Developing a True Picture

I was having a frustrating conversation. "Yes, but who do you think is right?" she was saying. "Surely you can see that one side must be right and the other side wrong?" For me, unfortunately, things are seldom this simple. Attempting to develop a true picture of any complicated situation is a difficult process - and the resulting picture is more likely to be several shades of grey than either black or white.

For an issue as complex as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict it is helpful to aim for as broad a picture as possible if we are to get anywhere near understanding the truths involved. The 'big picture', by definition, cannot be one-dimensional; it is far more likely to look like some sort of pyramid. We 'build' our picture of the truth by piling up a series of 'first approximations' and slowly, as we gather more information, we come to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues.

Often, determining the truth about a situation is like doing a series of complex mathematical equations: these things are true, and at the same time this is also true, and so is this, and so is this, and so is this . . . . We must work all the equations simultaneously in order to arrive at some possible answers. Even then we may get no further than the equivalent of: if x = n then either

y = nm2 or y = (n2-m3)-(m+n)!

Many years ago we spent a morning talking with Ron Sider. It was about eight years after he had written Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and I remember being very impressed with him. He was a humble and kindly man who, in spite of his 'fame', had a lot of time for my three year old. And he had holes in his shoes - he lived what he preached.

You pay attention to a man like that. As we asked him various questions he would say over and again, "Well, it is complex. You see on the one hand this is true, but then, on the other hand you have to consider . . . and then again . . . ." He was perpetually gathering information and it didn't seem to bother him at all that he didn't have a tidy answer for every question.

His advice to us was this: Listen very carefully to those Christians who hold an opposing view to your own. Work hard to determine what you can learn from them. Try to stand in their place and see things from their perspective. If God is Lord of their lives as well as yours then he will be speaking to them as well as to you. Listen to what God is saying to you through them.

Learning to see situations from differing perspectives is not always easy. Sometimes we are certain that our perspective is the true one. And sometimes it is. But that doesn't mean that there is not also truth in someone else's perspective.

In an old Indian fable six blind men try to describe an elephant. The first, with his arms stretched around one of the elephant's legs, proclaims it to be a kind of tree. "Not so", says the second, running his hands along the trunk. "No tree ever waved and wriggled like this, clearly an elephant is some sort of snake."

"Nonsense", says the third, stretching out his hand and grasping the tail. "An elephant is very like a length of old rope." Meanwhile the fourth man has the sharp end of the elephant's tusk sticking into his palm. "What are you talking about?" he says. "An elephant is nothing like a rope. It is hard and it has a sharp point at the end - like a spear."

The fifth man, feeling along the side of the elephant, is extremely confused. "I don't understand how you can say it is sharp. To me it feels smooth and flat and very large, like some sort of wall."

"But it's nothing like a wall!" exclaims the sixth man, fingering one of the elephant's ears. "It's thin and flimsy, like one of those giant leaves you might use for a fan."

One elephant - six opinions. Each man had determined part of the truth about the elephant, and each thought the others were wrong. Yet if they had been able to trust each other's insights, together they could have come to a fuller understanding of what an elephant is truly like.

Yes the truth is out there, but it is not always as easy to see as we might assume. As we grapple with controversial issues we do well to remember that our minds are finite - if we muster all our thinking power we still may not be able to see the whole picture accurately. Our comfort is in the fact that God does see it. As Ron Sider said, "I do believe that God has one view. I am not so sure that my view is the same as his." There is a right way to see these things, but we should not be too quick to assume that we have found it.

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