First Sunday of Advent : Simplifying a Complex God
There is a lot of talk these days about the simplicity of the gospel.
It's true that simplicity can be a good thing. The epistles speak to the power of the simplicity of Christ. However, some of what I see called “simplicity” seems more like either laziness or spiritual manipulation.
We live in a culture that loves easy emotional highs, so it makes sense that the evangelists of our time would try to win souls by sound bytes. And perhaps there is a time and a place for candy thrown from a parade float.
But there are also casualties involved in oversimplification.
Sure, thousands of social media “likes” tend to pop up on spiritual Happy Meals, those ready-made lunches full of the easiest and sweetest parts of the gospel.
But thousands of silent bystanders are also watching this flurry, knowing that some of what has been given is too thin to hold water.
Believers critique non-believers who aren’t willing to receive God “by faith,” when many of those non-believers have only been offered a drive-through reduction of what faith means.
I wonder if at least some of the atheists of our time do not love God too little but too much to make him up.
I wonder if their hearts are not too proud but too humble to fabricate visitations of the Divine.
Maybe they are simply waiting for more than what many evangelicals patch together badly in their uncomfortability with the silence of God or in their impatience for the mountaintop experience.
Maybe we do more harm than good when an honest soul is waiting for a real God to appear, and when we shout at him that he must hurry and pretend that he senses what he has not discovered yet.
I am wrestling with all this, because I have committed these errors.
I have participated in the mechanization of God, in the formation of a spiritual assembly line. I have put pressure on those who refused to ride that train.
For several days I have been repenting of this, because I have begun to see my error more clearly. I am so sorry for those times when I haven’t been so much in the business of offering the real, complex God, but of offering a watered down, manipulative version of Him.
I don’t agree with Karl Barth on everything, but I like what he says below about simplicity. At the top is a paraphrase of his words that I wrote for the modern reader. At the bottom you can find his actual language.
As the first Sunday of Advent comes to us, I want to begin to open my hands and make room for the appearance of a God who is sometimes simple and sometimes complex beyond understanding.
I want to stop offering caricatures of him to the world.
I want to follow His star and kneel before whatever He reveals.
- - - -
We expect simplicity to come at the beginning of our journey with God, but it doesn’t come at the beginning, but at the end. After we have known God for thirty years, maybe we will be able to talk about simplicity. For now, though, let’s be concerned with the truth.
Because nothing is simple in regard to God. The letter to the Romans isn’t simple. The theology of our time is not simple. The state of the world is not simple. The way God relates to the world is not simple. So anybody who is sincerely concerned with deep truth must also admit openly that he cannot make truth simple. From every angle, human life is complex and tangled.
And if we are attempting to provide an angle on spirituality that makes people grateful, why would they be grateful if we throw them oversimplifications about God that will not bear up under life’s challenges?
Let’s look at what is meant by a demand for simplicity. In general, when people ask for simplicity, they are asking that truth would be spoken clearly, matter-of-factly and without paradox, so that no faith is required to accept it.
For example, I knew a man named Wernie. When I tell Wernie, “Christ is risen,” he is frustrated that I am using Christianese. Wernie says that I am being naïve, even superstitious, skipping over logic, science, and history. And yet, if I take a different approach, using pure argument to explain the resurrection, Wernie will protest that I have reduced something profound too much.
How do you answer a man like Wernie? He is putting me in an impossible position. He is asking me to sacrifice the threads of faith, to remove mystery, and yet to give him something that is still profound enough to speak clearly about the divine.
It is wrong to demand that faith be either wholly childlike or wholly unchildlike. Both are part of truth, as well as the realm that exists between those extremes.
I would like to be able to write to you about the book of Romans in a simple fashion. However, those I have read who claim to speak simply about this book seem instead to be speaking about something else entirely. I am not convinced by that sort of simplicity, because it seems to be missing important elements of truth.
The simplicity which proceeds from apprehension of God in the Bible and elsewhere, the simplicity with which God Himself speaks, stands not at the beginning of our journey but at its end. Thirty years hence we may perhaps speak of simplicity, but now let us speak the truth. For us neither the Epistle to the Romans, nor the present theological position, nor the present state of the world, nor the relation between God and the world, is simple. And he who is now concerned with truth must boldly acknowledge that he cannot be simple. In every direction human life is difficult and complicated. And if, gratitude be a consideration that is at all relevant, men will not be grateful to us if we provide them with short-lived pseudo-simplifications. Does the general demand for simplicity mean more than a desire-intelligible enough, and shared by most theologians-that truth should be expressed directly, without paradox, and in such a way that it can be received otherwise than by faith alone?
I am thinking here of an experience in relation to that earnest and upright man, Wernle. As a modern man he is deeply hurt when I say, for example, plainly and simply - Christ is risen! He complains that I have made use of an eschatological phrase, and have ridden rough-shod over very, very difficult problems of thought.
However, when I endeavor to say the same thing in the language of thought, that is, in dialectical fashion, he protests in the name of the simple believer that the doctrine of the Resurrection is wonderful, spiritual, and hard to understand. How can I answer him? He would be satisfied only if I were to surrender the broken threads of faith, and to speak directly, concretely, and without paradox. This means that the wholly childlike and the wholly unchildlike belong within the realm of truth, but that everything between must be excluded. I earnestly desire to speak simply of those matters with which the Epistle to the Romans is concerned; and, were some one competent to do this to appear, my work would at once be superseded. I am in no way bound to my book and to my theology. As yet, however, those who claim to speak simply seem to me to be - simply speaking about something else. By such simplicity I remain unconvinced (5-6).
ETERNAL God—for whom who ever dare
Seek new expressions, do the circle square,
And thrust into straight corners of poor wit
Thee, who art cornerless and infinite—
I would but bless Thy name, not name Thee now
—And Thy gifts are as infinite as Thou—
Art: "A Curved Line Within Two Distorted Rectangles" by Robert Mangold