Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Intentional ambiguity and human sexuality

In that delightful mix called intercultural studies—for me, anthropology, theology and linguistics—I especially enjoy exploring cultural communication styles. Several years ago I was intrigued to discover that prominent among Hebrew communicational values, intentional ambiguity stands out. That explains a lot of the difficulty of some of the biblical passages. It seems that sometimes what is left out of a story is as important as the plot itself.
I remember wondering why God would then choose the Hebrew culture and language as a vehicle of revelation. Wouldn’t it be better to state things plainly, to clear up the mystery, to show us a straight path forward?
But the poet part of me smiled. Intentional ambiguity. Why not?
This Hebrew value reaches into the New Testament, although other languages and cultures also enter the picture. I hear Jesus asking the disciples, “Do you get it yet?” and then explaining the parables. I note scholars down through the ages debating the meanings and interpretations of certain passages. It continues today.
Thank God for the Spirit who reveals truth as we ask and seek.
And thanks be to Jesus who told his disciples that love would be a defining mark of the church (“By this shall all people know you are my disciples….”), not just correct doctrine.
Of course correct doctrine matters, and Jesus also said that it is the truth that sets us free. Naming our theological perspectives is an ongoing task of the church, one that needs the input of many cultures and languages. So we wrestle and wait, listening to each other and to Jesus, the living Word, as he unfolds to us the written word, the Bible.
I wonder sometimes if love is not the link between intentional ambiguity, doctrine and witness. I wonder if the lack of doctrinal clarity we often experience and sharply feel is not the context for the kind of love that shines in the darkness.
Right now we in Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends are wrestling with the profound questions of human sexuality. We are specifically asking what the Word/word is saying about committed same sex relationships. We are discovering among us widely differing  perspectives. This diversity is magnified even more in the greater family of Friends.
In our yearly meeting, I note the thread of belief in both the living and the written Word. It would be inaccurate to say we are divided between theological liberals and fundamentalists. We are all people who want to follow Jesus, adhere to the Bible and be light in the world. And this is where it gets interesting.
As I ponder the history of the Christian church, looking specifically at times of controversy, it seems that either of two scenarios is taking place. Sometimes surrounding cultural values dilute the message of truth and tempt the church to liberalism. But other times, it seems that the very Spirit of Christ (the living Word) is prodding us to new revelation, a fresh interpretation of the written word. What is happening now with the issue of human sexuality? That’s my question, and I don’t know.
Intentional ambiguity provides an opportunity for love.
Not all is ambiguous, of course. God’s intentions that we love each other and together seek the voice of Christ, these are clear. This is a time for waiting and listening. It is, as we say in English, the meantime. Let us, by the way we respect each other, make it “kind” time. Let us keep strong our hope in the Spirit of Jesus who leads us into all truth.  Let us take the time for that to happen.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I, too, hope that we together will keep love in the meantime. Listening carefully together is hard, and surrounding cultural influences can tug in many directions.

  2. Is it 'surrounding cultural values' or 'the very Spirit of Christ'? In this case, yes. The ambiguity in that question goes well with your theme.

    I myself have to be ambiguous about that 'written word' because it's obviously (to me) not 'Truth For All Time' but it also obviously conveys what our spiritual ancestors could assimilate of such Truth (plus cultural baggage.) That is, I don't think we need to take the Bible for our Guide -- It itself points rather to the Eternal Guide -- but if we don't read "The Divine/Human Conversation So Far circa ~100 AD" -- then we have to start from scratch, kindergarten level, & that gets shallow pretty fast! [Hence the typical condition of LiberalFriendist Meetings these days!]

    I'm trying to revive a group Bible-study blog and think you'd be a welcome contributor or commenter. (Would you please?):

  3. Thank you, Howard. We're got some hard work ahead of us. Forrest, I'm interested in your Bible study blog and will check it out.

  4. Hi Nancy, Hebrew aside, the Bible is Greek(with more precise- meaning words than English, yet, ambiguously, no punctuation)to me. And human sexuality is not orientation but the impetus for relating, even intentionally/lovingly rather than as lust/selfishness. Thanks for helping us find our groove!

  5. Dear Nancy and Friends and relatives in NWYM - you are in my heart and prayers as you engage with an issue exercising many in the Christian community. From attending the 6th World Gathering, I know this is a challenging issue with grave consequences to Friends in Africa and South America. As the mother of a person who is different from the norm (though is not gay or lesbian), I appreciate that you are wrestling with this issue. It is an issue my yearly meeting engaged meeting by meeting. My own meeting took over a decade to come to unity in the Spirit to take under its care relationships of any couple seeking our care and applying the same process we use for heterosexual couples seeking the care of the meeting for their relationships. We experienced what you have thoughtfully identified as the ambiguity of Biblical language (not the translations) and concerns for children raised in families with two parents of the same sex. As to the latter, we have a number of families in NPYM in which the parents are of the same sex and so far it appears their children, though some have been stigmatized by the outside world, are doing just as well as the children from families with parents of opposite sexes. As to the former, we came to unity in the Spirit as Love incarnate and that resolved the issues around gay marriage. May God/Spirit inform your deliberations, freeing people on all sides of the issue from preconceptions and allowing all to abide in Love incarnate. Blessings, Friends.

    1. Thank you, Lesley, for such a thoughtful, encouraging reply. It may take as long for our yearly meeting to come to some kind of understanding. May we have the patience to move as slowly as is necessary.

  6. Dear Nancy, i´ve been following with dismay the outfall of Indiana YM´s failure to look into the ambiguities and to take the time to hold one´s breath and see what the Spirit of Love --both written and written in our hearts-- has to teach us and lead us into. I smiled and prayed and said halleluyah when i learned about NWYM´s choice to hold it in God´s Light with love.
    As a student of Hebrew and Hebrew scriptures, i know from firsthand experience the multiple paths one can go down looking for enlightenment in variant meanings. Some are easy to sort out -- so clearly not actions of love. Others i am grateful to my Guide for showing me that Geo. Fox was right: the meaning is clear when read in the same Spirit that gave it forth. But others do not come so easily even when one is praying for illumination and feels fully open to it. The ancient rabbis taught that every possible interpretation (not harebrained tangents, but valid alternatives) must be considered, lest it be the one that G!d meant for this occasion -- they were sure that the Almighty was aware that there would be different times for different understandings in the long course of history. But as i reach the end of a multi-level cycle of studies thru much of the Hebrew Scriptures, i am clearer than ever that the basic message is unchanged ever: God loves those who love God and those who love other people; God gives power to live fully and to help others to those who give themselves up fully to live for and help others. And over and over again it´s the ones who do it in unexpected ways, and those who come from groups that "nice" people don´t respect that get all of Divine Grace to carry the Reign of Holiness forward.
    Thanks for your thoughtful words on this and other topics. I look forward to reading your Bolivia history when it´s done. I´ve known and worked with so many wonderful INELA Friends over the years! And i didn´t know their first missionary was a Native as well!
    paz, ~ dpablo

  7. Thank you, Pablo. I would love to talk more with you on this ambiguous subject and on the Bolivian history project as well.