People vary a great deal in their ability to feel, think and act in situations where they’re not completely sure of what’s happening. Psychologists have labeled this factor as tolerance of ambiguity. Some people want to know exactly what’s going on, who is doing what and for what reason, before they are comfortable responding or acting; they have a low tolerance of ambiguity. Others can operate in an environment where there are a lot of question marks and lines are not clearly drawn; they have a high tolerance of ambiguity.
This issue has special implications for Christian believers. There are some Christians who think their commitment to Christianity answers all questions, that the teachings of the Bible can give them complete certainty about every issue they will ever face. In their minds, a low tolerance of ambiguity is part of the Christian belief system. But others are convinced that their basic faith in God through Christ releases them to be more open-minded in addressing other aspects of life, without needing to have rules and regulations that cover everything. As they see it, faith itself implies that they don’t have all the answers and that they should have a high tolerance of ambiguity.
These two kinds of Christian believers often get under each other’s skin. Dr. Peter Enns, Theology Professor at Eastern University, recently wrote a book entitled The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our ‘Correct’ Beliefs. Calvin Smith, leader of Creation Ministries International, has posted a blistering review of the book, calling Enns “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Ironically, Enns comes from a fundamentalist background, which is characterized by a low tolerance of ambiguity, while Smith began as an atheist, a belief system that is marked by a high tolerance of ambiguity. Their journeys in opposite directions demonstrate the confusion and polarization among Christians today.
Here is my current thinking on how I as a pastor should be addressing this.
First, I need to remind myself and my congregation that Christianity provides a secure anchor for our souls, and I need to define that anchor in its most basic form, what Jesus called the Gospel. All other Biblical teachings, rules and regulations, theological categories, etc. are secondary and debatable.
Second, I need to provide space and permission for myself and members of the congregation to explore the implications of the Gospel in various areas of their lives — their work, their lifestyle choices, their relationships, their politics, etc. This is important because of the rapid generational changes we’re experiencing. Also, personal growth and creativity depend on our ability to experiment freely with ideas. I want ABC to be a place that nurtures these values.
Personally, I have a very high tolerance of ambiguity. But since I defined the Gospel as the anchor for our souls, I can’t be ambiguous about this. So next week, I’ll follow up with a discussion of what I understand the Gospel to be, after a lifetime journey of faith.
— Pastor George Van Alstine