St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Modern Religion and Non-Zero-Sum Thinking

I have spent many years in Jewish-Christian dialogues, often as leader and teacher, and equally often as participant. For twelve years I worked with the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA (website:, which I invite you to check out. But this is simply background. Here’s the point.

I would sit in lectures, discussions, dialogues, and the like and observe the people around me. Christians in the group were frequently crestfallen when a Jewish rabbi or teacher would say something critical of Christian interpretation. You could feel a sense of defeat, almost taste it, as if by his interpretation the Jewish exponent automatically cancelled a previously held Christian position.

This is known as “zero-sum thinking.” To win, somebody must lose.

Zero-sum thinking assumes that, if two experts in a room contradict each other, only one is right and other positions are nullified. We experience this kind of thinking all over the place, unfortunately quite often in religious settings, and it means that real dialogue is not happening and, hence, no progress is made. Caving in before someone whose expertise you accept out of your sense of inferiority is not the stuff of spiritual, or any other kind of, growth.

Many of the people in those audiences could go home, shuck off the whole experience as if it were a jacket, and proceed as if the confrontation had no meaning, changed them in no way. They were unable to use alternative viewpoints creatively, likely because their position was not grounded in certitude or conviction, but rather demonstrated insecurity. Hence, when challenged, they had no position besides “I’m right and you’re wrong, and thus if you’re right I must be wrong.”  So if a speaker said “Jesus is not Messiah for us,” that was the end of the argument. A lot of people concluded that they were wrong because an expert voiced his opinion or belief.

One of the most urgent needs in American religion today – using the term broadly to include churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious communities – is to find our way toward a non-zero-sum approach and to allow critique to deepen us.

When we are secure in our faith, we are able to reach out and explore with others, and then to incorporate new ideas from a wide spectrum of shared thoughts and feelings and perspectives. We don’t have to see the world in terms of right and wrong, good guys versus the bad guys. We can stop dividing the world into black and white.

I’ve recently read Robert Wright’s THE EVOLUTION OF GOD, a book that occasionally challenges my positions, which is good; a book lent me by one of my significant conversation partners, Randy Harris. Wright moves toward this same idea at the conclusion of his book; namely that we need to approach non-zero-sum thought about religion as we do with social and political issues. In order to do this, we have to step outside our own little worlds and to see the world from the perspective of the other person. When we do, we are taking small first steps toward the incorporation of a number of viewpoints, and – this is the scary part for some people – we allow the truth to be complex and we affirm that it is, to some degree, shaped by our background and viewpoint, but also shaped by the viewpoints and backgrounds others bring to the table. When we embrace this, we see that non-zero-sum thinking is creative, inclusive, and harmonizing, rather than static, exclusive, and unharmonious.  If this pathway will renew our imaginations about the human project, it’s worth working for.

PUBLISHED 1 Jan 2010