Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
Today, the argument for complexity; although I reserve the right to respond later with another blog on the argument for simplicity.
If our study of nature has taught us anything, it is that nature is richly complex in its structure and function. Even the simplest of seeds can give birth to the most complex of fruits.
Take for example an incredible mathematical concept called the Mandlebrot fractal. In basic terms, a very simple set of rules produces the most incredible patterns in two dimensions. Taken to three dimensions, the results are nothing short of breathtaking (see picture). You can find more at http://www.skytopia.com/project/fractal/mandelbulb.html.
A mandlebulb is just an inanimate shape, but add life, and the complexity skyrockets. Anyone who has studied even basic Biology cannot fail to be impressed by the wealth of chemical and physical processes that constitute even the simplest of living creatures. Their interactions with each other produce a symphony of life – an intricate, movingly subtle interplay between a multitude of parts that virtually cries out the majestic wisdom of God their Creator. No wonder we sing “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” in Psalm 150.
Should our faith, then, be simple or complex? I suspect it really depends on who you are and where you are in your journey of spiritual and intellectual maturity. It would be ridiculous to expound the detailed intricacies of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity to a Sunday School class of five year olds. But by the same token, to limit your explanation of the Holy Trinity to nothing more than “three petals on a flower” to a group of advanced Theology students would be equally ridiculous.
There is a time and place for complexity. If God has created complexity, and if He has given us brains that can understand it, then surely we have a responsibility to do so if we are capable.
Why does this matter? It matters because I have noticed a growing trend among those members of our Church who have been brought up in the western system of education to be deeply dissatisfied with simplistic explanations of our faith. Their minds have been taught to probe and question and doubt in order to get to the truth, and the neat, simple answers of their childhood no longer satisfy them. Sometimes, they are made to feel guilty for even asking the questions, and in the worst cases, the result is that they lose their faith altogether.
I think this is very wrong. Our God is a God of Truth, and surely, the closer we approach Truth, the closer we come to God. I will even dare to say this: if the God I believe in cannot stand up to a genuine search for the Truth, then I should not believe in Him. If God is who we think He is, then a properly conducted and sincere search for the Truth cannot help but lead to Him – we have nothing to fear; there is no line of investigation that does not lead to Him in the end.
If this search for Truth about God and the universe He has created means that sometimes we have to ditch old and simplistic understandings for newer, more complex ones, then so be it. So it is in every aspect of our lives. If the Truth be complex, then so must our understanding of it.
Perhaps a concrete example will help illustrate this rather abstract topic. How are we to understand the Bible? The simplistic approach of our childhood says “We must obey every word the Bible says.” That’s beautiful, and in essence, it is absolutely true. We must indeed follow the instruction of the Bible as faithfully as we possibly can. But what does “obey every word” actually mean? If you delve into it, you will find it is not so simple as it sounds…
“I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labours with us.” 1Corinthians 16:15,16
If we were to literally obey these words, then we would have to seek out descendents of the household of Stephanas, somehow, after twenty centuries, and then lay ourselves in submission to them. Clearly, that is far too simplistic an interpretation. Most sensible Christians would understand that the thing we need to obey is not the specific instruction given here by St Paul to a specific readership in a specific time and place. It is the underlying universal principle that we should follow. It is not the person of Stephanas we must obey, but those who are faithful in serving the Lord, those who follow Christ faithfully as St Paul did, in any time and place.
But you see, already, we have left the path of simplicity and entered the path of complexity. Another example:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29
If we were to follow this command in its most simple interpretation, we would have an awful lot of one eyed Christians. But we don’t. And that’s not through lack of faith or courage: by and large, Christians understand that it is the underlying principle we are required to obey here, rather than the simple and straightforward sense of the command. We take in to account the flowery nature of speech in Middle Eastern society – we as Copts know it very well, for it lives on in Arabic today! We easily see that if there are other ways of avoiding the sin of adultery of the eyes that don’t involve drastic measures, these are preferable. (Of course, there have been exceptions such as St Simeon the Tanner and Origen, but these were specific cases with their own unique circumstances).
Again, we have left the path of simplicity and entered that of complexity. But the danger that most Christians fear once we embark upon the path of complexity is that we might get it wrong. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, who is to say that one interpretation is better than another? What’s to stop anyone and everyone from interpreting it according to their own pre-assumptions and agendas?
And in fact, this happens on a regular basis, anywhere from the cult that sees in the Bible alien civilisations on other planets, to the ever-growing multitude of varieties of Protestantism, to that old favourite Bible verse quoted by many Copts in Arabic that roughly translates to: “There is a time for your God and a time for your own enjoyment” (don’t waste your time – it’s not actually in the Bible).
The Orthodox Church resolves this dilemma by appealing not only to the Bible, but also to Holy Tradition: the ancient guidelines worked out by the earliest Christians. Tradition is not a dead museum exhibit, but a living, growing thing, and in these times of change, the Church, guided in humility by the Holy Spirit, seeks to properly apply those timeless universal laws of the Bible to an ever-changing world that is constantly throwing up new challenges and new questions to be answered.
The danger to be avoided is that of bowing to the letter of the law, when it is always the spirit of the law that we must embrace. And that often requires complexity.