The World and the World

[What follows is a rough cut from a theology book I’ve been working on off and on with the expected title of Children of God: Finding our Place in Creation. This chapter is obviously incomplete (you’ll see that I’ve not yet added all of my citations) and will undoubtedly go through several iterations more before it ends in a state I’m satisfied with. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share this nascent version here for your thoughts and comments, which are very much appreciated.]

Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, humanity is closely tied with the world, with the physical space God has created. This relationship, however, is nuanced and complicated by the entry of sin into our existence. Interestingly, the very words chosen to describe the world in the Bible communicate subtle but important theological messages about the nature of our relationship with the world at large.

In the beginning, both of created existence and the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew word translated to mean “earth” or “the world” before the Fall is ץרא (erets, Strong’s 776). After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the garden, the word used for the same idea becomes הםדא (adamah, Strong’s 0127), from the same Hebrew root as Adam. Once Adam and Eve have sinned, their sin immediately affects Creation, infecting it with their own fallenness.[1] Of course, we need not rely on subtle linguistic change to understand this; God says as much when He tells Adam, “‘Cursed is the ground because of you…”[2]

In spite of man’s sin, or perhaps moreso because of man’s contamination of the world with sin, humanity finds itself inextricably bound to the world. As we have been created from the dust of the world, we are fated to return to the dust of that world, eternally bound to the fallenness we have created. Or so we might read Adam’s story in isolation.

After Christ’s salvific act, that is not the whole story. While our bodies may return to dust, we are possessed of an immortal spirit that transcends the world. Christ promises us a new creation, free from the taint of sinfulness and redeemed as the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is both a future promise and a present reality. How, then, are we to relate to the world in which we currently find ourselves?

The New Testament has much to tell us about the relationship of the Christian with “the world.” We are told that Christ is and His followers are to be the “light of the world,” and that Christ was sent not to condemn the world but to save it.[3] Here, the world is something God desires to preserve and redeem.

God’s desire to redeem the world makes sense to us, for there is beauty in the world, pleasure in nature, joy in physical and fleshly existence. Even if we could not easily perceive this in the world around us (and there are surely situations that totally obscure such beauty and wonder), God is clear about the value of Creation as He creates it. Those things He created were good.[4]

At the same time, we are shown an image of the world as something to be turned away from and rejected. The gospels seem to agree that Christ said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self [or soul].”[5] In Christ’s teachings, a tension builds between the world and the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven).

We are told not to store up earthly treasures, but heavenly ones, for our heart shall follow after our treasures, and we cannot serve both worldly gain and heavenly glory.[6] But the Gospel according to John makes the division between God and world painfully explicit. Christ tells us both that He is not of the world and that the world hates Him because He is not of it and He declares its evil.[7] The world cannot accept the Holy Spirit because it neither sees nor knows him.[8] Christ does not give as the world gives; only He has the gift of peace to offer.[9] There is a “prince of the world” who is coming to trouble Christians but who Christ will drive out.[10] Christ warns us that the world will hate His followers as it hates Him, because Christ and His followers do not belong to the world.[11]

What does it mean to belong to the world? And what is so wrong about the world that we should reject it? The answers to these questions is the same; that answer is sin. But if we are to renounce the world because it is sinful, what are we to do with the Creation that God deemed good? We are confronted with the appearance of two separate worlds, one to be rejected, one full of the splendor of God’s creative work. The world and the world.[12]

And, as we did with Hebrew in Genesis, we find a fascinating nuance of Koine Greek. Several words in the Greek New Testament are commonly translated as the English word “world.” These are: κόσμος (kosmos, “world, earth, world system…in other contexts (especially in John), the world is a system opposed to God,” Strong’s 2889), οίκουμένη (oikoumene, “the [inhabited] world, (Roman) world,” Strong’s 3625), γή (, “earth, world Strong’s 1093), κτίσις (ktisis, “creation,” Strong’s 2937), and αιών (aion, “eternity, age, universe, or current world system,” Strong’s 165).[13] Of these words, kosmos is far and away the most commonly-used, appearing 187 times in the New Testament, translated as “world” 185 of those times. Kosmos is the only world translated to “world” in the Gospel according to John. As Strong’s itself notes, in John the word kosmos often indicates a worldly system opposed to God. One should note that, despite the availability of other Koine words for “world,” John only uses kosmos.

