The Pilgrim’s Penseive #21

Beautiful Ambiguity

I haven’t added a new thought to the Pilgrim’s Pensieve in a while. Maybe reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child subliminally got me thinking about this series again. (Muggles will not understand the reference.) Taking stock of things, I have had a pretty crazy 2016 so far. Just a few days ago I realised my life was complicated. It was never a word that I would have used to describe myself but I find it to be true. Not complicated enough for a riveting book series like Harry Potter but there is a reasonable amount of unreasonableness in my life to say it is not simple. The pieces don’t fit neatly together.

I have never been the infectiously optimistic type. The events that have shaped my life in the last couple of years have made a pessimist out of me. I guess this is what an existential crises looks like, at least a partial one anyway. Through my own problems I have become more acutely aware of how problematic life is. I used to think of my life in a linear progressive fashion, one thing after the other. Experience has taught me that it rarely if ever happens like that for anyone. Perhaps, this is part of the package of growing up but I am not bitter about this at all. On the contrary I am very thankful.

Naivety in life is never helpful. It is better to be realistic and not fanciful. It does not mean you should not dream or aspire to things. It just means that when you do and encounter setbacks, you should not be discouraged. That is simply how the real world works and you need to continue persevering through. This grittier outlook on life has taught me to appreciate the beautiful inconsistencies of life. It is indeed a wonderful mess of colour and shade. The complexities of life is what keeps it interesting. The old cliché, variety is the spice of life, rings true. Even though Einstein said this of scientific theories I believe it is true of life as well: keep things simple and not simpler. You should not try to unnecessarily complicate things for yourself but you cannot get rid of all complications. This view of life has affected how I appraise the scriptures.

I, along with most Christians, used to think of the scripture in overly simplistic terms. The Bible is a perfect unity that is quite easy to understand and addresses every single issue that is important. About two or three years ago when I started looking at biblical scholarship I began to discover it was nowhere near that straightforward. Particularly in the last year and a half I have encountered some quite challenging stuff which a lot of my orthodox friends would not be willing to face. It hasn’t shaken my faith but rather finessed it. When I look at the Bible honestly, it’s as complicated as the people who wrote it. I am not saying scripture is completely opaque but not all places are as transparent as others. As there is ambiguity in life, so is there in scripture. World renowned physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne wisely put it this way,

The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the bible in particular. An honest reading of scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

– Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, p.33

I am very familiar with Christian apologetic attempts to smooth over every single inconsistency in the Bible. Some of them are reasonable and others are very bad. As with life not everything can be reconciled. Even though some things according to every indication belong in the canon, they do not fit neatly with other things. Some things may be resolved with time but there are others we will never be able to fully account for and we need to be OK with that. Trusting God is something you do when you understand but especially when you don’t. This does not mean we should dismiss every challenge on the basis of faith but we need to be honest and face up to them just like we do in real life.

Even though I think there are serious challenges to the Intelligent Design movement, I do love the phrase coined by Michael Behe irreducible complexity. I think it is a nice metaphor for life in general, irreducibly complex. It is in my estimation another name for mystery. Life, the Bible and God are mysterious. There some things we just cannot find an explanation for no matter how hard we try. There are always going to be gaps in our knowledge but that does not mean we cannot trust what we do know. I cannot explain everything in the Bible but I have enough to go on to know I can trust it. When we assign the Bible unrealistic standards it usually ends up in some form of disillusionment on the part of the believer. God’s word is meant to inspire faith but if we do not do hear it on its own terms, that will not happen. As we do with life, we must take the Bible for what it is and not what we want it to be, no matter how challenging or personally distressing that might be.

I know not a lot of people might not like or agree with my viewpoint but I find it comforting. If the Bible has anything to do with the real world it should resemble it to a reasonable extent. How can I trust in something to help me through the challenges of life if there is nothing challenging in it? There should be things that perplex me and make me feel uncomfortable. If not anything it is an ancient text so there should be such differences. Theologically speaking if it is from God, I should not expect it to behave the way I want it to. The earthy realism found in it reassures me it is from the God who came down to earth. Not an ultra-transcendent being but Immanuel, God with us. Therefore, when I read of God being with people in the most dire of circumstances, I have good evidence that he can and will do the same for me today.

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