Monday, July 13th, 2020
Sometimes you have to choose between two options; but sometimes you don’t.
When presented with a choice between this or that, sometimes you should ask yourself if instead you can choose both this and that.
Too often, when we are presented with a choice of this or that, we just unquestioningly accept that we have no alternative but to make a left-or-right choice, as presented. In technical language, a this-or-that choice between one option or another is called a binary decision.
Over thirty years ago, a professor of mine casually warned me, “Beware the philosopher’s dilemma.” In just four words, he taught me an invaluable lifelong lesson. He wanted me to realize that some dilemmas — some choices — need not be binary, even if reputed experts present them that way. Not every this-or-that proposition needs to be accepted as it stands. Sometimes you can and you should ask yourself, “Must I really choose between these two alternatives? Is it possible to have or to accept both?”
In summary then, wisdom obtains in recognizing when a binary choice must be made, and when not. Be wise: Choose only when you must, but refuse to choose when you need not. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this henceforth as the to-choose-or-not-to-choose question.
This to-choose-or-not-to-choose question poses itself regularly when we read prophecy in scripture. For example, sometimes when we read a prophecy, we find ourselves wondering, “Is this prophecy going to be fulfilled literally or figuratively?” And thus you face a seemingly clear this-or-that dilemma. At such a point, you should give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled literally. Alternatively, you should also give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled figuratively. And finally, you should give consideration to whether the prophecy could be fulfilled both figuratively and literally, because sometimes it can and is.
This interpretive process is all much easier said than done. Our biases often keep us from thinking through all the options thoroughly. We often interpret a passage with a determination to find what we are hoping to find. We want the prophecy in question to fit a particular model or perspective to which we have already committed ourselves. It is really hard for us to make an interpretive paradigm shift, especially when we have always thought a particular way, and are an established part of a tradition that thinks the same.
And in a way, that is not all bad. We should be rather reluctant to jettison a long-established interpretation of scripture. But we should not refuse to consider any scriptural evidence that contradicts or alters our preconceptions. Attested, re-attested, and establish-able capital-T truth ought to prevail in our reading and our thinking, simply because God, by virtue of being the source and the goal of created reality, stands always and forever on the side of the truth. Indeed, how could he not? Jesus declared that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Ultimately, that must mean that a determined devotion to discerning the truth is the very same thing as a commitment to finding Christ and standing with God. Even venerable ecclesiastical traditions should not keep us from siding with the truth to be found in the Bible or creation.
Consequently, whenever we read prophecy, we need to ask a lot of questions of the passage, and consider a number of interpretive options. We need to respect and listen to the voices of those interpreters who have gone before us and those who stand alongside of us. After all, many of them were and are sincerely trying to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, just like us. But at the same time, we need to be somewhat open to contrarian interpretations, if only because the prophets themselves were often contrarian voices speaking from the ecclesiastical periphery. The establishment is sometimes wrong, thus saith the prophets.
But to my earlier point, to-choose-or-not-to-choose is a question we must always consider as we read through prophecy. Often we are told we must choose to interpret a passage either literally or figuratively. And sometimes that is indeed true. You have no alternative; it must be this or that. But other times, a prophecy could possibly be fulfilled both figuratively and literally. In such cases, beware the philosopher’s dilemma, and refuse to choose. Ezekiel 37 serves as a prime example of this. Please see my previous post on that passage, entitled Limit Two Refills.
4 thoughts on “To Choose or Not to Choose”
Fantastic thought. This is a great concept that I wish more theologians and church leaders practiced. I recently read a great quote regarding discernment, which said something along the lines of “True discernment is not merely the difference between right and wrong – it is the difference between right and almost right.”
We are often so eager to establish what is right that we miss nuances in Scripture, Church history, and/or the Spirit’s subtle leadings, often causing us to end up with ideas that are ‘almost’ right.
This is why I like to ask many questions and am comfortable taking long periods of time to discover my own stance on many issues.
Thank you for another thoughtful response, Jacob. You even expanded and improved upon my point.
So reassuring to hear we can leave questions open ended as we pray and discern – thanks for another dose of good thinking, David.
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Thanks, Marsha. I may attempt to tackle the temple at the end of Ezekiel to explore the interpretive approach I’m talking about here.