According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the word kosmos also carries with it the idea of something that is constructed or built, both in the sense of God’s creation of the universe and in the sense of man psychologically, mythopoeically, and philosophically constructing the world he mentally inhabits. Post-modern as it is, I meet any “system” of thought or human reality with skepticism, for any finite system created by man shall always pale in the infinite glory of the One who gave us the raw materials from which such systems are crafted. But that post-modern remark provides the crux of this chapter and the reason for the distinction that we see between the world and the world.

The first world is that of God’s Creation: the beauty and splendor of nature; the impressive wonder of the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry; the amazing diversity of animal life; the awesome expanse of galaxies and stars outside of our Milky Way. The Fall of Adam and Eve did not touch the essential nature of these things, any fallenness that taints these things is the result only of human influence upon and use of them. Here we have preserved for us the goodness that God declared for the created and natural world.

The second world is one of human creation, perhaps aided by demonic influence, perhaps not. Regardless, it is the system of manufactured “laws of nature” we pretend to have no dominance over. These laws are not natural, but social and ideological. The idea that success means wealth and power. That the products produced by a person say more about that person than what is within him. That wisdom is the ability to take advantage of others while avoiding being taken advantage of. That strength is the ability to force others to your will. That peace is merely a lack of conflict. That love is merely the use of manners. That hope is merely gallows humor. That faith is merely the repetition of dead words.

This world system, the second world, is the sum total of human error and sin. It is of necessity opposed to the Kingdom of God because it distorts Creation, relating Creation to itself in a way that perverts God’s intended purposes and essential meanings. When the word “world” is used in this way, it should not be confused with the concrete, physical world in which we reside, though the abstract “world” as the sinful system of ideas, the collective paradigm of humanity sometimes intersects with it.

This idea in many ways parallels certain schools of thought within metaphysical philosophy.

Study of these various philosophies is a worthwhile—though sometimes laborious and tedious—pursuit. I will try to remove semantic arguments from this discussion so that they cloud the issues as little as possible. While I may make some reference to philosophical ideas for sake of brevity, I will try to define the main ideas and thoughts independently of philosophical lingo for the sake of accessibility.

To a great extent, it might be wise to avoid the mental constructs of philosophy altogether and to start from a clean slate, but the foundational ideas we must address are well explored in extant philosophy and we have neither time nor space to reinvent the wheel. All the subsequent thoughts in this book stem from a certain concept of reality, and without explicitly illustrating that paradigm, much that follows would be confused and garbled.

Metaphysics and theology overlap at a minimum, and often occupy the same space, as they are both concerned with the truth that underlies perceived reality. For our purposes, we will oversimplify our metaphysics to three broad categories. The first of these says that only the material world as it can be perceived exists, that thought, cognition, and consciousness are only by-products of material processes or structures. This category would, obviously, include materialism, and also probably positivism. On the other end of the spectrum we have the idea that only the spirit exists, and that all perceived objects are either illusory or simply manifestations or perceptions of spirit. Into this category falls idealism, particularly the mystic idealism of George Berkeley, but also the ideas of Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Leibniz, Jakob Boehme, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner. Given the presence of men like George Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Meister Eckhart in that list, we can see that philosophical idealism has had a profound influence on Christianity, or at least certain forms of it. Somewhere between the two extremes lies that both mind or spirit and the material exist in some dualistic combination; this is often called “realism.”

That middle ground between idealism and materialism will be our starting place, though we will lean more heavily toward idealism than we do toward materialism. With the existence of God, materialism cannot stand; one simply cannot be both a materialist and a Christian. Matthew 6 stresses twice that God is “unseen.”[14] In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds us that what we see is temporary, but what we cannot see is eternal.[15] Christ’s condescension to man has as part of its purpose to reveal God to man, for He is typically unseen. If we are to have faith in a God we cannot perceive with our five senses, we must have faith also that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[16]

While reference to established philosophical paradigms serves as a shortcut to discuss certain ideas in the context of two overlapping and competing worlds or modes of existence, we must be careful not to put our faith (even moreso our God) into a box. The desire to simplify and categorize is endemic to human nature, but let’s resist that urge for a more complex and beautiful understanding.

