“It’s really very simple.”


(system) #1

It still surprises me when reading history to be reminded that communist theory permeated the intellectual and literary world in the first half of the 20th century. It’s difficult at this distance to understand why a system that was known even then to be failing spectacularly in practice continued to find adherents to its theory among the intellectual elite of Europe and America well into the 1960’s—among people who lived in anything but egalitarian solidarity with the workers.[1] A quartet of writers—Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis[2]—dominated British poetry of the 1930’s and were among the most recognized of the British intellectuals. (Almost as odd as Communism’s popularity is that there was a time when poets were recognized as major public figures!) Spender was completely beguiled by communism, though he lived in a luxury apartment in London. (Spender’s contradictions led MacNeice to say that Spender, though he didn’t realize it, “had not been born for dogma”). Day-Lewis’ poem “The Conflict” lauded the “red advance of life”. Both poets were definite and doctrinaire: wrote Day-Lewis, “only ghosts can live/ Between two fires.”

MacNeice (the most steady of the four, though the least famous) was both anti-Fascist and appropriately suspicious of unbridled capitalism. He was also uncomfortable with his friends’ ideological certainty. In a piece modeled on Yeats prayer for his daughter, MacNeice writes this prayer for his son, Daniel:

Therefore let not my son, halving the truth

Be caught between jagged edges;

And let him not falsify the world

By taking it to pieces;

The marriage of Cause and Effect, Form and Content

Let him not part asunder[3]

As with one religion, so with them all: religion, by its nature, is always tempted to halve the truth: to divide it into poles in order to remove complexity, and in so doing falsify the world.

I understand, I think, why we do this. Life is so complicated that we seek shortcuts and summaries. I think of this when people say that a Christian’s life can follow a perfect plan which is discoverable with rigorous prayer and Bible study, or that God will answer all your prayers if only you say them right, or that I am the possessor of God’s One Perfect Truth, or that only a very small, tightly-defined group of people will be saved.

These things simply aren’t true. They cannot be reconciled with Scripture or experience. God helps us to make right decisions, but no one gets a road map. Even Jesus faced uncertainties. God surely never answers all good and sincere prayers, or the faithful would never die. That any finite being can know God’s Perfect Truth is a conceit of the most ignorant kind, ignoring centuries of salvation history. And the idea that only I and those who believe like me can be saved supposes a God far more limited than would be a pleasure to spend eternity with.

At its best, religion would be interactive and creative, like our interactive and creative God. Though a new religious movement may start that way, it rarely stays that way. That’s not because religion is inherently perverse, but because associations of human beings mature in a dogmatic direction. We can’t help it. Just as no person remains an adolescent, so no organization keeps the vigor of its youth. As it accretes property, organization, authorities, creeds, and opinions, the religious movement that was once limber becomes stiff and slow. Defending takes the place of discovery, system-building supplants seeking.

I’ve heard sincere Christians say of a life of faith, “It’s really very simple.” But they don’t then present one large, defensible truth, such as God’s great love, or living according to the example of Jesus. Instead, they offer a poorly-prioritized collection of pieces that appear to mesh satisfyingly together—less like painting a picture than putting a jigsaw puzzle together; less like writing a poem than doing a crossword puzzle. It brings believers comfort to say, “If I only understand this set of internally consistent things, all will be well.” Just don’t point out that in this jigsaw there are no edge pieces. In this crossword there are words that must be misspelled to fit.

For the simple answer doesn’t necessarily harmonize with the real world. To say that “It’s really very simple” generally means that you don’t need to listen to anyone else beyond courtesy; there is no need to compromise, much less hold an idea in abeyance; all our problems can be solved with minimal thought; science and observation are largely irrelevant, as are real people’s needs, experiences and feelings.

For example, while my personal conviction is strongly on the side of a creator God who can bring everything into being with a word, I’m embarrassed at the way some creationists scoff at science and scientists, as though these are willfully obdurate, their assumptions unstudied and ignorant. I was recently at a forum about creationism where the speaker offered no scientific arguments to support a special creation. His thesis appeared to be, “Let me tell you what fools these evolutionists are.” Will young Adventist scientists find making light of their education and process a satisfying way to reconcile faith with vocation? Is this the way to help people to love the Creator? We can have scoffing believers or thoughtful believers, but not both.

It would be false to say that faith must then lack conviction. Even the freest of free spirits, those who claim no ideology, have convictions, though they may be obscure or conflicting. Convictions are essential, even if they should later prove wrong. I have in my life lived by principles that I wouldn’t necessarily hold today, but I don’t need to apologize on that account, for that is how we live: by the best we know at any given moment. Absolute certainty about an Infinite Subject, whether the Creator or what He’s created, is a false expectation, a patent medicine. MacNeice writes,

I cannot draw up any code

There are too many qualifications

Too many asterisk asides

Too many crosses in the margin[4]

Life is complex. We cannot avoid, no matter how hard we try, mucking about in the gray areas. It’s even hard to sort out what is commitment-worthy, and what isn’t. That being the case, can we begin by admitting that existence may in fact be too complex to sum up in either your convictions, or mine? That we say and teach what seems right, that we will live by it and even die for it, while knowing that through eternity God will unfold to us truth that surpasses our understanding and may even contradict some of what we were most certain about here?

[1] World War II cast Communism into the “good guy” role over against German fascism. It helps to remember that the title of Marx’s most famous work notwithstanding, Marxist theory and Communism as it was practiced are very different. Marx was wrong about some crucial things, but he was a watershed thinker and all of us, even in modern capitalist societies, owe more to him than we realize.

[2] Father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis

[3] Louis MacNeice, “Ode”, 1934


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5399