LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY
My thoughts are not your thoughts
and your ways are not my ways,
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.
The marriage relationship is doubtless a great mystery, but
I am speaking of something deeper still - the marriage of
Christ and his Church.
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, JB; Ephesians 5:32,
JBP; 1 Corinthians 1:20, GNB, Romans 11:33-36, GNB)
God is mystery. We can never encompass him 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
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 incomprehensible to
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 rationalizing
than rational. Thomas Merton said somewhere 'No one is so
wrong as the one who knows all the answers'. Alfred North
Whitehead says '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
The key lies in distinguishing between faithless doubt and
creative doubt. Faithless doubt, as Kahlil Gibran put it,
'is a pain too lonely to realize 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
on to 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
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 paradox and
creative doubt. Hence the insistence 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 Leach, True God
'Stage 5' faith involves going beyond explicit ideological
systems and clear boundaries of identity; accepting that
truth is 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 [ie. 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
I believe, because it is absurd;... it is certain, because
it is impossible.
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).
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 categorization. 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 led 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
Whilst we might deplore [any] 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.
F. W. Faber
The ultimate gift of conscious life is a sense of the
mystery that encompasses it.
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.
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
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
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.
Knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, [may]
you be filled with the utter fullness of God. (Ephesians
St. Augustine of Hippo, adapted from a prayer in Tony Castle
(comp.), The Hodder Book of Christian Prayers, Hodder and
Stoughton, 1986, p.18
Rowland Croucher, Recent Trends Among Evangelicals,
Albatross, 1986, p.40
Albert Einstein, 'The World As I See It', quoted in Melvin
Konner, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the
Human Spirit, Heinemann, 1982, p.431
F.W.Faber, 'There's a wideness in God's mercy', The Baptist
Hymn Book, London: Psalms and Hymns Trust, 1964, no. 419
Donald J. Foran, Living With Ambiguity: Discerning God in a
Complex Society, Alba House, 1971, p. xvi
James Fowler, Stages of Faith, Dove, 1981, pp. 186-7
Kahlil Gibran, quoted in James L. Christian, Philosophy: An
Introduction to the Art of Wondering, Hold Rinehart, 1981,
Kenneth Leech, True God: An exploration in spiritual
theology, Sheldon Publishers, 1987, p. 25
Lewis Mumford, 'Orientation to Life', The Conduct of Life,
1951, quoted in The International Thesaurus of Quotations,
comp. R.T.Tripp, Harper & Row, 1970, p.105
Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Brunschwig ed., # 434.
John Reseck, quoted in James L. Christian, Philosophy: An
Introduction to the Art of Wondering, Hold Rinehart, 1981,
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer,
Paulist, 1984, p.210
Tertullian, quoted in Stanley Romaine Hopper, 'Paradox' in
Arthur Cohen and Marvin Halverson, (eds.), A Handbook of
Christian Theology, Abingdon, 1958, p.261.
Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, SCM, 1968,
[Some of these questions will stretch your thinking! Don't be too afraid of
1. 'Children think concretely: they can draw God. From adolescence onwards
we are supposed to have "ideas about ideas" and be able to think abstractly.
But some adults never graduate from childish ways of thinking (1 Corinthians
13:11,12).' How are we to handle all that?
2. 'Fundamentalists sometimes think too little, and so everything for them
must be in black and white. They will not tolerate fuzzy edges to their
thinking. On the other hand liberals sometimes think too much. They have
difficulty knowing what their deep convictions are.' Do you agree? What
suggestions would you make to Fundamentalists and Liberals?
3. 'The ambiguity of religion is such that the celebration of the sacred is
never wholly free from superstitious trends.' (Gregory Baum). What do you
make of that?
4. 'Legalism is the refuge of the ignorant - particularly those ignorant of
5. 'Idolatry is all about the need to relate to what is concrete rather than
abstract. It is easier to relate to a golden calf, or our country's flag, or
materialistic objects than to the invisible God'. What are some modern
idolatries? How can we be cured of idolatry?
6. Two refuges from ambiguity are constitutions - regulating how people
behave - and creeds - regulating what we believe... So do we need
constitutions and creeds? What are their advantages and limitations?
7. 'Religious symbols are meant to make God more real to us, but often they
make him more distant.' Is this true?
8. 'How does one arrive at faith? Or at the truth? Or God? I would say that
one must be true to one's self, to feel the pain and ambiguity inherent in
life.One must be human... and feel the fragility and brevity of human life.
One must, moreover, open one's eyes to see life in all its dimensions, to
see beauty, joy, and happiness against the backdrop of ugliness, despair,
and unhappiness.' (John Baruch). Can you live with that?
9. 'People who have avoided ambiguity in terms of their understanding of
God's work of Creation (the proton) also do the same with God's work of
winding up the universe (the eschaton).' Why is that?
10. 'Spirituality is complex and somewhat ambiguous. But sometimes this
ambiguity is a faithful ambiguity, a holy ambiguity, so we don't have to run
from it.' (William Thompson, Christology and Spirituality). Is that O.K.?
11. 'The two factors [David Tracy] has focused on are plurality and
ambiguity. Plurality simply means that scholars recognize that texts, such
as the Bible, have multiple interpretations based upon gender, race,
ethnicity, culture and politics. Regarding ambiguity, Tracy has been
influenced by post-Holocaust thinking.... Many cherished traditions have
given rise to both beauty and evil. For example, prior to the Civil War in
the United States, the Bible was sometimes used in the South to justify
slavery, while in the Northern states, the same book was used to argue
against slavery. In the Christian tradition, Tracy is very aware that
Christian texts, both Biblical and others, have been the source of profound
moral and religious insights, but have also been used to justify
anti-Semitism.' (David Tracy is, according to many people, the leading
living post-Vatican-II, Catholic theologian). See
http://www.rice.edu/projects/reno/rn/19980326/tracy.html. Want to talk about
12. What do you think of this statement about 'ecological ambiguity': 'No
concept is more useful for describing our moral, cultural, and ecological
condition than ambiguity. Nature is wonderful, but it is in conflict with
itself. Life is marvelous in all its manifestations, but it is a struggle
for existence. Most of us live by eating animals. Whitehead said that all
life is robbery. Life feeds on life. Nature documentaries are mostly scenes
of animals mating, giving birth, and eating, especially eating one another.
Evolution gives rise to forms of life awesome in their splendor, beauty and
variety, but the evolutionary process is blind, wasteful, cruel, full of
pain, horror, and massive death.'
13. Finally: avoidance of ambiguity is a natural reaction if we're after
quick and easy solutions ('Don't make me think, it hurts'!!!). How can we
grow beyond this way of responding to life?
Written/edited by Rowland Croucher.
This appeared originally (except for the discussion questions) as a chapter
in High Mountains Deep Valleys