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.

a

a

a

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

Advertisements

On Loving God (Part II)

the-adoration-of-the-golden-calf

Moses had been gone for several days. Aaron scratched his beard and couldn’t help but worry about him. Maybe he’d gotten lost, he told himself for the millionth time. Maybe he’s tripped and fallen, or an animal came upon him and he needs our help. But no, no that can’t be. Moses has spent enough nights in the wilderness to know his way around, to take care of himself. Aaron knew that much.

He glanced out his window, up the face of the mountain. The summit was hidden and cold, shrouded in a cloud so desolate and bitter it was easy to imagine things had finally gone sour. Moses had a tendency for talking back; he had a tendency to doubt and question. Did he go too far this time? “But Lord, I am…”Strike of lightning. A whirlwind. All the power and rage of the sea that had been parted, in a single moment crashing down on the man who dared to question Him who controlled it all. Aaron could hear his brother say it now, heard it as much as it broke Aaron’s heart to hear it. Maybe Moses really was gone.

The visitors didn’t help.

“Where is he?” They asked him in the morning.

“Have you heard from him?” They asked at dinner, around the water circle and during their meetings.

“What’s become of him?” They asked him the callousness of self-preservation delivering their words with a sting. What’s become of him and what’s to become of us?

What has become of him, indeed. Every day, Aaron awoke and walked around camp, bearing not only the weight of potential grief but with it the weight of potential responsibility. If Moses was gone, that left…him. Him to answer questions, Him to lead the people, Him to appease the angry god who had taken his brother and left him. Him.

Finally, after another day of agonizing grief, Aaron awoke and looked in the mirror. His brother was gone, for all intents and purposes Moses was not coming back. Aaron wept. He wept and when he was done he splashed water onto his face, and rubbed the red from his eyes. He took a deep breath and blew his nose. He talked into the mirror, listening to his voice, searching for any morsel of sadness, weakness or hesitancy within. He’d been talking for Moses for a while now, speaking the words of Moses and the words of God, but now he had to speak his own words. Moses was gone which meant God must be angry. Something had to be done.

He stepped out of his tent. “Take off the rings of gold,” he said and people turned. They stopped from their chores and mothers stepped outside of their tents appealing “shh! shh!” to the crying infants in their hands. Aaron was speaking. We must listen, listen for hope.

“Take all the gold rings,” he said, “the ones that are in the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them too me.” Slowly but surely a pile of gold appeared at Aaron’s feet.

“I’m a blacksmith,” one man said, “you’re going to melt this, I presume?”

Aaron nodded and more gold accumulated. Another man volunteered his skills as a sculptor, another as a carpenter. Aaron needed them all, he glanced up at the mountain, shrouded in mystery, darkness and fear. He needed them all.

And throughout the day the gold continued to accumulate and they melted everything they had into one glob. Aaron thought of his time at the university, of his time studying other cultures, the tribes all around him. What could he do to appease an angry God? He was no priest, but he was earnest and he was a learned man.

And so the story goes: they crafted a golden calf. From his experience, from his worldly wisdom, intuition and good intentions, Aaron crafted a golden calf to represent the God who had taken his brother from him. He made a golden calf unto the Lord, hoping, praying, muttering and worrying through all the night that this might possibly appease the anger of a powerful God, that whatever Moses might have done to prompt this anger might be appeased by his leading of the people before god as they knew him.

And he called the calf “Pro-Life,” “Peace”, “Social Justice” and “Love”. He called the calf “God”, and “Jesus”, called the calf by a western name, called the calf by the declarations of what Aaron could say, staring out of his tent up onto the mountain top clouded in mystery. “God is…” he said, and built the calf to represent “God is…” staring up into the mystery of “I AM”. He named the calf “god”.

And then Aaron declared there would be a feast, a potluck, and oh, was there ever a grand one. The finest calves were slaughtered, the most delicious casseroles were made, the ripest fruits gathered, and the favorite grandmother in the church baked her world famous key lime pie. There was singing of hymns and the youth group worship band gathered their instruments on the lawn and led the people in song after song. And there was dancing, swing dancing and smiles and people falling prostrate before their god. And there was sacrifice, a tithe bucket passed around time and time again, animal upon animal slaughtered, sign up sheets on clip boards for local ministries asking for an hour on Wednesday night to help care for the poor and burnt offerings sent up to god. Through his grief, Aaron led the Israelites to the hope of a religion that looks exactly what religion ought to look like, banners waving and propagandas staked into the lawn of the church in the center of town. He lead them to the God he knew, and told them it was God. Aaron sat in a chair and opened a can of soda. He took a deep breath, and all the hidden tears and grief and questions that welled up inside of him, for a moment, felt at peace as he looked out onto the people worshiping and happy, with a tangible god standing motionless before them.

And then something shattered. Aaron jumped. It sounded like a window- perhaps one of the kids had thrown a baseball through? No, it was heavier than a window, stronger, more powerful. The music stopped and everyone looked. There, in the parking lot with the mountain looming in the background was Moses, with what looked like a shattered tombstone at his feet. Aaron started towards him, until he saw the betrayal, anger and rage on Moses face.

We are Aaron. We are the people of Israel standing in front of our golden calves, our perceptions of God, dancing around and singing gleefully of the wonders of our intellect, our ability to craft an image of God when all hope was lost. This image did not come easy for us; we sacrificed sweat, tears, golden rings and days in the soup kitchens and seminary libraries to conceive our idea of God that we could bow down and worship. But we did it! We built our golden calf and now we set it up so we can look at it, and not at the mountain top standing behind it, shrouded in cloud, mystery, wonder, fear and the unknown.

And then Moses reappears on the scene. Happy to have him back, we say “I think God is…” and wave to him. “Look what we’ve made!” We yell at him! “Look at God! We’ve finally got him figured out!” And Moses smashes the tablets. He smashes the words we’ve violated without a second thought. His smashes the tablets on the ground that has been the platform for defiling the mystery of God, for taking His name in vain. And on those tablets, unbeknownst to us, were the words of mystery and comedy, the unexpected and wondrous, commanding us: “You cannot craft an image of me. So stop trying. It looks ridiculous.”

We are idolaters at heart, with every inch of our being we yearn for things to worship. “Love God!” we declare and we pay more homage to our reflection in the mirror or a piece of propaganda than we do the actual mystery of God. If I thought I had answers to my questions on God, Marilynne Robinson declares through one of her characters, I’d be a fool. God is unlimited, David James Duncan proclaims, but thought and language are limited. “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” Job records.

Who am I?  I am a well-meaning idolater, a pagan with the best intentions and narrowest of heart. An idolater nonetheless. And I quake like Job in the whirlwind.

Then Jesus asks me the same question…

 

 

 

 

If you liked this post, you might also like: On Loving God (Part I)