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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My Three Greatest Doubts (And How Faith Addresses Them)

My Three Greatest Doubts

I’m a Christian, and I really struggle with doubt. I wish I could tell you that my faith has never been jeopardized. I wish I could say “psh! Of course I don’t ever doubt the Bible is true, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that God is real.” But I can’t. Doubt is a major part of my Christian journey- some days more than others. But it’s always lurking, always present.

Though I’m not the only Christian who struggles with doubt, the path of questions can sometimes get lonely. Doubt shouldn’t be glorified in the Church but we lose something when we hide our struggles from each other. For if we believe that faith is the foundation of our Christian identity, then it’s worth considering that Christians are defined, not by the things we know, but rather by the questions we ask.

Thus, I’d like to share my three greatest, most consistent, and prevalent doubts and how my faith- the Christian faith- addresses them:

1. Sometimes I doubt that God is good.

All it takes is watching the evening news: ISIS is beheading children in the Middle East; the international sex trade continues to abduct, rape and sell thousands into prostitution. Elsewhere tornados rip through entire towns and flooding causes a mudslide that wipes out a village. Later I sit and cry with a friend who just lost a parent to cancer.

So it seems necessary to ask the question: with all this evil taking place under his watch…how can God be good?

Asking this question necessitates a concrete definition of what ‘good’ really means. And we have only to look around us and see that ‘good’ is an obscure concept, at best. For instance, I’m currently on a diet. Ergo, I don’t always eat as much as or whatever I’d like; instead of cheesecake, it’s steamed vegetables, which definitely don’t taste as good. And yet my doctor would say that dieting is good.

It’s a trite example but illustrates the question: what is good? Does an end result of goodness justify the temporary lack thereof? If so, could this same logic be raised to a cosmic level?

Many people do just that: they claim that God’s ways are mysterious, everything is within his will, and (somehow, eventually) all the evils of this life will be atoned and the sufferings of the world redeemed.

Is such thinking a cop-out? Perhaps. One of the most memorable scenes in Fyordor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a dialogue between two brothers over this same question. The older brother decides the eternal redemption of all humanity could not possibly be worth the suffering of just one child, that nothing God might do could justify or redeem all the evils of the world.

brothers k quote

There’s a third way to look at this, one that’s grounded in the thinking of an early church father Irenaeus. Under this proposition, love requires suffering. For love is too rich, too true, too real, not to know the evil it has overcome. God’s choice in creation was a choice to create humans capable of love- which meant we were also created with an inevitable ability to suffer. Is this a cruel thing? Dostoevky’s character would probably think so. But I married my wife knowing that, in doing so, I opened myself to the possibility of unthinkable pain should she ever die. It’s a terrifying consideration. But love is worth it.

Along these lines, it’s worth suggesting that what I consider ‘good’ usually equates to a false sense of mortal security: “safety”- for lack of a better word. Whereas true goodness- love lived out- is actually something much richer and more profound than mere safety or comfort. CS Lewis aids this assertion with his analogous description of God in The Chronicles of Narnia:

“Course he isn’t safe…but he is good. He’s the King, I tell you.

2. Sometimes I doubt my own salvation.

Sure I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve only cheated once (or twice), and I tithe (about) 10%. Plus I’ve prayed- numerous times- for God to forgive me of all my sins. But when the rubber hits the road, can I really be sure that I’ll be saved?

I’m not the first to have such a concern. The eighty-first question of Westminster Catechism asks: “Are all true believers at all times assured that they shall be saved?” The answer? No, certainly not. Instead, the catechism states, true believers are prone to: “…sins, temptations and manifold distempers.”

Yea- me neither. But what I think this means is that I’m not the only one who falls into pits of despair, worried that some skeleton in my closet that will label me ‘damned.’ It means I’m not the only one who looks around in church quietly wondering “am I sure this is the right denomination? What if God only saves the Baptists?”

In this, I find comfort in Jesus’ Parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). It’s the Catch-22 of grace: if you think you should be saved you’re screwed; but if you think God ought never spare you, then he’ll look upon your humility with mercy.

In other words, grace is a terribly beautiful thing. And I struggle with it every day.

3. Sometimes I doubt that God even exists.

If faith is a rope bridge over an abyss called ‘atheism’ then I’m dangling somewhere in the middle, flailing for a better grip. While I take these doubts seriously, I also find great comfort and truth in Karl Barth’s words on the matter:

“One may, of course, be confused and one may doubt; but whoever once believes…may take comfort of the fact that they are being upheld. Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that they ought not to take their own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have faith as a grain of a mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”

In other words: faith is not something I do; it is not an action I complete. Rather, faith is the realization that I’ve been caught up in grace. If I realize this one day but am unable to reckon with it the next, it doesn’t change my state or God’s provision. Faith is not a rope bridge over an abyss- it’s a helicopter that’s carrying us above the Grand Canyon. It’s terrifyingly beautiful. But, in grace, we’re safe and sound.

Which is where I find myself, more days than not: caught up in grace. I have doubts. But at the end of the day they can’t oust the grace that’s been poured out.

It makes sense, then, that my favorite passage in the Bible is a five-word entreaty. Because these simple words describe my spiritual journey better than all the creeds and church doctrines ever could. They are beautifully comforting. And every trial of doubt I experience, ends with them as my prayer:

“I believe; help my unbelief!”

(Mark 9:24)

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Sunday Quotes: Love the Questions

In lieu of Wednesday’s post, I would like to share a quote that I’d intended to squeeze into the sermon before cutting it out at the last minute; I hope you can see it’s applicability. Also, in case you’re curious, this quotation is the source for part of my blog’s subtitle. Like so many others, it sums up much of what I wish I could express from the brief but blessed life I’ve lived thus far.  Anyways, here you are…Happy Sabbath everyone!

“You are so young; you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now.”

– Rainer Rilke; Letters to a Young Poet (#4)