Ambiguity And The Attitude Of The Knife

In his 1965 masterpiece, DUNE, Frank Hebert imagines a desert world in which water is the most precious substance and life is a constant struggle to survive. The indigenous inhabitants of this world, the Fremen, are a people totally adapted to scarcity. They are a people accustomed to hard decisions and brutal efficiency for the sake of the tribe.

Herbert explains that the desert planet “teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.'” In their relentless struggle for survival, the people of Dune have no room for sentimental feelings, nor do they have the luxury of risk-taking and experimentation. The Fremen are a most deeply conservative society, a people who follow their traditions to the death – because disobedience could mean destruction for the entire tribe.

These fictional desert people are an extreme vision of what a scarcity culture looks like. In their almost cartoonish need for order, control and clarity, they are driven by the fear of losing everything. The Fremen are saturated with the awareness that any false step could lead them off the razor’s edge, from poverty to annihilation. In this society of generational survival instincts, the rules are black and white. There is no room for ambiguity.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Fremen. Like them, I prefer black-and-white certainties to the squishy ambiguity of change. I am often tempted to practice the attitude of the knife – severing projects, relationships and processes too quickly, before they have had a chance to play out completely. I want a clear answer, not the muddled groundlessness of transition.

But while Herbert’s fictional desert people have good reasons for their rigidity and conservatism, mine are mostly psychological. Despite my nervousness, I live in an abundant universe. There is so much love, beauty and goodness to share, and my relationship with Jesus gives me real security. If I choose to trust in the love and abundance of the world that God has made, I am freed from the shackles of scarcity thinking and the attitude of the knife.

The Holy Spirit invites me to live a fearless life. Grounded in the certainty of God’s love, presence and provision, I am released from the need to chop off that which is incomplete. Instead, I am given power to sit with the broken, painful and ambiguous parts of my life. I am given courage to look adversity in the face, rather than cutting and running at the first hint of conflict. When I know who I am in Christ, I am freed from the attitude of the knife.

When we as communities are able to live in trust and awareness of Jesus Christ in our midst, we are released from the need to quash uncertainty, ambiguity and change. We are encouraged to be innovative, risk-taking and experimental. When we open ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding us as Christ’s body, our grip on life loosens, and we are given renewed minds and hearts, able to see and feel in striking new ways. In contrast to the callous defensiveness of the attitude of the knife, Jesus’ presence opens us from the inside out and sensitizes us to one another.

Where are the areas in your life where you are gripping tightly? What are the situations, relationships and dilemmas that you are tempted to cut off? What might it be like to sit in the tension with Jesus, allowing those relationships and situations to come to maturity in his presence, in his time? What does it feel like to live a life of creativity, fearlessness and abundance in the face of an unpredictable and changing world? Can you feel where your deepest certainty lies?