Friday, November 15, 2013

black and white

3D chalk drawing by Julian Beever
Some people (and I can be one of them) tend to see the world in black and white, in terms of either good or bad, right or wrong, hot or cold, left or right. It makes life easier in many ways because when there are only two choices it is simple to tell the difference between them. Compartmentalizing life in this way (either/or) means that when we find ourselves on the "good" side of things (and we place ourselves there most of the time, admit it), we can relax. No gray areas to worry about, no nuances to unravel, no complex ethical quandaries to wrestle through. Just do the right thing and we're good, no questions asked. But not asking questions is a bit of a problem. People who don't ask questions, who don't look at situations from different angles...well, we call them extremists, blind followers, and even radical fundamentalists. We know them as people who don't bother to engage in the complexities of human experience. We recognize them as people who find change and transformation difficult to embrace. And perhaps worst of all, we cringe at their tendency to judge too quickly, very often squeezing everyone into one of two boxes: either we are in the "good" box with them or we are excluded, relegated to the "bad" box.

So as comforting as it may seem to think of life in terms of black and white, it is pitifully inadequate. Life is not black and white or even different shades of gray. Life is a full spectrum of colour.  Life is so much more than two dimensions such as left or right, liberal or conservative. Our world is three-dimensional which means we cannot catch the different angles of it from only one perspective. In fact, illusions are based on the observer being limited to only one perspective, many times looking through only one eye. Optical illusions are fun, but making life decisions based on a limited perspective, an illusion, is a bad idea.
The drawing from another angle

One thing I have learned about this world and the people in it is that there is always more to it than I first thought. There is always more information to be gleaned, there are always different ways to engage with people, there is always more wisdom to be gained. Life is not static; the nature of living beings is that they grow and change and move. There are some things which are bigger than our lives, things like love, joy, peace, faithfulness, goodness, and justice, and though these are solid and unfailing, they are difficult to grasp. Simply acting good does not make someone good (Jesus' interactions with the religious rulers of his day illustrates that point). These virtues have to come from a much deeper place, a place which operates on a spectrum much broader and more colourful than black and white.

One of the best examples of full colour living is God. Hey wait, you may be saying, doesn't he view the world as either for me or against me? As righteous or unrighteous?  Either good or evil? In some ways, yes, there is indeed a definite distinction between that which belongs to God and that which does not, but for me to assume that I can always tell the two apart, easy peasey, would be a severe overestimation of my level of discernment. Only God truly knows if someone is coming towards him or walking away from him. Let's take a look at the scriptures which say that God changed his mind. This is always an uncomfortable concept to grapple with, especially if we view life as either black or white. But a closer look at these stories reveals that God "changed" because the relationship changed. God's actions are based in relationship, not in abstract ideals, because God is love and love is always relational, not a rigid structure or system.

Take the story of Jonah's trip to Nineveh. Jonah changed his mind, the people of Nineveh changed their minds, and as a result, God also changed his mind. (I realize that we are dealing with anthropomorphism here, but it is the only way we can talk about God, in terms of our experience. As Dorothy Sayers says, we have no other measuring stick.) God's love is unchanging, yes, and God's justice is reliable, but how exactly God enacts these in relation to humanity is a beautiful story which unfolds with a certain amount of unpredictability. I am not suggesting that God's character is unpredictable, but that because of his all-encompassing perspective, his interactions with his world take on a wonderfully spontaneous and dynamic character from our limited perspective. Where we try to whittle God's goodness down to a set of rules, God reveals the expanding nature of his generosity. Where we would limit righteousness to moral rectitude, God extends mercy farther than we think it can stretch. Where we would call down judgment on the evil in this world, God patiently goes about transforming death into life.  These overabundant, more than enough, multi-dimensional, colour-saturated perspectives are difficult for me to see, but every so often I catch a glimpse of a world where nothing is separated from God's love and my black and white view is flooded with colours that defy description.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't understand. Jonah doesn't really change his mind. Jonah is stubborn. Jonah is "the son of truth". Like most religious folk he is obsessed with, as you more or less put it, his perspective. He is obsessed with his "choseness" as a prophet of the people of YHWH. But as it turns-out, the joke is on Jonah. God claims the "unrighteous" and "unchosen" as his own, & Jonas' blessing - being a prophet of the Lord - has a lot of downside. This is a "black & white" truth that the religious can't accept - they are no closer to God's heart than anyone else.

For whatever reason a tendency of the people of Isreal is to first reject legitimate revelation from God, to run from it, then to do what God wants - but only after God brings them to place of atonement - and even then in atonement they are unable to see what the heathens of Nineveh recognize immediately. This self-righteousness is the essence of religion & God seems to have no patience for it. Jonah causes me to ask the question, what if faith is a duty & a curse?