What ‘The Dress’ Teaches Us About God

what the dress teaches us about God

Last week, the internet exploded over a dress. It began with the wedding of a Scottish couple named Grace and Keir Johnston. In preparation for the wedding, Grace’s mother sent her a photograph of the dress she planned to wear to the wedding:

Grace and Keir immediately disagreed over the color of the dress. One of them saw it as white and gold, the other as being blue with black lace. So they shared the image on Facebook to uncover the truth. One of their friends reposted the photo to her Tumblr account. Then it went viral.

Twitter feeds erupted with declarations of #whiteandgold. Others swore the opposite was true. One man even got a tattoo of the dress with his declaration that it was most assuredly (and now permanently) #blueandblack. This heated debate- ‘the drama that divided the planet’ as The Washington Post put it- has since been coined “Dressgate.”

Of course, the happiest person in the midst of this madness had to be a certain neuroscientist by the name of Jay Neitz. Dr. Neitz specializes in the study of vision and color. Indeed he’s been researching individual variations of color perception and differentiation (how’s that for a job description?) for thirty years. Such efforts were undoubtedly tedious and resulted in findings for which most of humanity couldn’t give a diddly-squat. So when #dressgate erupted, Dr. Neitz had to have been like:

Because: guess what? Now we care.

Thus, Dr. Neitz was consulted to provide a scientific explanation for why the color of the dress could be seen differently by different people. Dr. Neitz confirmed that, though appearances are deceiving, there is only one true color scheme. We may see- as many have- that the dress looks one color but is actually another. In other words: your eyes can tell a fib.

So there you have it.

But what does #Dressgate teach us about God?

Allow me: embedded within this phenomenon are some profound theological proofs. Namely, #dressgate should remind all of us that we cannot trust our eyes. If we raise this application to a cosmic level, the question “how then can we know something about God?”

And that’s a divisive issue. The question of how we know things about God- how we arrive at our beliefs- tends to sway between two extremes: we’ll call them ‘pluralism’ and ‘fundamentalism.’ Both are unhelpful. And both, #dressgate tells us, are incapable of pushing us towards the truth of the matter.

Those of us in the fundamentalist camp base our knowledge of God upon two things: the first being personal experience. God forgave our sins, and we all have some narrative about how exactly this came about-and how we view our ‘personal relationship with God’ accordingly. We use phrases like “to me, God is…” or “personally, I’ve experienced God through such and such experiences.” We ground faith in personal experiences, though we prefer to call them ‘testimonies.’ This is all fine and dandy but it’s a little bit like saying: “I see the dress is gold. Therefore, based on my experience, it must be gold.”

To be fair, those of us on the fundamentalist side of the spectrum do take things a step further. Modernism granted us the ability to read, with scientific clarity, the Biblical text. And like a neuroscientist can explain color variations, so can we’ve come to believe that we can draw conclusions about God based on scientific methods. Whether this is done with actual science (such as is attempted by organizations like Answers in Genesis) or with scientific methodology adapted to the task of Biblical interpretation (as with the Evangelical infatuation with Biblical inerrancy) the outcome is the same; “we can scientifically deduce- with foolproof methodology- that the dress is definitely blue.” Likewise, beliefs about God are assured, inflexible and dogmatic. They don’t allow for any contrary world views or beliefs because:

On the other side of the spectrum we have pluralism. Pluralism looks at the dress, acknowledges the multiple conclusions regarding it’s color and realizes there’s great diversity of thought and proposition. Likewise, they look around the world at the plethora of views concerning God, drawn from varying traditions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc. The pluralist looks as the disunity of viewpoints and says that- since none of us can be absolutely, 100% positive that our belief is correct- then (obviously) we’re all correct! For if we can’t trust our experiences and perceptions of God- if we can’t trust our eyes to tell us the color of the dress- then we sure as hell can’t tell someone else that they’re wrong.

Thus, the pluralist accuses the fundamentalist of lack of academic integrity and ignorance: “who are you to say the dress is blue and not gold?” The fundamentalist camp responds in kind: “Just because you don’t like that the dress is blue, doesn’t mean it’s not blue. And we’ve got irrefutable evidence that proves it’s blue!” Whatever side we find ourselves on- it’s at least a little bit ridiculous.

But is there a third way? #Dressgate tells us that there is. Let’s call it ‘faith in humility.’

Faith in humility examines the dress- through the lens of personal experience- and makes comes to a conclusion thereof. But their conclusion has an *asterisk* next to it- reminding them that their conclusion is tentative at best. For such is faith. It is not a bridge but a chasm between two cliffs across which there is only one option: to jump and hope that grace has a good grip and strong wings.

At the same time, a conclusion is still a conclusion. Faith in humility requires that we cast our vote, so to speak. Faith requires a choice, a declaration. And we must- with as much integrity as possible- hold to our position. But we must hold it loosely.

Because what the #dressgate teaches us about God is that everyone sees him different ways. This is not to say that all views are valid. Anyone who posits that the dress is actually red can be labeled a fool by all parties; Christians and Hindus both agree that Hitler’s blood-soaked perception of God should be discarded.

But there is always room for conversation. And faith in humility has the courage to say “my believes are more than tentative but also inevitably flawed.” In other words: there is a correct belief- there is such thing as right belief about God. But chances are, mine are not.

#Dressgate teaches us that all of humanity is bound up in the same curious questions: what are we looking at? Why does it matter? Why are we even arguing about this?

These questions are the common threads that unite us. It’s unfortunate that we cannot focus on the questions we’re asking but too often hinge our vicious divisions on the answers we’ve contrived.

So why not start with the questions? Maybe – just maybe- God cares more about our questions (“seek God and live”) than our stubborn depictions we’ve concocted (Moses to Aaron: “You jackass! That golden calf looks RIDICULOUS“).

Maybe.

The task of the Christian is to stop hanging our hats on the answers but instead acknowledge and rejoice in the common questions that everyone seems to be asking. It’s a little amusing and totally heart-warming to be united across the globe in something as trite as “what color do you see?” Why can’t such sentiments extend to: “why are we here?” & “who is God?”

#Dressgate tells us they can.

And that’s not a bad lesson, for a dress that is.

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P.S. It’s freakin’ blue. Come on, people. #blueandblack

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