On November 20, 1839, John Williams, my ancestor and one of the early pioneering missionaries to Polynesia, crawled down the side of the London Missionary Society’s sailing ship Camden, and with two colleagues rowed a skiff toward the beach at Dillon’s Bay on the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) island of Erromanga. Williams’ mission board back in England had warned him away from these islands.
Williams’ impulsive missionary zeal, however, was not to be denied. Inquisitive natives greeted their landing even as children played at the edge of the nearby forest. After some efforts at communication and giving gifts to the natives, the missionaries noticed that there were no women present — it was an unambiguous sign that mischief was afoot.
Pioneering missionary efforts, such as the one led by John Williams, are difficult. Communication with groups with unknown languages are problematic to say the least. Avoiding ambiguity is nearly impossible and often the results are tragic.
Ambiguity, Tropes and the Gospel
This installment, about the fallacy of ambiguity, is part of a series on the role of reason in the discovery of truth. Ambiguity occurs when a word or phrase is used that can be understood in more than one way and the speaker (either on purpose or unavoidably) does not make clear what specifically is intended.
Even in a culture where there is a common language, ambiguity is difficult to avoid. It is particularly difficult for evangelists and religious educators who communicate about the things of God — things that cannot be seen. Efforts to circumvent such communication problems often involve “figures of speech” or tropes where uncommon, invisible things are explained with words that refer to common, visible things. For example the idea that Christ is our spiritual food (something invisible) is related to bread that is physical food (something visible).
Unfortunately, the effort by linguists to clarify the meaning of tropes is almost as ambiguous as the concepts they try to explain. You may be familiar with common tropes such as simile and metaphor, but the natural confusion that such language creates has spawned a cottage industry of “clarifying” terms — terms like synecdoche, metonymy, paronomasia, malapropism, euphemism, and idiom. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the effort to avoid ambiguity has only created more of it.
Let’s face it. We’re ambiguous. Perhaps it’s because we’re unsure. You’ve heard the adage, “When in doubt, mumble.” Mumbling is similar to ambiguity, and both are extensively used in our age of sound bytes and political correctness. I contend however, that while “ambiguity” may have the ring of “generosity” or “humility” it is not a virtue, as John Williams and his colleagues were soon to find out.
After dividing up a bolt of cloth among the natives who had come to greet them, the natives suddenly disappeared. So, the missionaries wandered down the beach and around a bend in the foliage, out of sight of the ship’s captain and crew. Williams must have been wondering if he had properly communicated this party’s benevolent intentions, or if their gestures, unintelligible words, and the gift of cloth, had been too ambiguous and thus misunderstood. The natives on Errogmanda, he had been warned, were possibly cannibals, and an old language lesson may have come to Williams’ mind about the little girl who comes into the kitchen where her mother is cooking dinner and asks, “What’s for dinner, Mom?” The mother knows what her daughter means, but lurking by the stove is the girl’s cannibalistic uncle who may take the question differently.
Back in the states, Dr. T. Edward Damer writes about leaving an evening banquet with an acquaintance. It was late and it was raining. Damer asks his friend, “How about a ride home?” His friend said, “Sure.” After walking to the parking lot, they both realized that neither of them had driven a car to the function. The friend thought Damer was offering a ride, although Damer was asking for a ride. Ambiguity is heartless.
When I was an Evangelical we were always being told to “Invite Jesus into your heart.” In our materialistic world such a figure of speech or spiritual jargon is strange. Do we mean to submit to open-heart surgery and stick a miniature statue of Jesus into our heart? That sounds absurd, but not any more ambiguous than what ran through Nicodemus’ mind when Jesus told him no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is “born again.” Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old…? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?” (John 3).
