical truth found in each extreme, such as mercy and justice, creativity and order, tradition and progress, conservatism and liberalism, grace and growth, truth and mystery, individualism and community, conviction and humility, intellect and experience.

Just as Christ paradoxically embodied divinity and humanity fully, the Body of Christ is called to embody the paradoxical work of God in our world today. This is why the extremes on the left and the right, politically, culturally, socially and religiously, remind me of the extremes I am called to embody as a paradoxical “Jesus freak.” However, with this approach, we need spiritual discernment to know what elements of these polar opposites are divine in nature, and what parts are the result of human frailty, folly, ego, dogmatism, tribalism or worse.

Troy Watson is a pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns:
The complexity and simplicity of Christian unity
Makin’ space
Who is my Samaritan?
The end is probably nigh, but I’m optimistic
The Paradox of Enoughness

(Photo by Sunder Muthukumaran/Unsplash)

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