When we look to scripture, we find a view of the world that does not easily fit into a materialist, or idealist, or realist view. In fact, aside from the inadequacy of materialism to explain the universe as understood by the Christian, a Biblical understanding of reality could align with an idealist view (as a number of prominent Christian thinkers and philosophers have adopted) or with a realist view.

If we focus solely on Paul’s words that what is true is unseen, and what is seen is false, this might lead us to a purely idealist view—the everyday, mundane experience of life, especially the material particulars of life, are but illusions concealing the greater truth of existence as expressed to us (and perhaps only accessible by us, at least at first) through God’s revelation. This idea would find ready corollaries in Buddhism or Hinduism.

But Paul also tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”[17] The word for “world” used by Paul here is kosmos. If we are to follow the difference between the world (as good creation) and the world (as kosmos, man’s constructed paradigm of reality), this statement adds great depth to our inquiry. First, to continue the current line of thought, this statement tells us that there are good things in the physical world that God wants to redeem; this should cause us to approach a purely idealist paradigm with some caution, perhaps preferring a more complex and nuanced realist philosophy as part of our theology. This statement requires us to view the word kosmos as meaning the physical, created world rather than constructed experience of reality. There is no doubt that this meaning is also intended by the use of the word in certain passages of scripture, or perhaps that the double meaning purposefully exists like nesting dolls constructed around one another.

Second, when we read the word kosmos in Paul’s statement to mean man’s self-invented paradigm of existence, we are told that God’s desire is to reconcile our understanding of reality with His. This idea will prove to be integral to the chapters that follow. For now, we return briefly to the ideas of idealism and realism.

Ultimately, we are faced with two seeming opposites to resolve. First, the existence of a temporal, material world. Second, the existence of a transcendent world of spirit. Christianity has a unique approach to many questions of opposites. As G.K. Chesteron writes:

Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.[18]

Perhaps the answer is not in the opposites themselves, but in their combination. There is a third way. If the material and the spiritual are situated on top of one another, so interwoven that they are simultaneously individual and yet a unity, we are presented with a “solution” that comports with the thematic underpinnings of the entire discussion of this book, and with Christianity as a whole. This “solution”, I think defies easy classification as idealist or realist. Quite possibly it dexterously sidesteps that conversation altogether.

This chapter began with a discussion of the two competing worlds within the New Testament, Creation and the Kosmos. For there to exist this opposition, the one must be independent from the other. That is to say, God’s intentions and original Creation must be separate from Himself for it to be susceptible to corruption and sin. This in itself only proves that man is separate from God, as we shall soon discuss, but if man is separate from God, why should the rest of Creation not be?

In his letters, Paul says:

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.[19]

The word used by Paul here is σάρζ (sarx, Strong’s 4561).[20] This word literally means “the soft tissue of a creature,” though Paul uses it to contrast that which is sinful with that which is holy, the Spirit.[21] Born in Tarsus, a Greek city known for its intellectual prowess, Paul’s childhood included instruction in Greek philosophy.[22] Scholars have clearly established Paul’s familiarity with Stoic philosophy.[23] During Paul’s time, the tradition of Platonism also included significant aspects of Stoic thought, making it difficult to determine exactly how familiar Paul would have been with the idealism of Middle Platonism.[24] However, given the culture of learning into which Paul was born and the similarity between Paul’s established opposition between flesh and spirit and Platonic opposition between matter and soul, the connection seems an easy one.[25]

Still, we should not be too ready to see in Paul’s writings more than a metaphorical (rather than metaphysical) divide between sarx and the spirit, although this statement, too, must be carefully defined. As N.T. Wright argues in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, we would do well to—when we discuss the connections between Greek philosophy and Paul’s theology—remember also the ways in which Paul’s theology is utterly incompatible with systems of Greek thought, whether the pantheism of Stoicism or the “ontological gap between the divine and the world” that explains the existence of evil in Epicurean thought.[26]

We will conclude here that, without much greater examination (which I will leave to others). We cannot say that Paul held a readily dualistic view of the world of flesh and the world of spirit. Instead, these two worlds, which are arguably the same as the world of creation and the kosmos world, are intimately connected, just as God is intimately interested in and connected to mankind. As we continue this line of exploration, let us keep in mind that, while to some extent useful for framing a discussion or approach to theological investigation, it is rarely helpful to place theology in a philosophical box, to say that an orthodox understanding of our faith fits within this school of thought or that. Existence is too big, too minutely ordered, and too complex for such an easy distinction.

