LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY
My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways, declares Yahweh. For the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.
We know only imperfectly... When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with childish ways. Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles... Now I can know only imperfectly.
So, then, where does that leave the wise? or the scholars? or the skilful debaters of this world? God has shown that this world's wisdom is foolishness!
How great are God's riches! How deep are his wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions?
Who can understand his ways? As the scripture says, 'Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is able to give him advice? Who has ever given him anything, so that he had to pay it back?'
For all things were created by him, and all things exist through him and for him. To God be the glory for ever! Amen.
[Isaiah 55: 8-9, JB; 1 Corinthians 13: 11-12, JB; 1 Corinthians 1: 20, GNB; Romans 11: 33-36, GNB]
God is mystery. We can never encompass God in thoughts or words. When we talk about God we are trying to describe the divine from the point of view of the human, the eternal from the standpoint of the temporal, the infinite in finite terms, the absolute from the severely limited perspective of the relative.
Rudolf Otto describes the sacred as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans', the awe-inspiring mystery which fascinates us. We are tempted to hide from the fearful majesty of God, but also to gaze in wonder at his loveliness.
We encounter mystery in the descriptions of the ways of God in the Bible, in the sacraments, liturgies and rites of the church, in nature, and in the events of history. Mystery pervades the whole of reality. Indeed, true knowledge and freedom are not possible without an experience of mystery.
In the languages of literature, art, music, we touch the hem of God's garment and feel a little tingle of power, but God will always remain incomprehensible.
Mystery also surrounds the human creatures who are both made in the image of a mysterious God and who have, by their sinning, marred that image. Pascal says this doctrine of the Fall offends us, but yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incom prehensible to ourselves.
So Christianity, says Kierkegaard, is 'precisely the paradoxical'. (Paradox -- from the Greek para and doxa, 'against opinion'.) The idea of mystery invites us to think more deeply, not to abandon thinking; to reject the superficial, and the simplistic.
Prejudice is, in essence, idolatry: the worship of my - or my group's - ideas, even ideas of God. If I know all the answers I would be God, and 'playing God' is the essence of idolatry.
One of my greatest dangers is to relax my vigilance against the possibility of prejudice in my own life, or to suffer from the delusion that I can ever be really free from it. We human beings are more rationalising than rational. Thomas Merton said somewhere, 'No-one is so wrong as the one who knows all the answers.' Alfred North Whitehead: 'Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas.' 'If you understand everything, you must be misinformed,' runs a Japanese proverb. People who are always right are always wrong. The dilemma is summed up by W.B. Yeats -- 'While the best lack conviction, the worst are full of certainty and passionate intensity.'
The key lies in distinguishing between faithless doubt and creative doubt. Faithless doubt, as Kahlil Gibran put it, 'is a pain too lonely to realise that faith is his twin brother'. Or it is a cop-out to save us being committed to anything. Its accomplice, neutrality, is also evil: the apathy of 'good' persons results in the triumph of evil. The worst evils in the world are not committed by evil people, but by good people who do not know they are not doing good. The authentic Christian is willing to listen, as well as to save.
Creative doubt, on the other hand, is 'believing with all your heart that your belief is true, so that it will work for you; but then facing the possibility that it is really false, so that you can accept the consequences of the belief.' (John Reseck).
So faith is not about certainty (certainty makes faith invalid and unnecessary). Its core is the mystery -- and the reality -- of the Eternal coming into time: 'Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man' (Wesley).
The essence of Christianity is not dogmatic systems of belief, but being apprehended by Christ. True faith holds onto Christ, and for all else is uncommitted. It is about a relationship with Christ (and all meaningful relationships involve risk). The true God does not give us an immutable belief-system, but himself. He became one of us to 'make his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God's glory shining in the face of Christ' (2 Corinthians 4: 6). Alleluia!