The little girl who is asking her mom about dinner is not going to be ambiguous because Uncle Lecter is in jail — the context makes the question clear. On the other hand, Damer and his friend simply needed to use more words to make their request and acceptance less ambiguous and save themselves a walk through the rain on a dark night. But to make clear what Christianity is really all about, i.e. to make the faith less ambiguous and less reliant on jargon, requires a bit more effort. This is especially true when Catholics are talking about the sacraments, which are like tropes that help to make visual that which is unseen. But unfortunately, without clear instruction, even the physicality of the sacraments can be ambiguous and misunderstood.
Ambiguity and Catechesis
In John 6:60-66 we have the record of one of Jesus’ missionary outings among the local natives, which perhaps spawned the first occurrence of Protestantism. The miscommunication occurs, we might surmise, due to a combination of hard-heartedness and ambiguity. A group of Jesus’ disciples became upset with Christ’s Eucharistic teaching that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. To some today, Jesus appears to have been ambiguous to these disciples who had been watching way too many Hannibal Lecter movies and thought that Jesus was promoting cannibalism, a practice strictly forbidden in Jewish law (Footnote 1).
The importance of the Eucharist cannot be overstated. But just as there is an ambiguous problem with not taking Christ’s words about His physical Presence literally, so ambiguity also plays a role in taking the teachings of His Real Presence so literally that we miss their full meaning.
For example at Mass, when children take their first communion, Catholics may be reminded by their priests of the importance of the Eucharist with words like these spoken to the children:
Heather and Michael, from now on, every Sunday, when you come to church, you’ll be sure to always come forward and take the body of our Lord, won’t you? Because, that is what makes us Christians. When you take Jesus inside of you, you’ll be like Him and become good Catholics.
What the priest says is true, but that is not the full teaching of the Church. The deeper purpose of the Eucharist is to transform our substantive nature much like the grain and grapes are transformed into bread and wine, and then the bread and wine are transformed sacramentally into Christ’s true body and blood. When we receive the Eucharist properly, with the right disposition of mind and heart, we are transformed spiritually. But that does not happen without clear instruction about how we should approach the Eucharist with a humble faith and determined obedience.
John Williams and his colleagues faced this problem on the Erromanga beach. Like many Catholic homilists, they had but 10 minutes to explain some life-sustaining concepts — not about the Eucharist or anything so complicated, but simply who they were and why they had come. Like the natives that left Williams and his companions on the beach after a short encounter, they have questions, like: “Is that all there is? Is that all these strange people have to offer?”
As a former Protestant (and now as a Catholic) I criticize many “Catholics” for their surface understanding and practice of Christianity. It was not surprising to me then, nor is it now, that many Catholics who are seeking a deeper relationship with Christ leave Catholicism because they do not understand the faith they have left behind. And how can they when there is little in-depth catechesis or time given to avoiding the ambiguity?
Ambiguity vs. Hard Work
Instead of staying an extra hour after Mass for Sunday School or Bible study every Sunday throughout the year, or coming an hour before Mass for classes, most Catholic leaders are content to get parishioners to simply show up for Mass and receive the Eucharist. I’ve been told “But that’s all people will do. You can’t tell them to do more.” Such comments are excuses for embracing the ease of ambiguous “knowledge”, and avoiding the hard work required to develop and maintain an on-going religious educational program that lasts a lifetime, like Evangelicals do so well. Consequently, Catholic leaders should not complain when the inevitable occurs. What, inevitability, you ask?
Deep in many parishioners’ hearts is the thought that there has to be more than simply showing up and going through the motions, which is inadvertently but explicitly taught in many Catechism and RCIA classes, and pronounced in homilies. I’ve witnessed it more than once, and dozens have lamented the problem to me in phone calls and written comments responding to my writing. This past week I watched a video of a well-meaning priest discussing the Miraculous Medal:
The miracle of the Medal is that it brings the power of God in our life at that moment. And there is nothing more powerful, more miraculous than the power of the divine life of God present in our life. When we touch that Medal we bring all of salvation, all of the divine life that God offers and gives us, to that present moment. That’s the miracle (Footnote 2, emphasis mine).
