In most cases the word ambiguity may be used as a negative, meaning that the speaker or the writer has been vague and it is difficult to understand the point (she) is making. The reader or listener is seeking clarity and is dissatisfied with the way in which the point is being masked by vague, non-specific terms.
That’s a legitimate use of the word ambiguity, but it’s not where I want to go with it today. For half a century I have been embraced by a series of classes I took while in graduate school. The professor of theology inspired me to consider the idea that the deepest questions we may have require answers which are, at best, ambiguous. It is frustrating to discover that basic questions about the meaning of our very existence can only be responded to with answers which are non-specific. Questions about God and the nature of God are similarly answered with ambiguity. There are those who have answers to these tough questions which are grounded in certainty, but they tend to be matters of faith rather than statements of fact or science.
Ever since the publication by Thomas Paine of The Age of Reason in the 18th century, the legitimacy of questioning matters of faith has been a part of the American experience. Paine’s purposes were definitely anti-Christian and anti-religion, but that doesn’t detract from the questions he asks and the point that he makes about the legitimacy of ambiguity.
Obviously, some people need certainty and specificity in their matters of faith. That is a quality which cannot be questioned. But others may find theological and spiritual grounding in wrestling with ambiguity. I have no desire to negate the first, but simply to raise the second to make a point. There is a quality to the embracing of ambiguity which matters. It is out of that embrace that profound questions are asked. There is also a quality in the act of struggling with the ambiguous answers which is strengthening to people who question.
To embrace ambiguity is not to deny faith. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers would attest to their affinity for ambiguity.
- It does not deny the existence of God. It simply allows for critical questions about the nature of God.
- It does not deny the significance of Jesus. It simply applies critical thinking to the story.
- It does not deny the Bible. It simply respects the traditions through which the written text has emerged.
In the midst of such questioning, it is possible that answers which differ from traditional religous teaching emerge. The person who employs such questions is careful not to reject a potential answer simply because it is non-traditional. Rather, that answer becomes part of the great library of religous thought that has accumulated for centuries.
Those who embrace ambiguity as a reality are equipped with the ability to wrestle with questions and answers without it becoming stressful or damaging. Everyone can’t do that. But some thrive on the quest which ambiguity provides. Neither need be a prescription for all.
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