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Reject Simple Thinking
On Following Our Strange God in a Complex World
At some point I will finish the final post in the Pentecostalism and the (Mis)Location of Power series by writing about being “slain in the Spirit” and “prayer clothes.” Before that (and a possible book review), this post is meant as the other side of my previous post. In the last post, Heartbeats and Hymns, I wrote about an everyday kind of spirituality. What I was scratching at, to borrow Tish Harrison Warren’s lovely phrase, is a “Liturgy of the Ordinary.”In this post, however, I want to say something not about the simplicity of the life of faith, but its complexity.
In talking about the simplicity of faith I mean that faith is to be lived with our actual lives, not the lives we pretend we have or wish we had. Faith is no more and no less than our life with God here and now. It can’t be anything else, in fact. As Dallas Willard once wrote,
“We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right,’ we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life.”
This is the simplicity of faith I’m talking about, meeting God in the lives we have. Trying to gain God through momentous achievement or ecstatic experience, in other words, is often to miss meeting God where God is now – with us in our actual lives. With that acknowledged, however, “the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in,” are deeply complex and indeed far more complex than we wish them to be. Many Christians try and ignore these complexities and insist on simplemindedness. This, then, is the great irony of our time:
We make life with God simple in exactly all the wrong ways.
On the one hand, God longs to meet us in our everyday lives, yet many of us insist on meeting God somewhere other than the complexity or monotony of the our lives today. Yet when it comes to life’s true complexities (they are legion), we often ignore the hard work of acknowledging and sitting with these complexities and instead insist on an easy this-or-that kind of thinking, and simply wish good will to each other (in our better moments, at least) and move on. Yet as Heschel reminds us,
“It is not enough to call for good will. We are in desperate need of good thinking.”
We are in desperate need indeed. Good and faithful thinking allows us to sit with complexity not, usually at least, in order to solve complexity, but to enter into it faithfully in order that we, and others, might live well.
In this post I want to (far too briefly) insist on three basic truths:
1. The Bible is not simple
2. Jesus is not simple.
3. We are not simple.
“God said it, I believe it, That settles it.” This bumper-stick-theology while perhaps (though not always!) well intentioned, is killing us. A few years ago I spoke on the existence of God at an event hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at the University of Calgary. There were three of us who spoke, in fact. I spoke from a Christian perspective (more accurately, from the particular Christian perspective in which I found myself in that moment) , an Ahmadiyya Imam spoke from a Muslim perspective (more accurately, from his Ahmadiyya Muslim perspective), and an Atheist spoke from an Atheist perspective (more accurately, from his particular atheistic learnings and leanings strongly influenced by his former adherence to, and understanding of, Christianity). Towards the end of the evening the Atheist presenter, referencing the story of testing of Abraham in Genesis 22, asked a question of the mostly young people in the room: “Would you, like Abraham, be willing to kill your son if God asked you to?” A number of young hands went up. Although it was a trick question of sorts, he actually seemed shocked at the response. I certainly was. But this is the natural, albeit dreadful, outcome of a “God said it, I believe it, That settles it,” theology.While this is perhaps an extreme example, it demonstrates how horribly wrong things can go when we insist that the Bible is a simple book, some kind of Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E), not requiring the deep complexity of interpretation. Chris Green, in his stunning book on Biblical interpretation, Sanctifying Interpretation, boldly states that,
“God remains determined at all costs (to himself and to us) not to save us from, but by, interpretation.”
We must, at every turn, therefore, renounce the idea that the Bible is a simple book. It’s not. It’s complex and mysterious. As Green reminds us, our sanctification comes precisely from entering the complexity of the Bible, not ignoring it. This is no easy task. As Brad Jersak writes,
"Studying the Scriptures includes studying how to study the Scriptures."
We have to study to even know how to study. While this is not for the faint of heart, I’m convinced that learning to sit long and well with the complexity of Scripture and the vocational task of interpretation will lead us to become the kind of people who learn how to live well in a complex world. In other words, reading the Bible well, which entails being read by the Bible, will teach us to see and love the world rightly amidst complexity.
There is a particular temptation for Christians which I will briefly deal with here (I will devote a whole chapter to this in a book I am working on), which is to somehow insist that Jesus solves the mystery of God. ‘God is complex,’ some admit, ‘but Jesus, because he’s human, solves the mystery and makes God easier.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. First, God is not that kind of mystery. God is, as Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall say, “revelational mystery”not “investigative mystery.” As they explain,
“A revelational mystery is one that remains a mystery even after it has been revealed.”
Jesus doesn’t solve God, Jesus reveals the mystery that is God and welcomes us further into that mystery. Note what theologian Douglas Hall says here,
“The mystery of the person of Jesus of Nazareth may of course be pointed to by scripture, doctrine, creed, sermon, hymn, religious drama, etc., but he may never be captured by any of these. Nothing is more abhorrent to prophetic biblical thought than is idolatry, and the idolatry of doctrine is among the most subtle of all idolatries.”
Doctrine, even the best doctrine, doesn’t explain Jesus, for Jesus cannot be explained. Followed and worshipped, yes, but not explained. But as we follow the God revealed in Jesus, we follow him into the very mystery of God which shapes us to live faithfully and see faithfully in our complex world.
Finally, we are not simple. We are an interconnected constellation of invisible formations, contradictions, motives and desires. Our enemies are not simple. Neither are our loved ones. And we, too, are often strangers to our own selves.
How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults.
Who, also, can discern the love lurking in the heart of their enemy? Or the goodness in the heart of their opponent. Perhaps, then, to grasp the complexity of those around us will hint towards the much greater complexity of Jesus, who in turn helps to grasp the complexity of our neighbor and live well with them in a complex world. Douglas Hall again,
Imagine that we, ordinary human beings who are hardly able intelligently and faithfully to describe our own spouses, our own children, our own close friends, and who invariably in fact misrepresent them, weaving graven images around them–we are asked to comprehend and communicate knowledge of this person, whom in fact we find indispensable to our very existence and in whom we believe the very ultimate Truth and all existence is revealed–concealedly revealed, revealedly concealed! Clearly, as Jesus said to his disciples upon the departure of the one who came to him by night asking for eternal life, “for mortals it is impossible” (Mark 10:27).
All of this to say that we ignore these complexities, and all complexities, at our own peril and the peril of our neighbors. We must therefore reject simple thinking in a complex world. Instead, we must allow the complexity and strangeness of God revealed in the strange and complex book that is the Bible to shape our own lives in order to live faithfully into the complexities of the world. This is the thing that happens in our everyday lives. It’s that easy, and that hard. But following Jesus, the Stranger who is our Lord, will shape us to be the kind of people who love a world which is strange to us and our neighbor who is strange to us. This same Jesus will also redeem our own hearts which are strange to us, too. For,
“He is the stranger, the one who does not fit–and yet makes an undismissable claim upon those who meet him, whether in the flesh, as in the encounters of the New Testament itself, or in the Spirit, through the witness of the Scriptures, the church, preaching.”
Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2016)
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 348-349
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion in a Free Society,” in The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959), 4
For two very different yet compelling readings of this text I recommend:
1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Binding of Isaac” in Essays on Ethics: Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT: Maggie Books & The Orthodox Union), 21
2. Chris E W Green, “God’s Scars” in All Things Beautiful: An Aesthetic Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021)
Chris E W Green, Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture, 2nd ed. (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2020), 43
Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2021), 155
Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall, The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 6
Douglas Hall, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 114