The Case for Ambiguity
By Elle Berry | 12 July 2019 |
I was a bit nervous. It was my second quarter of general chemistry and I had a serious case of first-day jitters, coupled with a side of impostor syndrome. Growing up, I was the artistic writer musician kid who majored in classics and graduated university with a Bachelor of Arts degree (having craftily avoided all the serious sciences.)
So when I decided at age thirty to swing back into school for a Master of Science degree, this not only meant going back and scooping up all the science courses I had so carefully avoided, but it also meant facing off with all my impostor syndrome demons. Despite having made it through the first quarter, I was pretty sure I did not belong in general chemistry.
To make matters worse, lurking beyond my impostor syndrome was also the false juxtaposition of science and faith. I was in the faith camp, and so, like many people, I carried the false choice in my mind that faith was opposed to science—so wondering if I could do real science and keep a real faith.
All of these doubts rumbled around in my mind on that first day of class.
Upon arriving, my professor got right down to business. Pulling out the syllabus she began all the normal housekeeping rituals of a typical first day of class. She then said one of those things that was likely offhand to her, and yet to me it would catalyze an entire reshaping of my self-narrated story about belonging in a science class. She said:
We are going to cover some topics this quarter—and some of you won’t catch it, but some are going to realize what we’re talking about doesn’t quite add up—and when you do, you’re going to have questions. You’re going to come to me and want answers. So I’m going to tell you right now: get comfortable with ambiguity.
I was shocked. I had always believed science was a place for reason and facts. It had not occurred to me that science was also a place for ambiguity.
Concrete Facts and Proofs?
In that moment, I transitioned from feeling as though I were an outsider looking in at the science people, to believing that I was on the inside curiously asking questions like everyone else in the room. All my life I’d falsely believed that science was only for people who dealt with concrete facts and proofs. But that’s not actually what science is about. Science provides a methodology for you (and others) to curiously question, test, and (if you’re really lucky) acquire enough evidence to support your hypothesis. Yet, within that process there is way more ambiguity than I could have ever imagined.
My professor’s willingness to name that reality not only encouraged my curiosity, but it also served as an invitation for me to feel at home with the science people. She was signaling that my questions and doubts were okay. This wasn’t just a place for people with answers. In fact, it was actually a place for people with questions. Science was a place for people who could get comfortable with ambiguity.
Okay with Ambiguity
As a member of this species, I would say there are few things that humans more consistently agree on than our general dislike of ambiguity. It’s against our nature to have a question and then leave it hanging. Concrete rules and dogmas keep us safe, but even more than that they become the framework for our tribal identities. In fact, I would suggest that the more advanced an institution and civilization becomes, the more ambiguity seems a liability.
Strangely, this is an area where science, faith, and politics have a lot in common. We often throw out phrases such as the Bible is clear, with as much certainty as the phrase science has proven. While the natural world resounds with the in-between and the nuanced (dusk, dawn, amphibians, and hermaphrodites), most of us quickly find we won’t last a hot minute arguing those nuances at our churches, family gatherings, or worst of all, in the comments section.
I understand why we get lost fighting for absolutes. Doctrines and theorems are important—and finding agreement or consensus can not only indicate wisdom but it also helps to cultivate community among those who agree, as well as guiding policy and practice. Yet as I watch Christianity over the last few years, not only in the Adventist church, but also in other denominations, I find myself wondering if our need for certainty is always really about truth. Are we losing our capacity for ambiguity due to our need for self-righteous certainty? It was the gift of ambiguity that welcomed me into community with the science people, yet more and more I find that invitation lacking in my fellow people of faith. So is there a case for ambiguity?
Ambiguity keeps us seeking
Despite our aversion to uncertainty, certainty often results in a cessation of questions. I can’t help but think of Matthew 7, where we’re told, Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you. While we often translate these verbs as though they were a single act (ask, seek, knock… just that one time), a better translation of the imperative Greek verbs would actually convey a continuous asking, seeking, and knocking. So, what if we become so self-assured in our certainties and answers that we stop?
What I’m hearing from this passage is that often there may be a lot of ambiguity in life, and that’s okay. Our admonition isn’t simply to receive, find, or open; our admonition is to keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking. Certainty isn’t what drives us to those actions. It’s ambiguity that creates curiosity, and keeps us seeking.
Ambiguity often allows us to find what we need, rather than what we want.
I find one of the most frustrating, and simultaneously fantastic, aspects of the Bible is when people ask God what seems like a really logical question, and God answers something—seemingly off topic. For instance, there is the story in John 21, where Peter is on the beach after the resurrection asking Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” (meaning John). And Jesus doesn’t tell him about John. Instead, Jesus gives him an ambiguous answer, more or less saying, “What is that to you? You follow me.”
So often what you see in the Bible, and particularly in the gospels, is not an answer to the question, but instead a response that answers a deeper need. Jesus knew that Peter didn’t need to know about John. Peter needed to be assured of his own relationship with Jesus. And what I’ve found again and again in my own faith life, is that the questions I think I must know the answer to? Those aren’t the things I really need to know. What I’m often actually looking for is connection, belonging, and the assurance that I am loved. And while a direct answer might be nice, how often it happens that the ambiguous answer is the one that leads me to what I really need to know.
Ambiguity can deepen our faith.
Many of us have come to see doubt as a bad thing. It isn’t, after all, a compliment when we call someone a Doubting Thomas. Yet when I consider the moments where I have come closest to Jesus, it has always begun with a doubt, a fear, an unanswered question. It’s often in the season of ambiguity where my faith flourishes.
When Peter walks on water, it is not a moment of certainty. It is not a place of confidence, but in the place of ambiguity. If there weren’t ambiguity, one might argue, there wouldn’t be real faith. If Peter had been certain that he could walk on water, then that moment would not require faith. Author Ann Lamott has said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Ambiguity is often a starting point to where my faith has grown the most. Blessed are those who believe without seeing–or one might say, blessed are those who believed even while being comfortable with ambiguity.
I believe our push for certainty comes at a cost. It’s not that absolutes are bad. However, our desire for them is often driven less by truth, and more with our obsession to feel secure in our own rightness. Dogma sets up walls determining who is in, and who is out—and it leaves no room for us to be comfortable with questions.
And while I’m certainly not advocating for a wishy-washy doctrine, I am suggesting that in our quest for certainty, and in our forming of compliance committees, let us not forget that faith is the substance of things hoped for, and it actually shows up best among things not seen. Far from being the death of faith, these nuanced in-between places (ambiguity, questions, doubts, and uncertainty) are the very place where our faith shows up and shows off most abundantly.
And while our willingness to be comfortable with ambiguity serves our own faith, it also invites others to join us as people of faith. Just as I found so long ago in my science classroom, the church shouldn’t only be a place for people who conform to the accepted answers, but rather the church should be a place for people with questions.
For many of us, there will be times in our life when things simply don’t add up–and when that happens, I would say this: get comfortable with ambiguity. Instead of fearing the questions, we might instead discover that it is often in the midst of the ambiguous where our faith grows the deepest, and being comfortable with ambiguity is an invitation for all who seek.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.