Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism

A_starry_sky_above_Death_Valley

I haven’t heard a lot about the emerging church lately. According to one source the eulogy has been given and only one hold-out pastor remains. I suspect the disaffected who identified with the emerging church have been swallowed up by Progressive Christians.

Nevertheless, the emerging church movement had an impact on traditional churches. The tell of their influence is in the buzz words that crop up in radio programs, print articles, Internet sites, and sermons—words such as truth claims, missio or missional, conversations, contextualize, and mystery. There’s a concept, also, which I’ve heard, though not necessarily stated so bluntly—ambiguity.

The thinking is, God is a mystery, life is a mystery, and there really aren’t any definitive answers.

I admit—I get a little cranky when I hear people espousing these views.

First, God is NOT a mystery. He is transcendent. The two are quite different, a topic I explored in the post “Transcendence vs. Mystery.” That God is not a mystery becomes clear when we read passages in Scripture such as Jeremiah 9:24:

“But let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (emphasis, here and throughout this post, is added)

The New Testament also affirms God’s “knowability.” For example, Paul says in Colossians 2:2b-3

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Yes, the mystery has been revealed. Paul stated this clearly in the first chapter of the same book:

that is, the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

On the other hand, that God is transcendent is also clear. Isaiah 40:12-14 sets the stage for a beautiful declaration of God’s transcendence by asking a series of questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

The conclusion is powerful. In part it reads

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One
.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

The Apostle Paul brings together God’s transcendence and his “knowability” in 1 Cor. 2:12-16:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

In that last verse, Paul quotes from Isaiah, showing that God’s transcendence is unchanged, and yet, because of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, we have the mind of Christ.

In other words, Christians can know, we do have answers, we don’t need to walk around in a cloud of doubt.

Granted, the answers may not be what people want to hear. More often than not, our “why” will be answered by God’s “I’m working out my will in the world.” For some, that’s not good enough.

For others that’s too spot on. That sin and suffering, pain and heartache, have a purpose seems too unambiguous. That God is sovereignly in charge over things we wish He would eradicate makes us uncomfortable. How can we trust a God whose answer to our questions is, Trust Me?

We want more, or we want to say, more isn’t attainable. For some reason, a segment of the religious find satisfaction in a declaration that things are ambiguous. Some readily belittle faith that claims to be the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in these critics’ way of looking at things, is actually doubt.

What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism. Essentially, the idea that we cannot know—because history changes facts and redefines terms, because we are constrained by our culture and our experiences to understand only within our own narrow framework, not that of the broader context—shatters the idea that there is an inerrant, infallible Word of God upon which we can rely for Truth.

The problem in all this is that those who say we cannot know, rule out the possibility that God did in fact give us a written record of what He wants us to know, that He preserved what He told us down through the ages, and that He gave us His Spirit to understand it apart from and beyond our own cultural constraints.

And why do they rule God’s transcendent work out?

They would rather believe in mystery, I guess, rather than transcendence. But in so doing, they are, themselves, drawing the conclusion that they KNOW God could not work in such a transcendent way. It’s another way of putting Man in God’s place.

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5 Comments

  1. Yep.

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  2. Rebecca, if I were there, I’d give ya a huge hug AND a kiss (on the cheek 🙂 )

    The only thing wrong with this article is that I didn’t write it. LOL! I am in the midst at this very moment in a controversy (I know you can’t hardly believe that), about this EXACT topic. I mean EXACTLY. With mutual friends of ours to boot.

    In fact I’ve used some of the EXACT same arguments you have here. (Don’t forget Romans 1:18ff though) Thanks for the reminder on the 2nd of Colossians.

    If I don’t stop here, I’ll be off on another one of my tedious tomes, so I will.

    EXCELLENT!!!

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  3. […] I should have written this post before yesterday’s “Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism” article, but when I started, I hadn’t realized what all I wanted to say about the topic. The […]

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  4. Colossians 2:2b-3

    attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

    But the knowledge that we’re supposed to be assured of is “God’s mystery.” I don’t think God’s self-revelation makes Him less mysterious. It’s also interesting that it says that the treasures of wisdom and knowledge ar hidden in Christ, not that they’ve been plainly revealed for objective comprehension.

    If all the mysteries of God’s transcendence had already been revealed, I don’t think life would still suck like it does. We still need to have hope, because the final glory is still shrouded.

    Transcendence must be more than mystery, but I think some degree of mystery is necessary for the concept of transcendence. Something that we fully understand is not transcendent, and the lack of total understanding is part of the spiritual yearning that forms the other side of faith. There is assurance, but there is also hope, and I don’t think hope can exist without mystery.

    What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism.

    I’m not an expert on postmodernism, but the postmodernism I’ve encountered in secular college is anti-mystery. We live in a hyper-real postmodern world — more than real — constructed out of layers of artificial representation that leave no natural territory to be explored. In the hyper-real simulacrum, man-made social conventions are more complicated than the actual reality. Since our social references are all artificial, all the pathways and connections between ideas have already been forged and remixed a million times over. There is no room to discover anything new.

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  5. Bainespal, I’ll try to address each of the good points you bring up. First, you’re right that there was a mystery, that which HAD been hidden but no longer is—specifically, that Christ has also come to the Gentiles:

    the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

    You’re also right that the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ—which explains why those without Christ don’t get some things that seem so plain and simple to Christians who “have the mind of Christ.”

    I’m currently reading 2 Corinthians and came to the passage about the veil that is still separating those who haven’t turned to Christ.

    But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (3:13-16)

    And then a chapter later, this:

    And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (4:3-4)

    In your next point you essentially said that all the mysteries of God’s transcendence haven’t been made clear. You followed by saying that transcendence must be more than mystery. That’s my point precisely. Mystery is something that has a way of being discovered or revealed. Transcendence will always be beyond us, even when we know in the same way we are now known.

    We are never going to have God’s infinitude, His matchless, limitless power or purity or mercy. I don’t know what it will look like for us to be clothed with righteousness and revealed with God in His glory, or even to know as we are known. I just know we can’t and won’t reach the unreachable greatness of our God. That’s what Satan tried to do, and it was beyond him.

    You then said, “I don’t think hope can exist without mystery.” Well, I don’t know about hope, but faith is built on assurance:

    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

    I don’t have to see how something works to know it works. I don’t understand the computer I’m using this minute, but I know the Apple guys do and i know it is chugging along, doing what it’s supposed to do. The only similarity in this analogy is that I don’t have to understand every nuance of God’s character or all about His plans. I can’t and won’t know those things, but that doesn’t mean I am left with a mystery. I’m not. I know positively that God will do what is good and right and just because HE is good and right and just. When circumstances don’t look to me as if God can pull out something good or right or just, I know my perspective is off, not that God has changed or missed something, He’s just that trustworthy. I don’t have to see to know.

    I’m certainly no expert on Postmodernism, either. Much of what I know I learned when I read How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal Downing. The mystery that I understand arises from what you describe, I think. Language makes knowing impossible (ridiculous oversimplification of the argument). Hence, there’s value in seeking, and the embracement of mystery and the acceptance of agnosticism as opposed to the pursuit of sure and obtainable Truth. It has fostered a, “what is true for you may not be true for me” mentality.

    Consequently, the greatest evil is to say you or your group knows because clearly you are demonstrating that you don’t understand language’s workings and shortcomings or you would not reach such an untenable position.

    It’s really a rather complex view, but I think it breaks down on several fronts. This comment is already too long though, so I won’t bore you with my further meandering thoughts on the subject.

    Thanks for engaging the topic. I always appreciate your thought-provoking interaction.

    Becky

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