Here are some of the best quotes on this broad subject, from my files:
The essential difference between orthodox Christianity and the various heretical systems is that orthodoxy is rooted in paradox. Heretics, as Irenaeus saw, reject paradox in favour of a false clarity and precision. But true faith can only grow and mature if it includes the elements of orthodoxy that God cannot be known by the mind, but is known in the obscurity of faith, in the way of ignorance, in the darkness. Such doubt is not the enemy of faith, but an essential element within it. For faith in God does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes. Rather, it can be seen as a process of 'unceasing interrogation'. [Kenneth Leech, True God]
'Stage 5' faith involves going beyond explicit ideological systems and clear boundaries of identity; accepting that truth is more multidimensional and organically independent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp; symbols, stories, doctrines and liturgies are inevitably partial, limited to a particular experience of God and incomplete. This position (i.e. that an appreciation of mystery and ambiguity is the essence of maturity) implies no lack of commitment to one's own truth tradition. Nor does it mean a wishy-washy neutrality or mere fascination with the exotic features of alien cultures... Rather, each genuine perspective will augment and correct aspects of the other in a mutual movement toward the real and the true. [James Fowler, Stages of Faith]
I believe, because it is absurd... it is certain, because it is impossible. [Tertullian]
Nicolas of Cusa expressed what the human heart had always surmised: all opposites coincide in God. This insight has weighty implications for any attempt to speak about divine realities. The closer we come to saying something worthwhile, the more likely that paradox will be the only way to express it. 'When I am weak, then I am strong' (2 Corinthians 12: 10). 'In losing one's life one will find it' (Matthew 10: 39). 'In spite of that, we call this Friday good' (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets). [David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer]
Most of us find it very easy to hurl an epithet or fashion a label. We like to smooth out wrinkles, sand down rough edges, simplify the mysteries that are threatening precisely because they defy categorisation. There is certainly enough confusion in our lives, we reason. Shouldn't it facilitate our day to day living if we are clear on what is good or bad, who is left or right, what is profound or drivel? The fact is that those who have attempted to nail down or write off mystery end up 'undone' by the very pride which leads them to play God in the first place... the Pharisees did not rest until they had nailed an upstart dissenter to a tree. [Donald J. Foran, Living with Ambiguity]
If you want to attempt to travel through life without trouble, believe everything (be gullible) or believe nothing (be cynical), and don't be committed to anything (be 'neutral'). [Source Unknown]
Whilst we might deplore a lack of openness to any new thing God is doing, nevertheless this is the psychology of the human creatures God has made. Those whose thinking is rooted in 'simplicity this side of complexity' must not be too harsh with others who enjoy 'complexity the other side of simplicity'. Ideally, we are all moving towards 'simplicity the other side of complexity', but we must be patient with one another on the way there. [Rowland Croucher, Recent Trends Among Evangelicals]
There's a wideness in God's mercy, /Like the wideness of the sea: There's a kindness in his justice, /Which is more than liberty. For the love of God is broader /Than the measures of man's mind: And the heart of the Eternal /Is most wonderfully kind. But we make his love too narrow /By false limits of our own; And we magnify his strictness /With a zeal he will not own. [EW. Faber]
The ultimate gift of conscious life is a sense of the mystery that encompasses it. [Lewis Mumford]
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. [Albert Einstein]
If they [the ministers of the church] had no doubts, they would hardly be very good Christians, because the intellectual life is as ambiguous as the moral life... The element of doubt is an element of faith itself... What the church should do is to accept someone who says that the faith for which the church stands is a matter of one's ultimate concern... Dogma should not be abolished, but interpreted in such a way that it is no longer a suppressive power which produces dishonesty or flight. [Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought]
At ebb tide I wrote
A line upon the sand
And gave it all my heart
And all my soul.
At flood tide I returned
To read what I had inscribed
And found my ignorance upon the shore. [Kahlil Gibran]
And a prayer:
Lord God, the God of security and the enemy of security too; I come to you, confused, needing the reassurance of your gracious acceptance; broken, needing your healing -- or else the promise of your presence; thirsting for reality, to the fountain of life; desolate, yearning for a loving touch as from a parent.
Help me to love you above everything else; to trust your goodness when I do not understand your ways, to affirm your constancy in spite of my fickleness; my times are in your hands. Amen
Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you; grant that I may know you, that I may truly love you, and so to love you that I may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [St Augustine of Hippo]
In this day, may my thoughts, words and deeds betray a little more of your image in me, less of the influence of the world, the flesh and the devil, so that all I meet I shall treat as Christ and be as Christ to them. Amen.
Knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, [may] you be filled with the utter fullness of God (Ephesians 3: 19, JB). [Rowland Croucher, High Mountains Deep Valleys, Albatross/Lion, chapter 51]