“The boundary is the best place for acquiring knowledge.” ~ Paul Tillich
Life has many challenges. Transitions are always fraught with challenge, for example. Whether from adolescence to adulthood, employment to retirement, or geographic relocation, every transition stirs up things within us that can cause emotional upheavals.
There are many other kinds of challenges, of course. The struggle against temptation (a word one hardly seldom hears in a post-Christian culture) is ever with us, simply because we live in a broken world and none of us is exempt from its influence.
There are also matters that do not pertain to ethics per se. Year in and year out complications beset us as we strive to understand who we are and how we fit together with others who are often so different from us. In many respects we even get caught in the middle between polarities that divide our own selves. If it is a challenge knowing ourselves, no wonder we occasionally scratch our heads when we try to read others, and are in turn misread.
Theologian Paul Tillich’s book On the Boundary is an autobiographical exploration of the polarities that were at war within himself. In his attempt to understand his life he discovered that there were many parts of himself that were at odds with other parts of himself. One chapter describes the tension that he experienced between the temperaments of his two ancestral heritages. Each of his parents came from different kinds of backgrounds. As a result one part of himself tended toward the melancholy, contemplation and consciousness of personal duty. His counter-temperament tended toward a zest for life that was at odds with that other part of himself which sought composure and harmony.
Another chapter addressed his struggle between city and country. City life has a different character than rural. He found a part of himself in each, but occasionally they were at odds with each other.
Social classes also present issues. The family of humankind flows through all walks of life, from doctors to beggars to everything in between. Often we find tensions created by these differing backgrounds and experiences. Tillich experienced this within himself, but churches and communities can likewise experience it.
Another area of conflict is the tension between idealism and realism. It is good when young people are idealistic. Such idealism makes us discontent with the status quo and can motivate us to try to change the world, to make it a better place, to bring it into conformity with higher values. Idealism empowers us to take action. But realism does not mean we have abandon ideals. As we get older we see that there are more variables than we initially recognized, and perhaps that the world's brokenness is more serious than we could initially comprehend. Yes, it is possible to overcome, but are we willing to pay the price to get there? It might be a higher price than we originally expected and, perhaps flippantly, paid lip service to.
In another chapter Tillich wrestles with autonomy and conformity to an imposed dogmatism. It is very difficult to think for ourselves. It takes courage to question what we have been told we should believe and to discover for ourselves the truth through honest inquiry. For many, who grew up being “told” what to believe, it is almost feels like sin to question, to break free from the safety of acquiescence. Once free from imposed systems of belief, such persons react strongly against being corralled.
My mother used to always say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Truth emerges from within and cannot be imposed from without.
From my earliest days I have always pictured God like an enormous chandelier of cut jewels. God, who is light, is in the middle of the chandelier, but we do not see Him because He is “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible from our eyes,” to quote the hymn writer. What people see are the jewels and diadems, each of us different, and in different locations on the chandelier. We each reflect God in a different way, yet contribute to the whole in a unique and beautiful way. What we forget is that those jewels began as rough stones that needed chiseling and polishing. They did not “just happen.”
Paul Tillich affirms that the places where he has grown most are in those places where he experienced conflict and upheaval, often within himself. This is the chiseling that turns us into diamonds. Our suffering is not in vain.
It's normal to try to avoid conflict. It feels dangerous, but is often essential to growth. As the psalmist once wrote, “weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”