Sunday 12 August 2012

Why is Christianity so complicated?


As I tried to understand it, and when I try to explain it, it often strikes me that Christianity is a bit complicated. The essence cannot be explained in a sentence, not even in a paragraph.

At one time in my life I thought that this complexity was because Christianity was not true, therefore it lacked the concise precision of science and was forced to create a model of reality which I found difficult to hold in my head all at once.

Now I recognize that Christianity is complicated because of The Fall, because of Original Sin.


The 'original plan' for humans was a simple one, but the complexities introduced by the fact of free will of angles (i.e. the fall of angels, Satan and the demons) and the fall of man (shortly described in Genesis, but its consequences everywhere) then made the Christian plan of salvation considerably more difficult to summarize.

Christianity as we have it is God's Plan B - therefore to understand it requires that we know Plan A, how it went wrong, and how it was set right.

That, I think, is the main reason why Christian salvation is somewhat slow to be explained.



FHL said...

I agree. I tried to write a reply to this, but kept getting frustrated. Maybe later. But for now, thank the Lord for the perpetually quotable...

“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

- G.K. Chesterton

... I think I have also seen another quote which may be more appropriate by C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed. He speaks about how he builds up a deck of cards (symbolizing his beliefs about God) only to have it knocked down. In his grief-burdened state of mind, he reacts bitterly- am I to set the whole thing up again from scratch?

I am not so bitter, but I can understand that feeling of having everything you once believed about God torn down often enough to shake the spirit. Even if most everything you learn is Good and Beautiful, and you are constantly growing in knowledge, there is still a hesitancy that develops. I keep thinking to myself "shall I actually pursue this idea only to have it found as foolishness later? It doesn't seem so foolish to me right now, but then again, that's what I've said several times before..."

I fear what happened to St. Aquinas may happen to me and I'll end up thinking "I've completely missed it, the whole time..."
Except I won't be a Saint and instead I'll just some some dude. And he was, after all, a very humble person. Who knows if I would even catch it like he did, or go down in vanity.

One shattering of your worldview is a good thing. A person feels enlightened, empowered. "Aha! I used to be like that but now I laugh! I've taken the red pill and swallowed the hard truth... but I am better off for it!"

...but then sometimes you find out even the red pill was a placebo and not the antidote. And when this happens over and over and over again- well, I don't know, I'm just rambling now. I've completely veered off topic, may as well have written that other thing I was originally thinking of writing!

FHL said...

Oh, a clarification, I mean C.S. Lewis built a "house of cards" from his deck.

And curse my vanity, but I also meant to say "I'll just be some dude" not "some some dude."

FHL said...

post 1 out of 2

I went ahead and typed up the thing I was going to originally say...

I feel the same exact way you've described it: I feel in my heart as if I know what Christianity is all about, but as soon I open my mouth or try to explain it, or even think about explaining it, any confidence I had in the clarity of my thoughts vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

Although we seem to have the same dilemma, it may be a completely sort of dilemma, but none-the-less, perhaps this will help make sense of why it doesn't make sense:

The only way I've been able explain it is that God cheats. Take that to you mean whatever you might.

The deck is stacked, things are not as they seem, the reciepts are all inaccurate and someone has clearly fibbed on the math because none of the scores add up; and at the end of the night you're left with either a whole more or a whole lot less chips than you recall you should have. It's a set up, the game is rigged, and House always wins in end.

From C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces:, at the point when the central character, who is a pagan, realizes the implications of the (Christian) Divine Justice: “Are the gods not just?” “Heavens, no! Think what would happen to us if they were!”

I agree that the confusion results from the falleness of this world. But it also results with God's response that to that falleness. Here's another way to think of it: Christianity is the only religion on this earth that is, at it's at very core, completely unfair. The secularists have either their fictional humanism or the cold calculus of nature, which while unthinking is still predictable; the hindus have their karma; the muslims believe Allah keeps a point count, and so long your good points outweigh your bad, then you're in the clear (three 5 min-prayers spread out over two weeks cancel out that trip to Vegas), even the ancient Greeks had their tributes, and the Eygptian were meticulous in their rituals lest the Nile dry up.

