Meanings: “Ambiguity”

July 11, 2011

Dictionary.com provides this straightforward definition of “ambiguity:”

am·bi·gu·i·ty  –noun, plural -ties.

1.  doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention: to speak with ambiguity; an ambiguity of manner.

2.  an unclear, indefinite, or equivocal word, expression, meaning, etc.: a contract free of ambiguities; the ambiguities of modern poetry.

My friend Pam Ferguson, who pastors at Winchester (IN) Friends Church with her husband Ron, offers this definition from Lawrence Burkholder:

“Ambiguity is good and evil intertwined. In the field of ethics, an ambiguous situation is one that offers no clear, clean alternatives. Each alternative may help some but hurt others. Or one valid principle is sacrificed for another valid principle.”

Burkholder was a Mennonite pastor, professor and college president — and much more.

Pam goes on to reflect on the inevitability of ambiguity in Burkholder’s sense, and the virtues of embracing living with ambiguity.  She concludes:

“It is a difficult thing living with ambiguity. It is a difficult thing always wondering if what I do each day does good or does harm. It is a difficult thing to always be questioning, but I believe living with the question is the best thing about ambiguity. It is good to always question my motives, to always question things that seem so good yet can do great harm. It is good to live on the edge, to know that the margin between good and harm is thin enough that I can’t assume good motivations are enough.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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