Ambiguity and Paradox, Mystery and Language

In my previous role as a hospital chaplain here in Muncie, I was with a family gathered at the bedside of a dying family member, keeping vigil as families do at that point. The conversation and associated emotional tenor changed back and forth, sometimes quite rapidly, between sadness, grief and mourning their loved one’s impending death, and laughter, sometimes deep belly laughs, as they brought to mind humorous anecdotes from his life. At one point, one of the daughters looked at me and said something to the effect that “You must think we’re nuts by now with all these conflicting emotions.” I assured her that I thought nothing of the sort, that what they were experiencing was quite common and indeed healthy.

Another example, closer to home for me: My late husband’s death was one of the most crushing blows life has dealt me. However, it also made it possible for me to be a part of this wonderful community of faith and connection, and to be in ministry, both deeply meaningful aspects of my life now.

When I think about ambiguity and paradox, I immediately think of mystery as well. Both ambiguity and paradox invite us to step out of our certainties and the comfort they may provide into the unknown. They ask us to look at what we do not know, rather than what we do know. Both call us to hold the tension of (seeming) opposites and not rush to choose one over the other. Both ambiguity and paradox, and mystery as well, summon us into a larger universe than we can comprehend rationally, to “stop trying to reduce the incomprehensible to our own petty expectations” (Marjorie Newlin Leaming). If we can do so, we can become more flexible, more open, more willing to live with uncertainty, by being willing to question our ordinary assumptions about how the world and we ourselves are. We can become more open to life as a journey, one undertaken without a detailed navigation program. We can learn to make room in our lives for mystery.

Philip Wheelwright’s book, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism, first published by Indiana University Press in 1954, has been influential in how I think about language as a poet, as a person to whom spirituality is important, as a minister with occasional responsibility for preaching, and simply as a human being. Wheelwright distinguishes between expressive language and literal language. Both are important, but it’s necessary to understand how each functions, and not to expect one to do the work of the other.

Literal language seeks to explain. Literal language deals with the facts of the matter, or at least with what are taken to be facts. It calls for assent or dissent, agreement or disagreement. This is true whether they are statements of real facts, fake facts or disinformation, or opinions masquerading as facts. Factual/”factual” statements close off discussion and may generate dissention. It’s the language of either-or, and of yes or no.

Expressive language, by contrast, seeks to express rather than to explain. It is the language of mystery, of that which can be expressed but not solved. The metaphorical nature of expressive language opens pathways for creativity, for contemplation and reflection. It is the language of poetry, religion and spirituality. Poetic and religious language, according to Wheelwright, can create genuinely new meaning, and can be “a mode of apprehending, even of creating, new being.” It’s the language of both-and and of maybe or perhaps.

It was interesting to look up synonyms. For ambiguity, I found vagueness, haziness, uncertainty, and doubt, with clarity and certainty given as antonyms. For paradox, the thesaurus offered up inconsistency, absurdity, and contradiction among its list of synonyms, while suggesting normality, usualness, and truth (!) as antonyms. This seems to me clearly biased in favor of the veracity of literal language! It’s also interesting that neither ambiguity nor paradox is included in the drop-down menu of “spiritual themes” on Worship Web, although both appear (under the single heading “paradox and ambiguity”) in the topical indices of both hymns and readings in our gray hymnal).

It’s worth pointing out here that the literalizing of expressive language has been the source of a great deal of misunderstanding in religion. A full discussion of this point would take us too far afield. Arguments over the existence or nonexistence of God and the divinity of Jesus are prime examples.

In closing, I offer for your contemplation one of my favorite instances of both ambiguity and paradox which opens out into mystery. It’s # 685 in the gray hymnal:

What we call a beginning is often the end
and to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time. (T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets”)

May you welcome mystery!

~Reverend Julia