From sources other than Paul, the early church fathers—Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and Origen—incorporated Platonic thought into Christian theology.[27] That any of these men, Paul included, held (or possibly held) Platonic ideas does not of itself make those ideas true. But Christ Himself makes a distinction that closely aligns with the arguments of both Paul and Platonism. Upon Christ’s appearance to Thomas after the Resurrection, Christ tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[28] Christ’s repeated distinction between seen and unseen—by proxy worldly and spiritual—strongly suggests a realist approach that gives dominance to the ideal, to the matters of the mind and spirit while not going so far as to say that the material does not exist.

My own personal experience drives this home. For almost half of my life, I’ve had—I hesitate to say “suffered” because I’m doing just fine, thank you very much (but I have suffered at times)—from clinical depression. For me, this is simply an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in my brain, serotonin and probably also norepinephrine. When properly addressed with medication, I feel and think as myself, as the closest thing I know to my “essential” self. When those chemicals run rampant, however, my thoughts are not my own, and the chemicals in my brain cause me to think thoughts that, consciously, I know are not the thoughts I truly have about a given thing and to feel feelings that I consciously know not to be my true feelings. My mind or spirit and my body are out of joint and in conflict with one another, and though I know my identity is being oppressed and suppressed by malfunctioning neurotransmitters, that does not make it easy to cognitively recover myself. Though many scientists would disagree with my assessment, and I cannot concretely communicate the truth of it to anyone outside of myself, my experiences with depression have made it clear to me that my mind and my body are not the same. At the same time, though, it shows me that body and mind influence one another in profound and direct ways; while this dialectic influence does not rise to the level of determinism, it does show us that there is both a divide and a unity between the material and the spiritual, a divide and a unity that resonates in our relationship with God (individually or corporately), or participation in the Body of Christ, and the microcosmic example of marriage.

Again, we need not label or categorize this position within extant schools of philosophical thought; we will find it sufficient to say that we find support in the Bible, the world around us, the tradition of the church in the early church fathers, and the reason of philosophy for the premise that there are both a spiritual/unseen aspect and a material/perceptible aspect within existence and that they influence one another, though the spirit is ultimately the stronger. Along with this, we assert that the created has an existence apart from God, both in its material and spiritual aspects.

And this brings us to another philosophical school of thought that finds great purchase within this book: existentialism.

Popularly, we think of existentialism as a secular, humanist school of thought—the names Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche come to mind. And we’ll start with secularist existentialism, but that’s only the first half of the puzzle, because existentialism originated in Christian thought.

An existentialist would tell us that “existence precedes essence,” that is, that our philosophical discussion must begin from the premise that things are, not what things are. Our focus starts with the individual, not with what attributes make the individual who he is, but the simple fact that he is an individual in his existence. There’s a lot to be said for the artistic and philosophic value of existentialist thought, but existentialism takes us down a dark path if followed blindly into the forest of consequential ideas. Tread it with me a while and we’ll find that, because the existentialist concern begins with ourselves and our experience rather than the supposition of there being an essential, necessary nature to every thing, we come to believe that there is no meaning. From this argument, existentialists then become psychologists, focusing their philosophy on the psychic trauma we popularly call existential angst, the horror of our realization of a lack of meaning in the universe.

Again we are reminded of Chesterton’s “sacred paradox,” the combination of furious opposites that remain furiously opposed and yet bound together. Secular existentialism gives us half of the paradox if taken to its logical conclusion. For that conclusion, we turn not to the philosophers we discussed above but to a storyteller, and one of my favorites. If you’ve been plugged into to popular culture even in the most tenuous of senses, you’ve heard of Joss Whedon, he created the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse; most of his recent work has been in the comic book field, particularly with the recent Avengers movies. Whedon has referred to himself as “a very hard-lined, angry atheist,” and close examination of some of his works reveals a definite secular humanist existentialist tone, though arguably an agnostic tone over an atheistic one. For an example of this in The Avengers, search the internet for an article by Nathaniel Darnell of the Atlanta Art Cinema Examiner entitled, “Fun Movie but is Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ Theistic or Agnostic?”[29]

