Living with ambiguity

"Why do we insist on settling disputes in a hurry?"


Japanese language does not have articles.  Neither has the language spoken by Basotho people of Southern Africa, Sesotho.  The 1992 General Council of the United Church in Fredericton spent a lot of time arguing whether the Bible is "a" foundational authority or "the" foundational authority.   People in Japan or in Southern Africa would not have understood, what the fuss was all about.

Another example:  The word for God is neuter in those two languages.  Lot of our discussions about gender of God must be strange to Japanese and Basotho ears.

From those two small examples alone, we can readily admit that many of us engage in theological discourse with the mind-set conditioned by culture.  We must realise that we must distinguish issues that are vital to our faith from that which are basically cultural baggage.

If we believe that Christian faith is universal, we must recognise some of the western cultural hang-ups in our beliefs and practices, so that we don”t spend too much time defending them.  However, the greatest difficulty in doing this is to recognize that our desire for accuracy, clarity, focus, and precision may be a cultural obsession or based on political expediency.  The medieval Church burnt many people at stake, because they described their beliefs too accurately.  Were those issues so important to lose their lives for?  I think not.  

We laugh about some of the ancient theological debates today, like the debate about the number of angels who could dance on a head of a pin.  We don”t realise, however, that some of the discussions we engage in today can be funny.  Some are puzzling to people in different cultures.  Many aspects of our faith are mysteries.  Perhaps they will remain so for many more years, even for ever.  Mystery, after all, is very much the nature of our faith.  So why settle the difference in a hurry?

I went to Lesotho as a young missionary.  At the School for Missionaries in Paris in France, I met a veteran missionary who worked in that country for many years.    He was a sort of burn-out veteran who forgot any idealism a long time ago.  He said of the people I was about to go to, "the Basotho are liars.  It”s in their culture."     I began to learn the language, and read about the founder of the Basotho nation.  He was Paramount Chief Moshoeshoe.  According to a European writer, Moshoeshoe was a superb diplomat and negotiator.  "He was a smooth, slippery character who could be skilfully deceitful and would lie for convenience."   He sounds like many of our politicians, doesn”t he?
As I began to learn the ways of people, however, I began to understand what those European experts of local culture saw in practice.   What they thought were lies were not what we understand as malicious deceit.  It was sort of like flattering remarks to make people feel good.  In Basotho culture, language must not be used to insult or hurt others.  It is a tool for social harmony.  So punishment for insulting an older person verbally, for example, is heavier than the one for physical assault.  Words are for encouragement and for making people feel good.

It can be nuisance at times.  If you ask a villager how far your destination is, the answer always is "not very far."  Or, it is, "One more mountain."  They say so even though it may be a day”s trip on a horse back.  They rarely say outright "no".  It usually is, "yes, but".  In fact, there is no word for "no" exactly.  Do you call these ”lies”?  

When you think of the number of lives lost in the disputes on fine points of doctrines and ideologies in our history, you would wonder what was so much at stake.  I would rather live with ambiguity.  Wouldn”t you?  I should think this way of living and letting live in ambiguity is sort of like ”love”.  Wouldn”t you? I prefer ambiguity to precision in our belief, if it means life rather than condemnation and sometimes death.

There was a festivity in a village hosted by the Chief.  Everyone was invited, but was expected to contribute something, food, drink, or entertainment.  One man found there was someone who did not give anything.  He grabbed the freeloader by the neck and brought him to the Chief.  He demanded justice.  Curiously, the Chief severely reprimanded the justice seeker for disturbing the peace.  He said that an offender of rules can repent and pay retribution.  On the other hand, damaged relationship and broken harmony take a long time to heal.

I often wonder why we so often are eager to settle issues of faith in a hurry.  And for what reason?   It is interesting, isn”t it, that the very important question of ”who Christ is” took a few hundred years to settle.  It was at last enshrined in the Nicene Creed in the fourth century.  Even that had to depend on the Roman Imperial power which invoked an Ecumenical Council.  Without the power of the Emperor, probably the early church people would have had to spend a few more centuries to settle the issue, if they did so at all.   The Emperor needed to settle the theological quarrel about the nature of Christ, because the dispute was endangering the unity of Roman Empire.  I don”t think that the Emperor was all that interested in settling the question of whether Christ was God or human.  His concern was primarily political.

It is also interesting to note that the first major split in the Christian Church occurred because of the Nicene Creed.  I often wonder how many of the causes for the split in the church  could have been avoided if the question of faith was not linked to some form of political power and control.

I am sure that in an ideal society, persons of different views can live in peace side by side.  Indeed, I believe that a mark of a civilised society is where the members can  disagree and yet can live together.  It is a sick society if it has to expel or reject persons because of a disagreement over faith.  

I have a deep suspicion that intolerance  on faith matters may be motivated by latent desire for power and control, and is not so much as the result of love of truth.  Salman Rushdie, who has been targeted for assassination because of a book he wrote said, "Any religion, which claims to have explanations on the world and tries to link up with a political power, has a beginning of Fascism."  I think he is right.  When you hear that a group of Hindu fanatics were attacking and destroying an ancient Mosque, you know that this has to do with politics not faith.  Hinduism is, as far as I know,  the most tolerant religion there is.  It believes that all religions are different paths to the truth.  

We Christians also often behave strangely, if we should be the believers of the religion which advocates the universality of forgiveness and love.  Quarrelling over doctrinal matters should be an exercise in the search for truth, not a path that might lead to exclusion of the vanquished.  

Kosuke Koyama, who teaches at the Union Theological Seminary, makes an interesting point by comparing the Crucified mind and the Crusading mind.   He believes, and I agree, that "Crusade" is not a Christian language, ours is the crucified Christ, who loves all of us just or unjust, right or wrong.  


Tad Mitsui
June, 1994

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