On the Fence

Two years ago, I stood at the foot of the freedom tower in lower Manhattan and looked up.  It was still under construction, but even unfinished it seemed incomprehensibly big.   What struck me as remarkable was that there were people living in the world who were capable of building such a tower; architects and engineers and construction managers — all with the vision, intelligence and skill necessary to build a tower of epic proportions.  I thought to myself, “I have not done anything so important as this, nor am I capable of even conceiving of it.”  But I am glad that there are people in the world who can.  I am an admirer of such people.  And not just builders of buildings, but also people who change the world with big ideas — big thinkers who have vision and the ability to see the future.  They move through life conceiving/generating/ creating. They’re intentional...whether that manifests in a straight-line movement toward a particular goal or a more circuitous adventure in which the journey is part of the goal.  They are fully alive, engaged and moving deliberately.  It does not matter if they are at the beginning, middle or end of life.  Doesn’t matter if they’re healthy or ill...what matters is the spirit with which they approach life.  They are not content to stand idly by while life slips past them. They’ve got a healthy, engaged life-posture.

Something has been bothering me lately.  Are people with this engaged life-posture always decisive?  Do they always know right from wrong? Are there some things they’re not certain about? If I am trying to be like those I admire so much — decisive and even confident of the direction in which I’m heading — why do I not take a firmer stand on many of the issues facing the church and society today?  Why am on the fence, surveying both sides of the field, and not jumping down into the fray on one side or the other?  Is it complacency?  Lack of passion?  I don’t think I suffer from either of these.

There are some things I am consistently passionate about. I can spot social injustice a mile away — when the powerful exploit the weak — and it angers me every time.  In issues concerning the environment, I side with caring for Creation and conservationists every time.  But I’m indecisive on many issues, and I wonder if this should concern me.  In June, at General Assembly, my denomination PC(USA) tackled two big issues:  same-sex marriage and the Israeli/ Palestinian issue.  I have long been on the fence about both.  I read articles written by both sides.  I strive to understand the arguments for and against each position.  I think I am relatively well-versed, and yet I have not been able to take a firm stand on either side.  There are some things I am just not certain about.

In the January 20th issue of Presbyterian Outlook, there’s an article by Ellen Fowler Skidmore, pastor of Forest Lake Presbyterian Church in Columbia SC.  She writes:

While the certainty about following the right God is a matter of life and death, I think that no one — save God — can be certain on a vast range of subjects.  And I believe that certainty can be a real spiritual danger for every disciple of Christ.  Certainty is very attractive; in a world that is vast and confusing and frightening, the one who is most certain has a lot of power....

I believe that one of the reasons the Christian church in America is in such poor shape is that we have compromised on the centrality of Christ — the one thing about which we should be certain — while we have claimed certainty about all sorts of things about which we cannot claim certainty at all.  Being certain about who God is forms the heart of our faith and life. But being certain about too many things prevents us from following the one to whom we have pledged our lives.”

This resonates with me.    It seems to me that thoughtful, faithful Christians, especially those who are visionary and engaged in life — can and should be open to the idea that the world is not very black and white and that only a handful of absolutes really exist. 

The editor of Presbyterians Today, Jack Haberer, writes a regular column and in the same issue as Skidmore’s piece, he comments that the biblical texts which are cited to support one side or another of most issues are nuanced, defying cut-and-dried interpretation.  He says that he has “finally admitted...that the Bible is packed with contradictions” and that he believes “those contradictions are just as God-breathed as are the seemingly incontrovertibly self-evident commands.”  He continues:

In the process of facing these texts honestly, I have concluded that what I’d long-treated as absolutes are not. Oh, God’s existence and identity are absolutes.  The mission of the Trinitarian God — bringing salvation through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ — is an absolute.  The Reformation affirmations of solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, and soli Deo gloria all stand as absolutes. But the biblical teachings about lifestyles reside in the region of “aspirations,” “benchmarks” and “applications.”  They call us toward holiness. But those teachings also leave room for “approximations” and “adaptations.”  

Perhaps I’m just trying to justify fence-sitting.  Please push me off my fence if I’m wrong.  Can these two postures co-exist?  Can I be decisive about some important things and indecisive about other equally important things?  Can one be engaged and yet disconnected? Is it possible that the skyscraper builders and big thinkers who change the world are able to do so precisely because they DON’T see the world as black and white? Maybe a little uncertainty on our part is necessary to allow for God’s plan.