The Reach of our Comprehensiveness: Certainty, Ambiguity, or Sufficiency?

By Christopher Evans

As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation par excellence, I find myself pondering the sheer wonder of the utterly unutterable: God become human in Jesus Christ. Y’eshua. God Saves!

Love dares speak His Name.

In recent Anglican disagreements, which are in part disagreements about identity, certainty and ambiguity have played off one another in a tug-of-war that to my mind fails this Holy Mystery of the Incarnation: Divine Person become human flesh, who founds and illumines the mystery of our own human personhood by means of Himself.

Awe before, and thus, reverence and respect for what cannot finally be only abstracted and wholly captured in language, that is Persons and persons, God and flesh, go missing in flipside ways. This failure is first Christological, and because Christological, then also anthropological. This failure is rooted in the sparring of two equally erroneous tendencies of present among Episcopalians: Certainty and ambiguity.

On the one hand, in our present disagreements certainty is brought to bear in such a way that all churchly and social traditions are of equal weight and truth without cause for reconsideration or evaluation of any no matter if their fruit bears goodness and mercy and love in the lives of each and all. Or that each word of Holy Writ is meant to bear forth its own truth without definitive reference and responsibility to the Living Truth, Jesus Christ, such that the words of the God become divorced from the Word of God who is Love, becoming a weapon to use against someone else rather than a proclamation of the Living Word by Whom to examine our own self.

The Church cannot err under such propositions of life together and tradition. Or Holy Writ becomes a rule book or a science textbook rather than those living words that point us to and draw us into communion with the Living God. In either case, humility about the things of earth and the ways of God goes absent.

The Personal check on Church and Scripture goes missing. And this, I find especially odd at the season of Advent. External critics, the vocal atheists and secularists, the scientists and those of other religions, then become a last ditch gift to us from God to call us to our senses, to call us to awe again. Which is another way of saying, that we are called again to get clear about language—it’s uses and limitations.

Certainty cannot become an excuse for denying the ongoing discovery of new knowledge of the things of earth, much less for refusing to consider previously unnoticed ways of grace among us. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who becomes not mere letters, but living flesh.

Somehow we have to live with a sense that Another more than ourselves will call us to account.

On the other hand, ambiguity has been used often to suggest that Episcopalians (and other Anglicans) do not have doctrinal claims. This often goes hand in hand with praising our lack of a singular theological voice, not to maintain the richness of our corrective tradition, but to deny that we (pro)claim anything at all. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for suggesting that we have no content at all regarding who God is with us. Thus, by doctrinal claims, I do not mean dry dead letters, but words (and images and means) that as proclaimed point us to and bear us into living relationship with the Living God. This is a liturgical understanding of doctrine, as in the earliest proper prefaces: The angels sing you their theologies: Holy, Holy, Holy, etc. In the proclaiming of this canticle, this psalm, this passage, this creed, we find ourselves upheld and in relationship with the God who is this way with and toward us.

Coupled with this is a sense that warranted or not, anything goes. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for even justification of licentiousness. The ways of grace cannot be discovered or distinguished from the ways of sin and what sin has wrought in us.

Ambiguity cannot become an excuse for denying any content about God at all. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who did not merely empty himself, but revealed himself in human flesh.

Somehow we have to name Him who calls us each to discipleship.

No doubt one of the beauties of Anglican tradition is that we can handle questioning, doubt, disbelief, and even error. Few Christian traditions can make room for the doubter and the agnostic, much less the atheist and the heretic. Yet, some of those with strongest faith have wandered through times of questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error. To make room for these among us is a sign of a mature tradition and of a generous trust. After all, to question and to doubt are very close to the wonder of mystics, to disbelieve and even err are very close to the idol-smashing of prophets.

We dare not cast away even the gift of others’ scorn.

Yet we can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because what we pray in common continues to proclaim what the Church must about God revealed in the Second Person, Jesus Christ. That God became flesh, human being, and dwelt among us. Even so, we know that our poor words, no matter how well composed and beautifully crafted, point to and draw us into communion with this God without pretending that our words are absolute. Nevertheless, our official and public words, while never absolute—as if they could capture the Living God, are never less than enough. We may say more, we dare not say less. We may say it differently, but we dare not say other than that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully human.

Between certainty and ambiguity lays sufficiency. On the level of God, sufficiency allows us to proclaim the God who is with us this way—Jesus Christ. On the level of human beings, sufficiency allows us to discern the work of grace and the work of sin among us.

Sufficiency, then is another option, an option that Episcopalians have used to describe our approach to the core doctrines of our faith: Incarnation and Trinity. Sufficiency does not compel us down the road toward an arrogant defiance of discovery of any new insights or a willful denial of grace at work among us in ways we might have thought impossible. Sufficiency also does not deny claims to any content at all about our proclamation of God through a misuse of apophatic theologizing that finally empties any possibility of our knowing God at all.

Sufficiency respects the Mystery of the Person, Jesus Christ. Sufficiency recognizes that language of our official proclamations can never fully or finally capture wholly this Person, but rather provides gentle bounds within which to name and proclaim this Person, Jesus Christ, fully God fully human. And we dare do so because in the Incarnation, the Second Person has identified Himself with us to the utmost, including speaking to us in a means understanded by us—language.

Indeed, sufficiency is itself respectful of the full weight of God become flesh in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God identifies Himself totally with us, including that means understanded—language. In Christ, such identification is wonderous to behold, ultimately beyond comprehension, because Person in the flesh. Even words finally fail us. Language is broken open before the Living One. So the concept of sufficiency makes it possible for us to risk such naming while recognizing that our words are not ends unto themselves but lead us into communion with the Living God. Before such a One, language will always be but sufficient, and yet, only through language do we find ourselves come to awe by holy silence before God become human flesh. For finally, God in Christ speaks to us not only in words, but by means of Himself incarnate.

This reserve in sufficiency, minding our Scriptures to matters of salvation by means of the Creeds, I would suggest, is the scope of our comprehensiveness, a comprehensiveness that can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because we dare to continue to risk naming and proclaiming God who is with us this way, Jesus Christ, by that means which we share in common: authorized public prayer.

Sufficiency gives us the middle ground between certainty and ambiguity to continue proclaiming nothing less than this God who is this way with us, Jesus Christ, while recognizing the broken-open-ness of our words. Sufficiency gives us the possibility of discovering more about the things of earth and the ways of this God at work in and among us for the healing of that which sin has wrought. Sufficiency gives us together the fortitude to proclaim, the space to discover, the room to err, and the grace to abide.

This same sufficiency in its care in “languaging” Persons and persons, begins with reverence and respect, rather than abstractions, ideologies, or totalizing captions. By Church and Writ, we are brought to encounter with the Living God, Jesus Christ, in common prayer. And just therein, we in turn encounter one another as living flesh, not as mere concepts, abstractions, or identity markers, but as members of Christ’s own Body.

Love dares speak His Name and ours. Amen.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

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