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Simple Theology

September 12, 2011

Given the choice between a simple system and a complex system that both explain the same facts, most people will choose the simpler one. For instance, most of us find heliocentrism, in which the planets all orbit the sun, much nicer and cleaner than the Ptolemaic system in which all the bodies in the solar system except Earth orbit a point called the “deferent” which is near, but not on, the Earth, and within each orbit each orbiting body also goes in small circles. Not only would we find the heliocentric model nicer and cleaner, we’d be more likely to believe it. However, simple systems are sometimes simple because they leave out data. In such cases the attempt to make a single clean theory can actually lead us astray. For instance, amphibian populations have been declining across the globe for a number of years and many attempts have been made to find the responsible factor. A recent article1 I read suggests that this attempt won’t work precisely because there isn’t one factor but rather many that interact. If this new article is correct, the search for a simple system has led us astray.

I mention this because I run across theological systems that seem to be suffering from over-simplification from time to time and these systems (perhaps because they are simple) often seem to be rather popular. I say that they seem to be over-simplified because the signs are subtle. It’s always hard to tell if someone is really cutting out some complexity to save time or because they really think it can be cut. My idea of what makes for a forced interpretation will not always be someone else’s idea. However, I’ve run into these signs too many times not to believe that someone out there is putting too much emphasis on a simple system and not enough emphasis on explaining things well.

I think the general emphasis towards simple systems can be overly-pronounced in part to make sure that everyone understands the system. The less there is to the gospel the easier it is to tell people and the easier it is for them to remember. On the flip side, the gospel according to Mark is sixteen chapters long so when someone produces a sticky note with what is supposedly that same gospel on it, it’s worth wondering what got cut.

We could argue the merits of undefined systems all day without any useful conclusions. Rather than do that, I’d like to tackle the body of this philosophical hydra. Why should the system be simple? Why should everyone understand it fully? The short answer, I think, is that we’ve placed too much emphasis on knowing a list of facts and too much emphasis on being done.

Take two views. In the first view, faith is comprised essentially of knowing things. The Christian believes some things (by which we mean “intellectually assents to some things”) and then acts on those beliefs. This is a two-step process: first believe, then act. Actions come from beliefs but beliefs do not come from and are not informed by actions. In the second view, faith is comprised of a relationship of trust. The Christian does believe things, of course, but beliefs are not the be-all, end-all. Instead, the Christian seeks to be transformed into a creature of God’s Kingdom. This places more emphasis on actions which, through the practice of good decisions aimed towards God, cause gradual change in the Christian’s character. Since this transformation process is foremost, the Christian does not engage in a two-step believe-then-act process but an iterative one where knowledge leads to actions which cause one to grow in wisdom which allows one to gain more knowledge.

Of course, these two views represent opposite extremes on several axes and there are multiple intermediate positions between them. However, what I’m interested in is what happens when these two views face the task of making sense out of the great mass of texts that is the Bible. The first view is likely to see the problem as primarily one of knowledge: how can all this information be packaged neatly and delivered to the person who needs it? This is especially important since knowing is step one. One cannot step further until step one is complete. The second view is more likely to be comfortable with a long approach. The Bible contains wisdom but wisdom is not accessible in one giant gulp. Whatever is done the Bible will hold on to some of what it has to offer until the student is more advanced.

These two ideas are likely to produce different sorts of theologies. The first view is likely to produce something more accessible. On the flip side, it’s likely to create that odd sensation I sometimes have that someone was too interested in making the system simple and not interested enough in making sure everything was explained properly. This is what I wished to address – the idea that stands behind the creation of these theologies. But what’s the alternative? I think the alternative is found in the second view. If the Bible has wisdom to give us, then theologies can have a lot of complex nooks and crannies. It’s not necessary that everyone gulp down theology as they enter the faith and then go about living. Instead, people will enter on the ground floor (which could sometimes borrow some accessibility from the other approach) and gradually go on up. However, there is no upper floor. There’s no being done in this life. We’re not racing to that goal, we should take the time to do it right.

Fundamentally, these different views of theology bring about different ways to see the Bible. If your main goal is to wrap the Bible up and transmit it quickly, then it is a rather inconvenient thing that there is so much of the Bible. If, on the other hand, every page of the Bible is a chance to encounter Christ anew and see him as you never had before, then it is a beautiful thing that there are so many pages.

If there is a role for learning new things, if this is expected, then there is a place for theological study. One of the great ironies of my experience with Christianity is how routinely I’ve found that events labeled as Bible study, where we would presumably study the Bible and extract deep theological truths that would make us wiser people as we contemplated them, are often by default aimed somewhere other than study. While I’ve had great success finding Bible studies that engage in study I’ve also found, time and again, that the thing many people were raised in wasn’t study. It was a system under which the Bible was read and then emotionally reacted to. The knowledge was already present. Bible “study” was a way to remind people of the things they knew and, especially, to reinforce the emotions that they felt should go with these pieces of information. I find this sad. Not in a patronizing way but in the same way that I would find it sad if I ran across people who had lots of ice cream available but who were convinced that ice cream itself was not really edible and had been eating the ice cream boxes for dessert instead.

What I’m arguing for is something I’ve argued for before: Scripture is beautiful. Theology is beautiful. God Himself is beautiful. Our approach to these things should reflect this. There is more to be found, more to be known, more to discover. Theology should be aimed outwards, towards the undiscovered, the things too impossible for us to grasp. We will never be done learning, and we never should be.

[1]Blaustein, AR., Han, BA., Relyea, RA., Johnson, PTJ., Gervasi, SS., and Kats, LB. (2011). The complexity of amphibian population declines: understanding the role of cofactors in driving amphibian losses. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1223, 108-119.

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