In Praise of Anglican Fudge (Yes, No, and Maybe)

“Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ be ‘No’.”

I’ve noticed more and more people using this phrase lately. It’s an injunction from Our Lord (Matt 5:37) and, as such, needs to be taken seriously. I know that I try to. When I’m asked a direct yes or no question, and there is any way for me to answer it directly, I answer it either “yes” or “no”.

I imagine the reason that we’re hearing this particular phrase so often right now in Anglican circles is that people are getting tired of “process” and want to move to “decision” with regard to the questions confronting the Communion. I hear their frustration, and I share it. It’s hard to live in the in-between times and it often feels like we’re wasting time and effort when there are so many other frankly more important issues to tackle.

But…

There exist questions that don’t have “yes” or “no” answers. Important questions.

I was trained as a physicist. I still teach physics and astronomy to undergraduates a couple of times a week these days. As such I am spending a portion of my intellectual life in a landscape where there are not “yes” or “no” answers.

“Is light a particle or a wave?” The answer is “yes” and the answer is “no”. It depends on how you are looking. It is completely a wave sometimes and completely a particle sometimes. It has zero (rest)mass.

“Is a bowling ball a particle or a wave?” The answer is “yes” and the answer is “no”. It is both – same as for light – in spite of the fact that a bowling ball has mass.

Physicists eat paradox for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is their great delight and their great scandal.

I used to think that there was someway to resolve the paradoxes of physics. Einstein certainly did. He didn’t like the fact that Quantum Physics implied that there was no ultimate answer to a question – just a fuzzy “maybe”. It’s where his famous quote “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe” comes from.

But the work done (in the area of Quantum Entanglement) around the issue of Bell’s Theorem and Quantum Mechanics has pretty much indicated that Einstein was wrong. The Universe does come with a set of dice. The best answer we can ultimately give is “maybe”.

No one frankly likes this. The experiments that have shown it have been repeated many times. They keep giving the same answer. The dice are real – and they are fundamental.

In the thinking of Thomas Kuhn – this represents a profound paradigm shift. Determinism is wrong. There is no ultimate reality to which we can appeal – at least in terms of this created Universe. The Newtonian paradigm is giving way the Quantum paradigm. We are still in the process of making this paragdigm shift. It has been underway for nearly 90 years and it’s yet not completed.

So…

If we are going to use natural law to inform our theological reasoning, then we have to include this piece of data as well. It would seem to imply that there are theological questions which can not have precise, logically complete answers. To use this idea would mean to accept that there are times when the best we can hope for in a moment of conflict is to create a classic Anglican fudge. And not out of our inability to reach out to the truth, but because the truth is fundamentally fudged.

(NB: I use truth vs. Truth to distiguish between the reality that we can comprehend (truth) and the reality that is the Holy One (Truth) in the sentence above.)

The first issue for us is to decide if the “issues” that we are being asked to say “Yes” or “No” to, really need to have a “Maybe” answer. I don’t think this idea contradicts the complete testimony of the Holy Scriptures even if it does go against the plain meaning of Matt 5:37. But “plain meaning” can be a difficult thing to understand in and of itself as I’ve recently been reminded.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Anglican Fudge (Yes, No, and Maybe)”

  1. A friend and colleague of mine often says that God has three answers to prayerL Yes, No, and Not Yet. (I wonder if God doesn’t also say, “Oh, no, not that again!” But, then, we all rely on God’s grace.)
    In my field “Yes” or “No” do not cover all the essentials. There are those questions where “and” or “but” are legitimately part of the discussion. There are questions to which the only honest answer is, “I don’t know.” And then we rely on God’s grace.

  2. However, if you were to ask the question, “is light both particle and wave,” the answer would be “yes (as far as we are aware at present).” In other words there is a definite answer to everything if you ask the correct question.
    Too often theologians use the cop out, “it’s a mystery” whilst scientists would say, “we don’t know, yet.” As a philosopher informed by the study of science, I no longer believe that God is unknowable and I strive to find straight answers to every (correct) question. Of course, I won’t find many, if any, in my lifetime, but then scientists also live with that frustration and still do their job.
    Great blog, by the way and thanks for visiting mine.

  3. I’ve always understood Matt 5:37 in relation to the exhortation against swearing oaths…but not in the sense of simply, don’t swear or take oaths. Rather, I understand the passage to mean…”be honest and truthful.” If you are known for your honesty and truthfulness (“let your yes be yes and no be no”), no one would need to ask you to swear oaths to God…they would simply believe what you say because they know you tell the truth.
    Thus, you Episcopalians on both sides are following the verse’s direction in expressing your views to one another openly and honestly. At least you can talk about these things.
    Nevertheless, I do enjoy your defense of Anglican fudge by scientific example.
    Admiring from afar – gay R.C.

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