I remember when I was in sixth grade, my English teacher illustrated the word “multifaceted,” a word which describes something complex, as a diamond with many sides. I think it was the way he described this word that made me remember it. His eyes were wide enough to seem crazy and his usually calm voice rose as he looked on his crowd of 11- and 12-year-olds trying to convey his message, that if you spend your life only looking at one side of the diamond, you miss out on so much of its beauty.
I am not sure that I understood the importance of that lesson as I drew my best rendering of a three dimensional diamond next to the bolded word in my vocab workbook, but I remembered what it meant.
When I first learned the word, I had never really seen many diamonds. My family did not grow up walking through jewelry showrooms with expensive necklaces pressed against dark velvet. The only diamond I saw was my mother’s wedding ring. She never took it off. She would wash dishes with her ring on, scattering light and water droplets until the kitchen was coated.
The idea of the multifaceted is especially resonant when I brush up against a complicated social issue or a challenging passage of scripture.
This is particularly true for my favorite story in the Bible in John 8:1-11, which encompasses both aspects of social and scriptural complexity. In this passage, the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus in order to prompt him to condone her stoning as atonement for her sin. Jesus says nothing and writes in the dirt. The Pharisees leave, the oldest first and then the younger until there is no one left. Then Jesus asks the woman if anyone stands there to accuse her. She answers “No one, Lord,” and Jesus tells her to go and sin no more.
What I like about this passage is the sheer amount of nuance to unpack. First of all, what is the theme? Is it mercy? The forgiveness of God? Is it about wisdom since the oldest Pharisees left first? Is it a condemnation of the abuse of power in the church? Is this a feminist passage? Or can this be read as a foreshadowing of the new covenant that would be sealed with Christ’s death and resurrection?
This passage cannot be laid flat and neat with a small white card defining it in a simple word. It must be picked up and examined and held up to the light. The prism must be allowed to cover the reader with the colors of its iridescent promise.
This process, of examining critical issues from multiple perspectives, is one that takes strength. It is easier to label complex subjects as black or white. It takes courage to approach the world in all its color. It takes courage to lift the diamond up and examine it.
I am not sure that any reasonable person would argue against seeking out the nuance of grace. And yet, all of us find ourselves at one point or another standing in that crowd of Pharisees, staring at our savior with his eyes averted to the earth.
I often revisit that memory of my sixth grade vocab lesson and when I do, I think I gain a little more grace to understand my English teacher. There is beauty in simplicity. There are times to call a spade a spade, but as Canadian author Miriam Teows observed, “What happens when a spade is not a spade?”
Maybe that spade is really just a gardening implement or maybe it is something all the more valuable. The unexamined life is one that allows this potential treasure to rot when all it would take to see its value is to pick it up and wonder.