Heartbursts: The Church in an Ambiguous World

June 20th, 2018
This article is featured in the Summer 2018 issue of HeartBursts

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends. Learn more about the lifestyle groups and leadership styles described below by pre-ordering Thomas Bandy's new book "Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures."


On June 4th, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple for religious reasons. However, there was no definitive ruling on what circumstances would justify future exemptions from anti-discrimination laws based on religious views. Both liberals and conservative viewed this case as a “Pandora’s Box” that, once opened in favor of either party, would lead to the disintegration of either the right to freedom of speech or the right to religious preference. In essence, the Supreme Court opened the box very briefly and then closed it again.

Justice Kennedy noted: "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

One of the most obvious cultural shifts in America since the 1960's is the transition from a culture open to ambiguity to a culture fearful of ambiguity. Interestingly, this shift coincides with the aging of the Baby Boomers. Young Baby Boomers in the 60'’s were comfortable with ambiguities about faith (e.g. the “Death of God” movement and liturgical creativity) and morality (e.g. ethical relativism and sexual behavior). Sixty years later, boomers on the cultural left have become so ambivalent that the only sure thing is their own id, boomers on the cultural right have become so self-righteous that the only sure thing is their own ego, and boomers in the middle have become so confused that they will do almost anything to find one sure thing.

Unfortunately, the postmodern quest for certainty is not motivated by hope and the anticipation of new meaning, but fear and the anxiety over lost power. Therefore, the certainty for which we yearn is more like camouflage. It looks solid enough, but there is no substance underneath. It covers up our fear, but it doesn’t ground our hope. It is more "slogan" than "certainty."

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This is why the Supreme Court was so cautious. Context is crucial. But context is also complicated. A baker who refuses to bake a cake for strangers because they are gay, might have a grandmother who shares his values but asks him to bake a wedding cake for her gay grandson and his partner because, after all, its family. And that same baker who might take the controversy to the Supreme Court over strangers because "it's the principle of the thing," might well oblige grandma because "it’s the principle of the thing." The extreme right and the extreme left might be appalled by such ambiguity, but life is not that black and white. Context is a cauldron of many values, and they aren’t necessarily consistent.

One of the most profound analyses of existential ambiguity can be found in the third volume of Tillich's Systematic Theology entitled Life and the Spirit (especially pp. 30-110 if you care to read it). When it comes to justice, there are five irresolvable ambiguities surrounding any ethical decision (whether by the Supreme Court, your local pastor, the baker, or the candlestick maker).

  1. Ambiguity over inclusion and exclusion. Every act of inclusion is also an act of exclusion. Every inclusive or exclusive act simultaneously builds and undermines social cohesion. This is why it is a mistake for a church to claim to be "inclusive" while criticizing other churches for being "exclusive." Each has made a choice about who is included or excluded. But for every choice there are people who are left on the boundary, in that gray area, who force you to hesitate drawing that line. It is in that gray area that any church, liberal or conservative, lives with the fact that they are inevitably just and unjust at the same time.
  2. Ambiguity over competition and equality. Every person might be equal to another in principle, but the conditions of existence always force us to prioritize in reality. This is why it is a mistake for a church to boast preferential treatment for a particular segment of society (e.g. the poor, broken, hungry, marginalized, etc.) because in practice they are constantly forced to decide which poor, broken, hungry, or marginalized people come first. In the struggle of life to survive or thrive, there is a gray area of competition. Whatever rules of social engagement you choose, churches are inevitably just and unjust at the same time.
  3. Ambiguity over leaders and authorities. Credibility is fluid based on accumulated experience and the wisdom to apply it to the future; but it cannot change anything until it solidifies into a structure or office that makes concrete decisions. Yet the longer it solidifies as "authority," the more distant it gets from the cumulative wisdom of leadership. This is why it is a mistake for a church to claim to be "prophetic" or "traditional" because in fact institutions live in the ambiguity of rejection of authority on the one hand and the desire for wisdom and role models on the other. There is always a gray area between protest and trust in which church leaders are simultaneously faithful and unfaithful at the same time.
  4. Ambiguity over law and vindication. Legal form is an imperfect expression of justice because even the best laws can result in both justice and injustice. This imperfection creates a gray area of ambiguity in the development of public policy. This is why it is a mistake for a church to assume that influencing public policy inevitably leads to vindication. Human rights can never be guaranteed. They can only be approximated, and this demands constant humility and radical forgiveness. Churches are simultaneously professing and confessing at the same time.
  5. Ambiguity over humanity and humanism. The former is an existential condition and the other is an intellectual conception. This is why it is a mistake for a liberal church to boast about its compassion, or for a conservative church to boast about its purity. Being human (defined by limitation and the yearning for transcendence) overlaps with being humanitarian (defined by power and the yearning to fulfill inner potential). But to reject humanism is not the same as being inhuman, and to be a humanist is not the same as being humane. There is a gray area between who we really are and what we might become.

The bottom line is that justice rises out of ambiguity, but never overcomes ambiguity. All this brings us back (hopefully with greater humility and awareness of complexity) to the Supreme Court "Baker" decision.

Culture today is terrified of ambiguity, and to be left in ambiguity is abhorrent both to the extreme left and the extreme right. The Supreme Court decision is unacceptable to the extreme left because the court did not guarantee the right of every individual to construct their personal “play list” of morality and expect everyone to listen uncritically to its music. The Supreme Court decision is unacceptable to the extreme right because the court did not provide a handy “litmus test” of morality that will decisively reveal the acidity or sinfulness of every action.

Both the left and right are so desperate for that certainty that they pretend to have it by using slogans for "freedom of speech" or "freedom of religion" that are enshrined in the Constitution but murky in daily life. In short, their claims of certainty just camouflage their fear of ambiguity from which there is no escape.

It is a great mistake (repeated over and again through history) for leaders to assume that the goal of the church is to achieve certainty. In fact, the church has always been called to have the courage to live in the midst of ambiguity. That is where Jesus is. He is on the boundaries and in the gray areas of life where there is the most need for paradoxical expressions of compassion and respect, relationship and risk, continuity and originality, protest and trust, confession and absolution.

The Supreme Court decision could have gone either way, but Justice Kennedy’s closing remarks would still be valid. Justice will not resolve ambiguity this side of heaven. Judicial decisions will not resolve conflicts of interest in every bakery in America. Public policy, by itself, can neither guarantee nor deny free speech or religious choice. Meanwhile, the church must show people (especially the extreme left and extreme right) what it means to live and love in an ambiguous world.

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