Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Intentional ambiguity and Quaker process

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.


  1. Human beings want answers; but God gives them problems. This isn't a case of 'Kid wants a fish and Dad gives him a snake;' it's more like 'Kid wants firewood and Dad gives him an ax.'

    What we're being taught is not 'the answers' (which as anybody knows 'can be found in the back of the book'.) I'd say it's closer to learning "How do we function as a part of Allthat?"

    Not so much an 'ambiguous' God/human interface -- as one that calls for some kind of mix of opposites, between 'independence' and 'integration.' How can God dance, with feet operating by free will? Sometimes it simply happens...

  2. Does intentional ambiguity not reflect the surrounding culture of individualism, i.e. everyone can decide for themselves? This is a serious question for me. I loved learning that ambiguity invites encounter, but much that passes for ambiguity these days tastes like relativism. What distinguishes the two?

  3. Um, it seems to me that "individualism" vs "collective authority" is another one of those 'fruitful tension' questions, that the proper resolution isn't either, nor any mix -- but a 'both/neither' insight.

    That is, neither individuals nor groups necessarily discern or misread God's will to any significantly-different extent... so that a stance that privileges either is a kind of idolatry.

    To the extent that we are individual beings, being able to get correct answers about particular issues from a group discernment process -- is far less useful than being given our own clear vision. People in that condition would not be "deciding for themselves", but 'seeing for themselves.' Sometimes a group's influence can help with that (though sometimes it turns out to be 'blind leading the blind) but we're still faced with the need to distinguish helpful insights from shared prejudices.

  4. Forest, I love the image of “God dancing, with feet operating by free will.” I wonder if part of the ambiguity thing (while we impatiently wait for answers) is that in the long run, when people around us watch what’s happening, they will not say, “See how they finally got it right!” They’ll say, “Look at how they love each other.”

    I don’t see the desire for answers as bad in itself. There’s so much I want to find out, and I trust it’s possible. But in this present situation the word from the Lord will possibly be some light on the immediate way forward (good Quaker phrase) and not a definitive “answer.”

    Good questions, Mary, and worthy talking all night about. (I wish we could.) I think that while individualism certainly can lead to an ambiguous relativism, intentional ambiguity is not a North American cultural value. We want to get it right, whatever “it” is, and even though each of us may have our own version of “right.” When the Christian process of group discernment works well, we have more hope of seeing truth. But sometimes this all seems really hard to do.

  5. By the way, today, August 6, is Bolivian Independence Day. Congratulations to Bolivia and her beautiful people!

  6. My wife Anne had a nice piece (which I think went into 'Friends Journal' (?)) about God as a dancing master. She'd had the experience of dancing with someone like that: She'd still needed to move her own feet and also to be aware of and responsive to his leading. I think we're all working out something like that, except that it's a process that requires our initiative as well.

    A pretty good book on right-brain left-brain stuff points out that both halves need to work independently to function, that much of the circuitry between them works to keep them from interfering -- and also need to integrate their separate findings. One side decides which half is appropriate for a given task... but it's the other that does the talking and thinks it's in charge, hmmmmm! (Probably lots of metaphors apply!)

    Yes, I know from experience that God also brings us answers. But prefers, I think, to let us work up an appetite first. An 'answer' is not an 'understanding' -- Perhaps that's why.

  7. Thank you for this. It is a much needed ray of hope for us Friends who are more comfortable waiting in ambiguity because we have been burned by false certainties in the past.