The online discussion around Rob Bell’s latest book, and to a far lesser degree around the Bishop of London’s sermon at the royal wedding, has got me thinking about clarity. Both have been accused of being unclear, of lacking clarity, of failing to present the gospel in a way that is clear ... which causes me to think about the nature of clarity, and whether much of what we call clarity is actually unbiblical.
The Bible is full of paradoxes. And the western-educated mind abhors a paradox. A mind so shaped sees paradox as contradiction. So some argue that the Bible contradicts itself, and this is evidence of its unreliability; while others strive to resolve the paradoxes, to show that there isn’t actually a contradiction here after all.
Of course, paradox is not alien to science: light has properties of both a particle and a wave – and yet this is not grounds on which to reject belief in the existence of light.
As I read it, there is a consistent thread running through the Bible that paints a picture in which almost everyone, all but a remnant, will be ‘lost’ (light is a particle); and there is a consistent thread running through the Bible that paints a picture in which almost everyone, even all, will be ‘saved’ (light is a wave); and the Bible resolutely refuses to resolve this paradox.
Why? Because paradox serves to reveal to us that there are limits to our knowledge; that even though God reveals himself to us, his ways are higher than ours, his wisdom is foolishness to us, our wisdom is foolishness to him. The same is true of mystery, of deep things pertaining to humanity as well as to divinity.
That is what I mean by suggesting that a clarity that attempts to resolve biblical paradoxes one way or the other, or to avoid mystery or flatten depth, is unbiblical. Biblical clarity presents paradox (not necessarily, if at all, both parts at the same time) and invites us to live with the tension of not knowing how God will demonstrate both elements to be true. It is a stumbling-block, because it cannot be done by the western-educated mind, but requires of us a change-of-mind or repentance. Biblical clarity presents mystery and invites us both to live with limits and to gaze beyond, neither having too high an opinion of ourselves nor settling for a shallow existence where there is only surface. It speaks not to the intellect but to the imagination, to hopes we are largely anaesthetised to by fear.
In the light of today’s news: if you believe that today Osama bin Laden has begun an eternity of conscious torment (presumably alongside many who died on 9/11), then today is not a day for rejoicing; if you believe that today bin Laden has begun a process which will lead to the annihilation of his soul, then today is not a day for rejoicing; and if you believe that even today and after today the possibility exists for bin Laden to respond to the love and mercy of God, that he will suffer loss but will enter paradise, and that one day we will meet him not as an enemy but as a reconciled friend, even then today is not a day for rejoicing in his death. On any reading, today is a day to lament loss and to commend us all into God’s mercy.
If, however, we want ‘clear’ statements, a presentation of the breaking-in of the up-side-down kingdom of heaven which invites/challenges us to repent and believe – to change our worldly assumptions and to behave differently – then today let us start by noting these:
“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.” (Proverbs 24:17, 18)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)