Even the modern “everyone's religion is right!” universalists operate on a fairly rigid structure of cause and effect- God forgives everyone, in their mind, because no one's sins are capable of sending them to hell (except for those of intolerance, of course...). So God just forgives them as a courtesy. I assume they think that even if people are wrong about Him, either they will all receive what they would anyways, had they been right, or they'll be gently corrected upon admission to the eternal disneyla- err, “heaven,” and everyone will be happy forever and evers.

It may be trite, but it does have a certain twisted logic.

FHL said...

post 2 out of 2

But then over here we have an innocent Person nailed to a cross for crimes He didn't commit, so that those who did commit them can go free. And they don't even thank Him for it. Huh? And to further complicate the situation, three days later He is raised by His own power. I can almost imagine the ancient pagans priests scratching their heads and pacing within their temples, trying to figure out a way to fit this into their pantheon of endless competition and power struggles: “Is He allowed to do that?”

I've only read straight through the Bible once before, but it was quite an experience. There's something to be gained by reading in order rather than the disjointed, and slightly schizophrenic, way that people read it today. I was struck by three thoughts (well, many more than that, but three that relevant to this discussion...): first, that the spirit of the world on a whole seemed to believe God would redeem them. Second, that when it happened it was so contrary to what they had expected, they couldn't accept it. Third, that the prophets, despite their many differences, are clear exceptions; I know that if King David or Job was around when Jesus walked amongst us, they would have been His disciples.

These three ideas are well known, but what I mean to say is that the unexpected and incomprehensible does not mean completely random. This comes out very clearly when you read the Bible as one cohesive story. There is a general spirit that flows throughout, from start to finish. I also find this spirit not only in the Bible, but in the stories in the saints and martyrs that followed.

Anyways, I'm constantly circling around a thing I can't ever fully express. But hopefully I have added a useful perceptive to this matter.

Oh, and are these are anti-spam things ("Please prove you're not a robot") getting more elaborate each day? I'm looking at one that I swear is not a word, but blurry picture of a light switch and a thermostat next to a door. Pretty soon I'm going to have invent a robot to figure these things out for me.

FHL said...

post 3 out of 2 (sorry, didn't expect this one)

And oh my, I forgot to add the most important part: the confusion does not seem to to set on to non-intellectuals. Probably because it is well known among... among...well, among everyone but intellectuals, it would seem, that the world is not fair; that parents give to their children without requesting anything in return, that marriage is a giving up of one's self, that friends sacrifice many things for each other, that servicemen give up their safety for those of those their fellow countrymen, and that doctors do not usually just go home when the money ends, and priests do not just visit people's homes to get donations, and bishops do not pretend to be religious to wear shiny robes, that people actually do pray for others in private because they care for them, and ugh, I'm sure you get the point by now.

Perhaps I'm being a bit idealistic, but the truth is not how much of these people are "good" or "bad," since no one is good except God, but that unfairness is built into the system.

So the unfairness of Christianity DOES make sense, almost perfect sense, to sensible people!

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - Well, at the times when I can hold it together at once, I realize you are completely wrong about Christianity being unfair. Rather (as Pascal showed me, in Pensees) Christianity fits human need precisely, and the only fair religion or ideology - which gives people what they want while leaving them human. And is the only religion which does. Which would be strange and improbable, unless Christianity were invented specifically to fill that human need - but it wasn't, so that's proof, of a sort!

Chris C said...

When I share the gospel in brief it goes something like this:

Selfishness is at the root of all of our woes. The remedy for selfishness is humility. "I" cannot make myself more humble (like a square triangle or a married bachelor it doesn't make sense).

Selfishness is the byproduct of free will.

Humility through Christ allows us the opportunity to reflect God's majesty.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris C - true enough, but do people understand what you mean? It requires a tremendously large amount of implicit understanding.

