The Human Condition:

Wisdom and Ambiguity – May 5, 2019


One conception of Purgatory

In a recent conversation a friend of mine, a former Catholic priest and theologian, described a mutual acquaintance who has suffered from severe medical issues with some near-death crises and who had asked him for an exact definition and description of Purgatory. My Catholic friend tried to explain that the concept had various references in church teaching, as well as in popular literature such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, but that an exact description and placement in the physical universe was not possible.1 This answer apparently distressed our acquaintance, who seems to want everything in his life—and presumably in the life to come—to be clear and precise.

I don’t know the complete teaching of this religion, but my sense is that Purgatory is not a place but rather a state of the mind or the soul. It is the condition of a person examining his or her past life and coming to an understanding of him- or herself, in order to become fit for Heaven. It’s a spiritual pause, not a physical jail with locks and bars. It’s a waystation, but still not a place like Heathrow’s old International Transit Lounge—which I once described as “Hell, with carpeting.”

This appears to be one of the problems with the concept of belief. How deep does it go? How real does it have to be? How much of a roadmap of the mind and one’s expectation of the future does it become?2 And this is not a problem just with our mutual acquaintance.

Most people want the things in their life—especially those on which they depend and sometimes stake their lives—to be simple, black and white, offering only either/or. They want their laws to be precisely defined, with no loopholes or conditional phrasing through which a miscreant might wriggle. They want their accounting to be precise to the penny, a snapshot of the money pile, with no slippery temporal concepts like “cash flow” and “net present value.” They want the “good people” to be pure and true in all things, and the evil “others” to be irredeemably damned with no saving graces.

This is a convenient way of thinking. It puts the things a person has to consider on a daily basis into neat boxes with definite labels. Those who think this way distrust ambiguity as an opportunity for concepts, objects, and people to get away, have a life of their own, tells lies, and turn themselves inside out.

But life is never like that. It’s mostly complicated, saturated with grays, confronting us with both/and. After all, the black-and-white version is purely a mental construct, the desire of the human mind to make various aspects of life simple, compact, easy to remember, and easy to deal with. The things that are hard to define and judge are usually—like Purgatory for most people—the things we can safely put off into a distant future or treat as a difficult but seldom encountered exception.

Wanting to live in a simple and exact world, a world of absolute laws, pure positives, unquestioned negatives, without distinctions or conditions, is the beginning of fundamentalism. The fundamentalist wants the words of his or her religious scripture to mean exactly what they say, without interpretation, without dispute, without question. The puritan wants the intentions of the god he or she believes in to be made clear at all times. He or she wants a simple story that anyone can—and must—follow.

This is, of course, impossible. Human language is never simple. It never offers exact meanings. The more precisely the author tries to describe a thing, the more he or she must pick from among different words with various denotations (that is, their meaning as defined in the dictionary) and their even more slippery connotations (the inferences that readers and hearers may draw from the word).3 To speak precisely is to speak about definite things, individual things, that are unique and not like other things. The more precisely one speaks, the less the subject under discussion may apply generally, to concepts, objects, and people who are nearly so but not exactly so. And the purpose of most writing and speech—particularly of a religious nature—is to cast a wide net of meaning, rather than to focus down to a unique and specific instance, eschewing all other possibilities.

As an atheist, I also understand that anything written or spoken about any god is still a product of the human mind. Religious scholars may believe that the words are divinely inspired—either dictated directly into the scribe’s ear by an angel or from the lips of the supreme god him- or herself, or else developed by a writer or speaker in the grip of religious fervor or under the influence of religious faith—but those words are still subject to human understanding and phrased in human language. Since the human mind is not identical to the mind of an angel or a god, a certain amount of interpretation, paraphrase, summarizing, and cultural coloration must take place. So even the “Word of God” is still a form of hearsay.

This, in my mind, is not a bad thing. If there is indeed only one god in the universe, and this supreme being speaks with perfect accuracy on every subject to every hearer, and these hearers all write down the pronouncement with complete fidelity, then human history would be absolutely uniform, locked into a singular vision for all time, and incapable of growing, moderating, or advancing. Intellectual evolution and discovery would be as impossible as physical evolution would be in a world where each animal was created only once, in perfect form, by the hand of that god, and incapable of adapting to shifts in climate, topography, and plate tectonics.

Change and adaptation are a rule of the life and of the universe that we can see all around us. Animals adapt to environmental niches, the rocks themselves weather and dissolve, stars explode and collapse. Nothing is fixed and unaltering. And nothing is simple, true, and immutable for all time.

To me, this is the beginning of wisdom, to understand that life and the universe are a gray area. That ambiguity is the natural state of nature. That much of what we see and interpret around us is dependent on the accumulated experiences, memories, and cultural dictates that we bring to our observations. That the rattlesnake is not evil because his fangs are full of venom, any more than the rabbit is good because his teeth and claws are relatively harmless even in defense.

A tolerance for this ambiguity, the ability to put off judgment and delay the demand for clear meaning, to my mind is the essence of wisdom. This is the sign that the person is willing to see multiple meanings, different interpretations, alternate viewpoints, and parallel realities. This is not to say that the human mind can never choose among them or is forever lost in a hall of conceptual mirrors. Ultimately, the mind and the individual must choose what is good, right, and proper in each instance. But that choice should come only after detecting, examining, and testing the possible meanings and available viewpoints.

And sometimes, especially in matters of meaning and physical reality, it is best to accept that ambiguity is the state of nature, and the individual has no compelling reason to make any choice at this time.

1. I remember once hearing, as a child, that the Reverend Billy Graham had given a precise description of Heaven, down to its location in the stratosphere and measured acreage. I also heard later that he wisely denied having that information.

2. In this context, see also Belief vs. Knowledge from April 7, 2019.

3. In a philosophical debate, no one is so tiresome as the fellow who reaches for the dictionary definition of a term, as if that was the authority. Dictionaries are compiled from common and observed usage—how the aggregate of speakers and writers treat a word—and not from the dictates of some scholarly academy. This is why a really good dictionary is full of different meanings, some of them changing over time and some outright contradicting the sense of other definitions of the same word.