Why does our conversation take a sudden left turn into the territory of such an unlikely candidate? Because Joss Whedon is a smart man, and though secular existentialism gives us only half of the paradox, Whedon gives it its clearest expression. He is oft quoted as having said, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Whedon’s words are simply the existentialist’s phrasing of what we’ve been discussing in meaning and ambiguity—humans make meaning; the meaning that they make is powerful. If you believe that nothing has any inherent meaning, then of necessity the meaning we assign to it bears that thing’s power. Going back to Adam’s naming of the animals, we are told in Scripture both that there is an absolute essence to objects that is not preceded by existence but also that we are called to make meaning in the world. The meaning we make may be relational rather than essential, but it nevertheless carries great power. How we define the world determines how we interact with it.

To be clear, the half of the sacred paradox that existentialists get right is that humans make meaning and that the meaning we make carries power. The other half, though, is that God also makes meaning, absolute essential meaning. In Christian thought, these two “furious opposites” co-exist. Ambiguity is the space between, where God’s withdrawal from us of absolute knowledge of absolute meaning has given us the power to create our own meaning.

Christian existentialist thought provides us with the mechanism by which God creates ambiguity. As I said before, existentialism started with Christian thought—most would point to Søren Kierkegaard as the first (modern) existentialist thinker. He proposed that God, the hope and love that He provides, is the only remedy from the existential angst of a recognition of meaninglessness. I won’t address Kierkegaard’s arguments except to say that it seems clear to me that God has made a meaningful world that only sometimes seems meaningless, but that that seeming meaninglessness serves a high purpose in God’s plan for Creation.

From Kierkegaard, Christian existentialist thought passes down to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to the German theologian Paul Tillich, and a number of other influential theologians we will not discuss here. Paul Tillich, though, is the one who provides us with a formulation of the mechanism God uses to create ambiguity. It is, of course, existential in nature. Tillich says, “…life is ambiguous because it unites essential and existential elements.”[30]

This is exactly what we’ve been discussing—that ambiguity results from the interplay between God’s absolute (essential) meaning and man’s relational (existential) meaning. For Tillich, this interplay can also be viewed as the tension between the infinite possibility of God and the finite reality of man. He says, “So my life oscillates between the possible and the real and requires the surrender of the one for the other—the sacrificial character of all life.”[31]

Tillich means that, upon choosing meaning, man necessarily rejects other possibilities of meaning, “sacrificing” them back to God. Here, we have another sacred paradox of Christianity because, in man, the finite of “reality” and the infinite of God’s possibility are united and synthesized.

In our everyday lives, we assign meaning to everything around us. Meaning is the “end, purpose, or significance of a thing.” If meaning itself is ambiguous—and that’s one of the things that makes this discussion so difficult—think of adjectives. When we decide that something is good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, simple or complex, beneficial or detrimental, we’re giving some meaning to the thing, whether an object, a person, a place, or an idea. I have to make clear here that there is a distinction to be made between meaning and truth. Meaning is about the significance an object, idea or person has, which can only be understood relative to other objects, ideas, and people. Truth is about what an object, idea, or person is. They are not the same, though truth influences meaning. I’m not sure if we can say the same for the reverse. To borrow philosophical terms, we will call Truth, that absolute meaning of a created thing bestowed by God, essential meaning (that is, related to the essence of a thing) and the meaning created by man existential meaning (the meaning given to a thing by the way we position it in relation to all other things).

To understand how things accrue meaning, let us look to Hamlet. In Act II, Scene 2, lines 250-251, Hamlet says, “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The very nature of thought arranges ideas relative to one another; in the same way, by orienting things relative to one another, we give them meaning, even if we can only understand this meaning by referring to other objects.

How do we know that God intends for us to interject meaning into the world? We have only to look to Genesis 2:19:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

To appreciate this, we need to think of what God has just done. He’s spoken the entirety of Creation, including Adam and Eve, into being, and now He shares His power with Adam. He willingly hands over the power to name the animals to His created man, accepting the meaning that Adam instills in the animals. To be clear, God and Adam both create meaning in the animals. The core, fundamental meaning God creates by giving the animals their various phenomena and essential aspects. Relational meaning is given to the animals by Adam—their names separate them from other animals but also provide a vehicle for thinking about each animal relative to the rest of Creation.

