A good friend of mine, when asked what his spiritual gift is, usually replies, “I have the gift of ambiguity.” I wish I had thought of that first.
It’s been over a week since yearly meeting, and as I reflect back on the hopes and expectations I had versus the actual experience, the word ambiguity stands up and takes a bow. Our discussions on human sexuality took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. And while we were not able to “lay aside” our own perspectives and just listen to the Lord as instructed by the clerk, no voices were raised. In the end we were not able to come to consensus (OK, OK! I know Quakers don’t use that word!) on the re-wording of the statement in Faith and Practice, so the old statement stands. It stands, even though we’re all aware that we don’t agree on its content.
It seems we’re still in a holding pattern, a place of continuing ambiguity.
When our superintendent asked for a five-year moratorium on any “sudden movements” around this issue—meaning, I suppose, no churches leaving or being expelled—while we slowly continue the conversation, I thought that this was, indeed, the word of the Lord, the path forward. But it appears that even this admonition has engendered controversy. So, back to ambiguity.
Is that so bad?
It reminds me of a term I discovered in my graduate research. I integrated the disciplines of theology, anthropology and linguistics as I explored the cultural ramifications of writing about God in the different contexts of the church. (Let me insert here that I had so much fun doing this research that the legality of the academic degree I received is probably dubious.)
While most of my case studies were conducted in contemporary cultures, I did one biblical study of the book of Ruth as effective communication in the context of its original receptors. As part of that study, I researched the communicational values of the Hebrew culture. And I discovered the concept of “intentional ambiguity.” Good communication in the Hebrew culture does not answer all the questions or tie up all the loose strings. It leaves you wondering, pondering, asking God what it all means.
This value affected all the writers of the Old and New Testaments. While the New Testament wasn’t written in Hebrew, its speakers and writers were Jewish and had Jewish values as part of their cultural DNA. Even Jesus.
One might ask, if God really wanted to clearly communicate with humanity, why did God choose the Hebrew culture as a channel, ambiguity and all? I think of the old poem, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” You’d think God would elect a culture that has popular sayings like, “Come to the point!” “Say what you mean and mean what you say!” “Quit beating around the bush!” That’s us, folks. My dad said all those words to me, and transmitted those values into my brain.
But God chose a culture that values intentional ambiguity as a communication style.
It all gives me pause whenever I hear a brother or sister say, “But the Bible clearly says that…!” Actually, it’s not always that clear on the details. Intentionally so.
In some ways we Quakers are like the Hebrews. Quaker process, however you define it, seems to allow for slow movements and time to let the Spirit work. This may clash with the values of our surrounding culture, but so much of Quakerism does. Or speaking more broadly, many of the values of the whole kingdom of God clash with whatever culture we happen to swim around in.
So here we are at the end of yearly meeting again, still immersed in ambiguity. I guess that means we have to keep waiting, keep listening, keep talking to each other.
And keep on hoping for a clear word from the Lord.