I would hope that faith in God and obedience to Him, and not the literal trust in a medal, plays a role in what this priest is trying to convey. But as it stands, this statement is ambiguous at best, and superstitious at worst. Yet, it demonstrates how much of Catholic religious education teaches us that “just showing up” is the bedrock of our salvation, and why many Catholics and Protestants rebel.
Here is how Dr. Peter Kreeft, former Protestant and now Catholic philosopher and apologist, explains the problem of poor catechesis in his talk (available on-line) on Ecumenism and his explanation of why a few years ago in South America, in part, Protestant, Evangelical, and Fundamentalist sects were expanding, and Catholic numbers were declining:
Why is this happening? I think the ultimate reason is because God is love. Because God wills to draw all men to Himself. Because of that spiritual gravity, because nature abhors a vacuum, spiritually as well as physically, and because the Catholic Church has been so remiss in giving God’s children the fullness of the spiritual food that God has given the Church to give out, therefore the children have been going elsewhere to eat it. And God has allowed this because God is a good father. And a good father would rather see his children go away from home and live, than stay home and die. Of course, things are not that simple. Of course motives for leaving the Church and joining the sects are many and mixed and some are simply bad. But still I think the main force driving these events in the realm of the Spirit is the Spirit. When these sheep find little or no Christ in the Catholic Church, whosever fault that is, and find Christ more “really” in a sect, more “really” objectively and not subjectively, certainly not just emotionally, then they are moving closer to and not farther from the fullness of the Catholic faith.
They may have left the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ in the Catholic Church, and that is the fullest presence of Christ in this world, but they did not know the person Who is present there, and Whose body they ate with their bodies and not with their souls. When these starving sheep leave home to find Christ in the [Protestant] sects, they are learning lesson one that they should have learned as Catholics but didn’t. And that lesson one is the only possible lesson for lesson two, and three, and four, and that is the fullness of the faith the Catholic Church has…
As Catholics these people may have gotten Christ in the real presence of the Eucharist, but they didn’t get the real presence of Christ in their hearts and in their lives. They got the upper stories of the Catholic skyscraper, but not the foundation. Not the faith and the hope and the love relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior. Therefore, in order to become good Catholics they must first become good Protestants. God pulled them out of the Catholic Church and put them into a Protestant sect because God is spiritual gravity and God pulls us towards Himself, like a massive sun. If His rays are blocked in one place, we must go elsewhere to find them. For find them we must. They draw us, they give us life. They are a matter of life or death, not a religious shopping mart (Footnote 3).
So that I am not ambiguous, I am suggesting that repeated ambiguous statements by those who teach us the faith in place of in-depth, weekly, continuous catechesis (e.g. the model used in Evangelical Adult Sunday School), leads to poor understanding, misunderstanding, and a weak Church (Footnote 4).
Recently a Protestant wrote us at Nineveh’s Crossing complaining about what Dr. Ray Guarendi teaches on the Eucharist in our television series “What Catholics Really Believe“. D.N. wrote:
What the RCC [Roman Catholic Church] does by expecting Jesus to jump into a wafer and (wine) millions of times per day around the world is a travesty. You don’t get Jesus into you by ingesting him; he is received spiritually by Faith alone in the finished work of Christ’s one time atonement. To assert the Eucharist is necessary as a piecemealed salvation handout according to the CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church], is a heresy and serves only to hold people in bondage to returning time and time again thinking they are getting closer and closer to salvation (Footnote 5).
In spite of D.N.’s gross misunderstanding of Catholic teaching, there is substance in his complaint — he does not see Christ in the sacraments. Yes, that is, in part, due to his closed-mindedness. But it could also be due to the ambiguity of the Church’s instruction or lack of it among typical Catholics. D.N.’s misunderstanding, I believe, is the result of not seeing Christ’s presence in the Catholics around him. It is a real problem, and one I witnessed as an Evangelical growing up in a Catholic neighborhood.
