The Ambiguity of Existence

We humans have difficulty accepting the ambiguity of our existence. We often prefer moral absolutes, certain and unchanging truths, prescribed values, and a clear understanding of the meaning of life; but these preferences do not remove the reality of ambiguity in our lives nor do they remove our responsibility to live within the ambiguity without bringing unnecessary harm to others or hindering the freedom of others to respond to the ambiguity of existence in their own ways.

History shows that we often become dangerous and deadly when we deny the ambiguity of life and insist that all others adhere to whatever cause, worldview, or ideology we may use to convince ourselves that ambiguity does not exist. The rejection of ambiguity for the certainty of a particular cause can contribute to persons becoming so serious about upholding and supporting their cause that they dehumanize and oppress others in the process.

Embracing the ambiguity of our existence also involves recognizing that the future is not a given. The future is open, and our freedom and the choices we make really do matter in relation to cultivating a more just, beloved, and sustainable community on earth.

As persons, we are radically free, but we often express our freedom in ways that are not responsible and do not take into consideration the effects our actions have on other persons. We often give ourselves to causes, political movements, religions, and other external groups; and we tend lose ourselves to a cause in such a way that we allow it to usurp our freedom. When we lose ourselves to these external causes and forces and allow them to choose our meaning and value for us, we become prone to give up the responsibility that comes with genuine freedom and simply do what we are told to do. This can be extremely dangerous as history is littered with the atrocities committed by persons who have lost themselves to a cause in such a way that they justify the oppression of others and simply do what they are told to do, even if what they are told to do is evil.  These are the persons who become putty in the hands of ruthless authoritarian political and religious leaders and who often become willing to do great harm to themselves and others for the sake of the cause. 

This is why the existentialists remind us that true freedom comes with responsibility. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it, “We will ourselves to be free while also willing others to be free” (The Ethics of Ambiguity). We freely create our own meaning and values while willing others to have the same opportunity. This means that we ought never to oppress others and that we ought to actively participate in bringing about the liberation of others when they experience oppression. Authentic freedom is expressed through the liberation of persons who have been cut off from their own freedom by the oppressive actions of others. 

Freedom can be scary and the ambiguity of our experience is, well, “ambiguous.” We often want to hold on to the security blanket of ready made answers and prescribed values that are simply given to us to embrace and follow. We cling to our causes. We cling to our political ideologies, we cling to what our religion tells us to believe. We attempt to escape ambiguity because we do not find the experience of ambiguity to satisfy our yearning for certainty, and we often are terrified by our own radical freedom in an ambiguous world.

Within religious communities, attempts to escape ambiguity often play out in the adherence to creeds and doctrines that can end up stifling our religious imagination and restricting our freedom. We hold on to the order and security that we think we receive from absolute truths and religiously prescribed meanings and values, and this can hinder us from living into a more responsible freedom in the world.

I think we see this in the continued and often forced adherence to the Nicene version of Christianity that we see expressed in the Nicene Creed. The early church theologians were limited in their constructs of describing the nature of Jesus by the substance metaphysics of their time, which was influenced greatly by ancient Greek philosophy. This is one of the key reasons why there was so much discussion about “substance” in their depictions of the Trinity. Contemporary physics and contemporary metaphysics pose a significant challenge to substance metaphysics by hypothesizing that what we call “substance” is actually an abstraction from the reality of experience rather than something that actually exists in the relations of the cosmos.

Contemporary physics and metaphysics provide an opportunity to think about relations among persons and the rest of reality in non-substantival and more profoundly relational ways than would have been possible for the early church theologians who were attempting to grapple with human and divine relations within the constraints of substance metaphysics. By perpetuating adherence to doctrines couched in the language of substance metaphysics, we are limiting our theological imagination and understanding of our experience of relations within the community of all creation.

Given that our theological descriptions develop and change as we learn more about the world through reason and experience, I would suggest that it would be more responsible and more conducive to the cultivation of beloved community for us to view our theological doctrines and constructs as hypotheses that are open to development and correction rather than as creeds to which persons and communities must adhere as a prerequisite to following Jesus’ way of love and justice in our world.

A quest for theological certainty and doctrinal purity is not what a war-torn, unjust, and unsustainable world needs. What we need right now are peacemakers, justice doers, and protectors of the community of all creation. By accepting the reality of the ambiguity of experience, we give ourselves an opportunity to live more fully into a responsible freedom that respects the freedom of others as we address the many challenges of our world together in diverse and pluralistic Beloved Community.


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