FHL said...

I am very confused, and I think we both mean two very different things by "unfair."

I completely agree with you and feel that Christianity strikes such a chord within the human heart that this alone can be considered a proof for it.

I didn't mean "unfair" in an oppressive way, or any bad way at all. I meant "unfair" in our favor. I should probably use more precise words, but when I said "unfair" I meant something both like "unearned" and also not reliant on some sort of specialized system but rather on the heart. Something like what you would call "spontaneous."

Really, I just meant it in the same spirit as when David sings "If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared."

That's what I meant when I said things like "the receipts are all inaccurate and someone has clearly fibbed on the math." It was a stupid metaphor though, sorry.

FHL said...

post 1 of 2

I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Just one more post, I promise! But I just I remembered a most wonderful story, and it sort of ties in to the topic of the difference between the heart and the mind...

I heard this this story when I was a very small child and must reconstruct it from pieces of memory with my own imagination. One of the characters was a saint but for the life of me I don't recall what his name was. I wish I could remember, so if anyone recognizes this story, please tell me.

A Christian renown for his wisdom was employed by an unbelieving king as the king's closest councilor. Every day the king and his servant would sit on a bench on a bridge, overlooking a great lake, and discuss matters of state as the gardeners worked the ever encroaching vines, and the maids and guards hurried to and fro all around them. But every time they would finish, the servant would beg that the king stay, for they had still not gotten to the most important matter of all.
Yet the king would shrug him off and say “I don't need your council on this matter! Tell me, I have wisest men such as yourselves as councilors, the best trained nursemaids to care for my children, and strongest men as my guards, what is it I lack? Indeed, I have over a hundred employed in my service as guardsmen of my estate alone. Now when I need something done, do you think I will just go in myself and get my hands dirty? Of course not! I'm the king! Now if this God of yours is really a god, then why would he have to come down here himself to save us? Why not send somebody else? If anything, this proves he was not a king, let alone a god! This makes no sense to me and you have still not been able to answer me!”
Every day, the servant took another approach, yet every time the king got stuck on this one issue. “Look at how many servants I have!” he would yell as he pointed to the maid pushing his baby son's carriage and the guardsmen assembled around her as an escort. “Why, even if we were under attack I wouldn't even lift a finger to defend my own son, I have so many people underneath me! How many more servants would a god have?”
The servant tried everything, from theology to politics, from history to legend, but it was all in vain. “Bah!” the king would wave his hand, “If it is not fit for a king to do a servant's work, then it is certainly not fit for a god!”
But then one day came that different from all the rest.

FHL said...

post 2 of 2

It started out usual enough, both of them on the bench on the bridge, overlooking the lake, the servent making his usual case while the king pointed out his many servants. “See? How can you not see?” he asked, pointing again to the maid pushing his son's carriage, as well as their well disciplined entourage, “I don't even have to bother worrying about-” but then a scream! and a yell! and the maid is on the ground where her floot slipped in the mud and both the carriage and child have gone tumbling over the edge towards the deep waters below. Without speaking a word, the king runs towards guards, panic in his face. The guards stand at attention, assuming he will begin to shout orders, but he violently tosses them aside and leaps straight off the edge of the bridge behind them. He splashes into the muddy waters dressed in his finest silks and furs; diamonds and pearls are cast about and lost to the current as he dives again and again looking for his son.
Finally, he comes up cradling the child the arms, but from the look on his face everyone knows the news must be bad. He stumbles out of the water screaming hysterically and jabbing a finger at the maid: “She must be executed! She must be executed!” When a bold, and perhaps foolish, guard attempts to speak out in the maid's defense, the king gets even more furious: “Accident, you say! Accident? You imbeciles! This was no accident! She wishes to make a fool out of me!” And with that he tosses his “son” onto the floor. A cotton-stuffed doll was all that it was.
He stomps on it. “She decieved me! The traitor! Execute her! Now! Now!”
But then the king's councilor steps in between the guards and the maid. Upon seeing his closest advisor the king calms himself and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, but when the councilor explains that the maid was ordered into her actions by yet another servent higher up than her, the king starts to grow more irritable. When the councilor finally confesses that it was he who gave the order, the king's fury returns, but this time it brings not the hysterical screams of a madman, but a low concentrated hiss: “And do you think you are safe just because you are paid to sit next to me and make small talk? Have you not seen how many guards stand around you, have I not pointed them out to you enough times? Today, you will die by their blade just like any common theif. Did I not tell you I was a powerful man? Well now you know.”
The councilor bowed and said “Very well, my lord, you can have my head. But answer me this first: you are quick to call on your gaurds now, but tell me: why is it that you're all wet? Why did you not call on them earlier when you thought your son was drowning?” When the king stands there speechless the councilor continues: “You see my good king, I realized that a great man like youself could only find truth by his own investigation, lest he become tossed this way and that in the unsteady winds of loose gossip. Well now you know.”
And as the story goes, the king dismissed everyone from the room except for his councilor, to whom he made a weeping confession. And so he joined the faith right then and there, seeing as how he had already been baptised in the lake. No, I'm just kidding- he went to a church where he received a proper baptism, as did his whole family, including his little babe son.

