Ambiguous is a word that can have a couple of meanings. One is that it is a word that describes a phenomenon when one or more definitions can apply, such as the illustration to the right. Is it a beautiful woman or is it Bill Clinton waxing jazz on a saxophone? The point is that it is either, or both. That’s the point. The answer is ambiguous, and an attempt to define it with specificity is both inappropriate and inaccurate.
That’s the point that I want to make. There is an attempt regularly by some people to make us believe that everything is finite. That is, there is a specific answer to everything.
The reality is, I believe, that we we live in a world in which we are surrounded by ambiguity. There is much, maybe even most, in our lives which does not have a finite answer. We can apply mathematics, science, or whatever we want to it in order to make it seem as if the answer is clear. But the reality is that our lives are filled with ambiguity, and our task in life is to learn to live in the midst of ambiguity.
Even in math, for instance, we can be certain that there is a specific answer to a calculation…unless of course, we are asked to change the ground rules. What if we are working in a system which is binary, or in which the base numbers are variable? And there is an entire field of mathematics which is called “Imaginary numbers.”
Imaginary numbers can therefore be thought of as complex numbers whose real part is zero. The name “imaginary number” was coined in the 17th century as a derogatory term, as such numbers were regarded by some as fictitious or useless, but imaginary numbers are no more or less fictitious than any other kind of number. The term “imaginary number” now means simply a complex number with a real part equal to 0, that is, a number of the form bi.”*
I am not a mathematician, so much of this escapes me, but the point is that even in math there are variables which must be taken into account when calculating. Mix those variables, and the answers may be dramatically different.
Ambiguity is a major factor in the realm of theology. There are those who want certainty, depending upon elements which prove concepts, such as the existence of God. Granted, there are ways of establishing such proofs, and for some people they are crucial. But many of us believe that the credential best applied to the question of the existence of God is ambiguity. It is the recognition that the nature of God is not something that can be proven by a formula, or by forensic evidence. To the contrary, the nature of God is ambiguous, a character that provides richness in its application.
Ambiguity does not deny the existence of God. But it does require us to live into that existence with openness and faith, rather than applying proofs that fail.
Example: God is male. This is a standard that has existed in Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) for thousands of years. But the definitions of such standards emerges from centuries of scholarship which was done by males, in societies which were male-dominated, and with no real evidence, other than speculation. If we open ourselves to the ambiguity about the nature of God we may come to conclusions that God is both male and female, or that God has no gender.
That discussion bothers people who need certainty. They will grasp at “proofs” which even they can come to admit to being flawed. The reality is that we do not know the nature of God, only the manifestations of that nature which have been experienced over thousands of years. None of them are flawless to the point of being a “certainty.” And, some would say, it really doesn’t matter. The importance of belief in God is not dependent upon such human questions as the gender of the Creator.
That is probably the most dramatic of elements of theology which embraces ambiguity. For many, such ambiguity provides a freedom of thought and theological energy which allows the reality of God to be prominent and central. Other ambiguities which crop up in theological thinking are rich and full of energy. They can become a part of the theological experience of those who come to believe that human intelligence is related to the existence of God. The enterprise of believers is the exploration of ambiguities and the experience of such explorations.
Ambiguity is not an act of denial. Neither is it a meaningless enterprise of mental gymnastics. It is a legitimate and valuable act of weighing possibilities, fed by what we know…and what we don’t know about life and its place in the eternal scheme of things. Ultimately the embracing of the ambiguity of God and God’s relationship to humankind leads to what we call spirituality and even, for some, religion.
Illustration Credit: Richard Nordquist