The World Is Not Black & White (But It Isn’t Gray Either)

David Burell once said in my hearing that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who need certitude, and those who quest for understanding.

About fifteen years ago I was sitting with some friends in a Hyvee Cafe in Lee’s Summit, MO (I know, but the food was really good there), and the topic of discussion was whether or not the world was black and white. One of my friends – we are still close to this day – was certain that at the end of the day there is no gray. The world is black and white; it’s just that we can’t always see it at any given time. I made her write down the date and place & told her that in a few years she’d disown that statement. My friend tucked the slip of paper into her bible and I forgot all about it.

Not sure how many years later it was that my friend reminded me of that conversation. She told me that the certitude she once felt was fading fast. The black and white world had gone and a new gray hue had become so very obvious.

For years I smugly thought that I was right… I was wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not returning to a black and white mentality. Black and white thinking is cancerous. This tired game has only two outcomes: schism or war. Black and white thinkers detest tolerance as much as uncertainty, and as a result they are the root of tremendous pain in the world. But gray is such a dreary thing. It doesn’t do justice to Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God.

I’ve got a new metaphor. The world is not black and white, but it’s not gray either. The real world is millions of colors plus. Not only that, but while the black and white world is two dimensional, the real world is three dimensional. There are hills and valleys with various degrees of light and dark.

The world is full color – 3D. There are a few blacks and whites. But in the human experience blacks and whites are always dynamic things. There is very little stark-white in our world that is not man-made. And even this depends upon the time of day. What appears to be white an noonday explodes with purples and pinks at sunset. Colors are no different. What is bright orange looks gray just before the dawn. Even black can be glowing with blues and greens in the shadows of late evening.

It’s not that there is no such thing as absolute truth, or that all truth is relative. That’s not what the Christian story tells us. Some things really are true. Some things really are false. Right and wrong are not always unintelligible extremes. But we are not the arbiter of truth. Truth is God’s purview. Truth is a person. Our realm is the realm of faith (read fidelity, believing allegiance, faith-ing as a way of life). Our job is to experience this full color, three dimensional life by living in fidelity to God and each other.

The world isn’t black and white, but it’s not gray either. It is beautifully resplendent with every imaginable color, sight, sound, smell, feeling, emotion, brokenness, and yes some gray – depending on the time of day sometimes there’s a lot of gray… and sometimes it looks purple.

I hope to be on the “seeking understanding” side of Burrell’s dichotomy. I think that embracing this full-color, three-dimensional world is the only life worthy of the Christian. Black and white could never do it justice.

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  • Something tells me you’re a Moody Blues fan — their whole “Days of Future Past” album is a variation on this this general theme. I really don’t intend to give relativism the last word, but I always enjoyed these lines near the end — 39:50 in the YouTube video:

    “Late Lament”

    Breathe deep the gathering gloom
    Watch lights fade from every room
    Bedsitter people look back and lament
    Another day’s useless energy is spent
    Impassioned lovers wrestle as one
    Lonely man cries for love and has none
    New mother picks up and suckles her son
    Senior citizens wish they were young

    Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
    Removes the colours from our sight
    Red is grey and yellow white
    But we decide which is right
    And which is an illusion

  • LauraDollie

    I am so glad to find that others feel this way too. If these metaphorical colors change change with the time of day, does that make them 4D? What about people who are colorblind, so to speak? Or the fact that humans are not physically able to see the full spectrum of color (or the full picture of God’s plan for ourselves and the world.) Ultimately, I guess we just have to use our best discernment, and have faith that God will lead us where we need to be.