Let us not be led astray into the thought that this process is relativism of truth. What a thing is and what a thing means are different. The essential nature of a thing, what it is, is absolute and comes from God. What a thing means is relational, and is supplied by the thought of man. As finite and imperfect creatures, we are often unable to ascertain the truth of a thing’s essence. Along with this inability to accurately determine the absolute, our varied experience and identity causes us to relate objects and ideas to one another in almost infinite ways, creating a divergence of meanings.

This space is the divergence between essential meaning and existential meaning explored previously. Often, we call this divergence “ambiguity.” The literal definition of “ambiguity” is “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”[32] As often as we are confronted with meaning, we are confronted with ambiguity. On a high level, this is clear when you try to answer questions like: What is freedom? Is it better to be happy or to know the truth? Is intelligence the same as wisdom?

Without ambiguity, without variance in meaning, the will is not free, because, as we’ll discuss, the primary mechanism by which the will is asserted is in the creation of meaning. To put this in Christian terms, ambiguity is a result of the difference of the finite and the infinite—without God’s withdrawal of His infinite self from us (perhaps better put as the separation of God’s infinite self from us, for we know that God is with us and the withdrawal only partial), we would dominated by the absolutism of the infinite, unable to be individual.

On the more practical level, we experience ambiguity every day when we attempt to understand what a co-worker meant by what she said, to understand the meaning of the loss of a loved one (though we should more likely be set upon understanding the meaning of the life lived), or the hidden motivations of our own actions. Because ambiguity causes tension and difficulty for us, we tend to think of it as a negative thing. If we (perhaps ironically) assign this sort of meaning to ambiguity, are we missing the point? I think so.

Nevertheless, our personal experiences with the difficulty of grappling with ambiguity reveals to us the finitude of ourselves, our limited understanding of self, God, Creation, and others. “For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am known.”[33]

The Bible makes clear to us that ambiguity has a purpose. Though there are many examples that I could point to to prove this point, I’ll resign myself to two. First, look to Genesis 22. This is the telling of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. As you read that scripture, I want you to ask yourself, “How old is Isaac?” Now, let’s look at Luke 18:18, the parable of the rich young ruler:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.

“No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Having read this passage, what does the rich young ruler do at the end? We assume that he becomes sad because he’s unwilling to part with his wealth, but could it be that he is sad to part with his material wealth because he’s going to follow what Jesus asked of him? We don’t get a definite answer here.

Returning to Isaac, how old is he? If you’re truthful with yourself, your answer is, “I don’t know.” Now, there are plenty of traditions about Isaac’s age, like the medieval one that Isaac was thirty-three at the time of his almost-sacrifice (because medieval theologians also supposed Christ to have been thirty-three when he submitted to the crucifixion), but we don’t have a definite answer.[34]

But ambiguity in the Bible goes much deeper than that, it’s written into the very literary style of the scripture.

Back in the 1930’s before the start of World War II, a Jewish German philologist and scholar of comparative literature named Erich Auerbach had been exiled from his professorial position at the University of Marburg. He fled to Istanbul, where he worked—mostly from memory—on his best-known treatise of comparative literature, what would become the book called Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in the Western World.[35] In that work, Auerbach argues that there are two main literary styles that influenced the early Western world, the Biblical style and the Homeric style. The Homeric style, named of course for Homer, the author of the Iliad, focuses on evoking in the reader a sense of awe and wonder; it accomplishes this by lavishing us with sensory detail after sensory detail. We learn what the feast smelled and looked and tasted like, what the adornment’s of the hero’s horse felt and sounded like. Contrast this with the Biblical style, which gives us (to quote Dragnet) “just the facts, ma’am,” the narrative outline of the story without much detail to draw us away from unfolding events. Indeed, the example of Abraham and Isaac I have borrowed from Auerbach as an example of details we might consider important that nevertheless do not find their way into the Biblical text.

If we buy into Auerbach’s argument (and his book is worth the read), we must ask ourselves, “Why does the Bible, a religious text, choose its simple style, fraught with ambiguity, over the style that seeks to fill us with a sense of the awesome and wonderful?” Auerbach provides us with this answer as well—to him, the power of the Biblical style comes from its tendency to draw the reader in. As you read the Bible, you must fill in the details that it lacks; your mind’s eye pictures Isaac, perhaps as a toddler, perhaps as a teenager, perhaps as a thirty-three year-old man. The ambiguity of the narrative style causes you to engage the narrative of the text, to wrestle with it, and to participate with it. Homer wants his words to wash over you; God wants you to grapple with His. If this is true of the Biblical text, why not of the world? Ambiguity forces man to be an active participant in the world, to willfully and directly engage it rather than passively allowing it to work its will upon you. Later in this book, we’ll call this “co-creation.”