As Peter Kreeft says in the same presentation quoted above:
Protestants will not and should not stop protesting against the Catholic Church until they see the totally Christocentric character of Her and of all Her teachings.
I contend that Protestants will continue to protest until Catholic leadership is determined to eradicate the ambiguity of the faith that only one short homily a week creates among the “faithful.” Let me say it another way: the biggest obstacle to uniting the Church is the poor understanding by Catholics of their faith, significantly as the result of a lack of good teaching.
Attacking the Fallacy
Here are three suggestions for avoiding ambiguous communication:
1. In everyday communication, attacking the fallacy of ambiguity requires that both sides work hard to clarify the meaning of terms and evidence. If someone says something to you that doesn’t sound quite right, be bold enough to ask for a clarification, even if they look at you strangely. And be careful not to claim someone is being ambiguous when there really is enough information to understand, if you apply common sense.
2. With respect to religious education, especially regarding our participation in the sacraments, we need to demand of ourselves, our educators, our priests, and our bishops that time and effort be given (in an Evangelical way) to what it really means to be a Christian — and just showing up for Mass is not the answer, as important as that may be.
3. If the person or author is not present to ask such a clarifying question, examine the context of what he or she has written for hints and clarification.
Back on the Beach
My missionary ancestor, John Williams, was a bit slow examining the ambiguous context of his encounter with the Erromanga natives. In his log of the tragic events of that day, Camden Captain Morgan writes:
The next minute I turned round to see Mr. Williams and Mr. Cunningham running — Mr. Cunningham for the boat and Mr. Williams straight for the sea, with one native close behind. Mr. Williams fell backwards, the beach being stony, and at that point the native struck him with a club. A second native also struck him and another put arrows into the body. We were unable to retrieve the body as the natives were firing arrows at the boat. The body stayed on the beach for quite a time before the natives dragged it off the shore (Footnote 6).
James Harris had been martyred further up the stream bed, which the three missionaries had followed out of sight of the Camden. A report by the captain of a British man of war that came to collect the missionaries’ remains and investigate the incident established that the natives believed the three missionaries and their sailing ship were more of the same foreigners who had previously come to their island to cut sandalwood and, in the process, had murdered hundreds of Erromangoans. For John Williams and his companion James Harris, a missionary in training, ambiguity was deadly.
Over the years since, seven British ships that served Polynesia were named in honor of John Williams. Today there are chapels throughout Polynesia dedicated to his memory. In Leone, American Samoa, there stands before the large beautiful Siona Chapel a monument dedicated to John Williams, Apostle of the Pacific; and a few miles to the West on the Samoan island of Upolu, in the Congregational Church you’ll find the clean-picked bones of my beloved ancestor. Indeed, the Erromangoans were cannibals.
Footnote 1: Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character made famous by actor Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the cannibalistic villain in a series of movies, the best known of which is The Silence of the Lambs for which Hopkins won an Academy Award in 1991. In 2001, Hannibal Lecter (as portrayed by Hopkins) was voted by The American Film Institute to be the most memorable villain in film history. The movies are based on a series of novels by author Thomas Harris, the first of which is titled Red Dragon. And as much as some would like to, this time we can’t blame the Jews’ rejection of Christ’s words on Hollywood. Dang!
Footnote 2: Rev. Carl L. Pieber, C.M. in video clip at http://www.thefaithfultraveler.com/video/MMSpotweb.mov. I recommend, however, the videos of U.S. Shrines at this website. They are informative, interesting, and well-produced.
Footnote 3: Dr. Peter Kreeft’s talk on Ecumenism.
Footnote 4: Dave Armstrong suggests here that I distinguish between liberal-type ambiguity (which I am not referring to) and confusion resulting from ambiguous speech (which I am referring to) vs. plain lack of any teaching or nominalism or lack of spiritual interest on the part parishioners (which I am willing to include because I think ambiguity has a way of putting people to sleep).
Footnote 5: Personal Correspondence.