Our fear of ambiguity is a result of our sinfulness, for we could approach ambiguity with fear and trembling or with reverence and gladness at the opportunity to meaningfully participate in Creation. In American culture, we have established a meme that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the Chinese characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”[36] The fallacy of this etymology is irrelevant, for the concept itself, not its origin, is what concerns us. This aphorism concisely depicts our potential understandings of ambiguity. Because ambiguity necessarily implies uncertainty, we perceive danger in it, for we have seen many ambiguities in our world resolved in sinful and malicious ways. Simultaneously, ambiguity embodies potentiality, raw possibility not shaped into concrete meaning. Opportunity. Were the fullness of the Kingdom present on the Earth as we desire it to be, perhaps only the latter aspect of ambiguity would exist. But we occupy a fallen world, and both danger and opportunity co-exist in our connection to ambiguity.

Thus, like many gifts from God corrupted by our fallen nature, our approach to the resolution of ambiguity carries with it both a sense of wonder and a possibility of joy alongside a heavy responsibility. How we resolve ambiguity is how we create meaning. How we create meaning either brings us into a right relationship with our Triune God, with Creation, and with each other or abandons this connectedness for selfishness. The meanings we create for ourselves either pull us closer to God’s meaning, or reject it. So here we are, caught between the world and the world.

[1] Refs to Strong’s, translations, etc. Thanks to my friend DVH for pointing out to me this linguistic nuance.

[2] Genesis 3:17b.

[3] John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, John 3:17, 12:47.

[4] Genesis 1:4,10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, 25b, 31. It is worth noting that, once God has created man and woman, He deems Creation not just “good,” but “very good.”

[5] Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25.

[6] Matthew 6:19-24.

[7] John 8:23, 7:7,

[8] John 14:17.

[9] John 14:27.

[10] John 14:30-31, 12:31, 16:8-11. This “prince of the world” is traditionally assumed to be Satan, which comports with Satan’s temptation of Christ with the offer of worldly power found within Matthew 4:1-11.

[11] John 15:18-25.

[12] I must, of course, acknowledge China Miéville’s The City and the City for the title of this chapter, and probably the hermeneutic that led to its writing. In that novel, two fictional European cities lie “grosstopically” (geographically) within one another, but nevertheless separated by belief that transcends physical reality. The analogy is too good to avoid.

[13] All information taken from the Greek Dictionary-Index in Strong, James, ed. John R. Kohlenberger and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 2001).

[14] Matthew 6: 6, 18. This is further stressed in John 1:18, in which Christ says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God…”

[15] 2 Corinthians 4:18, and, of course, 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

[16] Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 167-68.

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[18] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 141-42. Chesterton’s discussion of united opposites in Christianity is far more eloquent than I could devise, so I defer to him for a fuller discussion of this idea as it applies to Christianity as a whole. I note only that I am in complete agreement with him here.

[19] Romans 7:5.

[20] The Strongest Strong’s.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Citation.

[23] Citation.

[24] Citation.

[25] Citation.

[26] Wright, N.T., Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 87. To be fair, Wright is concerned more with the problem of evil than with ontological or existential metaphysics in this part of his book, so his discussion and ours do not align perfectly. The point stands, nevertheless, that Paul’s understanding of creation does not readily fit into modern philosophical categories.

[27] Citation.

[28] John 20:29.

[29] Citation to web address.

[30] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 29.

[31] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III. P. 42.

[32] Citation to dictionary.

[33] 1 Corinthians 13:12. Some translations say, “through a glass, darkly,” the inspiration for Phillip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner, Darkly. This passage has been frequently cited as evidence of the influence of Platonic thought upon Paul’s own understanding of Christ. If this is so, Paul writes with some formulation of the difference between the essential (represented by the Good or the perfect forms) and the existential (represented by those imitations of the Forms that we perceive as reality).

[34] Citations.

[35] Full reference here.

[36] References.


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