ajb said...

"@Chris C - true enough, but do people understand what you mean? It requires a tremendously large amount of implicit understanding."

That the language used in Christianity is often, well, archaic, often doesn't help. Consider 'lamb of God'. What % of people would find that phrase an intuitively understandable (even if mistaken) notion? How many non-Christians in the contemporary world would hear this and think 'Oh, that refers to a sacrifice, because lambs are routinely sacrificed, because we have lots of shepherds around and so lots of sheep to sacrifice - and they're sacrificed as a token of our love for God or obedience to His will and so on, and we know God has a will because xyz, and we know there is a God because rst' and so on?

I wager very few. The presuppositions are significant. 'Lamb of God' conjures up notions of a nice, fluffy animal, and not much more. Something along the lines of 'Mary had a little lamb.'

To make matters worse, symbolism, allegory, and so on, are often layered or compounded. Christianity to many moderns (such as many secularist academics) is literally nonsense - it is like trying to understand what someone is saying when you don't speak the language it is being said in.

Learning a language takes time and effort. It means building up a large number of concepts, and integrating those into one's practices. 'Oh, that's what x means', and so on.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - all true enough.

But after becoming a Christian, the gradual uncovering of such mysteries has been a series of joyful experiences.

I remember 'getting' the symbolism of the 'agnus dei' section of the Book of Common Prayer during a communion service, and being almost overwhelmed at the vista revealed.

But this would be a relatively advanced, post-conversion, understanding. I don't think it would be understandable by a non-Christian - not least because it would not be interesting.

Chris C said...

We as Christians understand what the term "sin" means. A term/concept like "selfishness" seems to be more effective though in helping Moderns understand that a problem even exists.

I work with young people and have found that a few ideas are fairly easily understood:

God is incomprehensibly great and subsequently perfect.
Our imperfections separate us from God.
Our imperfections are a matter of "selfishness".

God created us to be free - He did not create automatons.
Selfishness is the byproduct of freewill.
Our selfishness separates us from God.

Selfishness is the root of our woe.
The remedy for selfishness is selflessness/humility.
"I" cannot make myself more humble.

God came to demonstrate the solution (i.e. humble obedience).
As a man, he the begotten son, relied perfectly on God the Father (the source).
In yielding to Christ's demonstration we too have access to the incomprehensibly great and perfect God including the counsel of his spirit.

God is beyond our comprehension.
Christ is our liaison.
The Holy Spirit is God's translator.

Overly simplified? Yes. Effective starting points for Moderns? Yes!

Yielding in Christ allows us the opportunity to reflect God's majesty. Not too terribly difficult to understand. My $.02

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris C - thanks very much. That does indeed look like a good approach.

Main main worry is of Christ as a demonstration - he was that of course, but there is that difficult-to-understand-and-communicate matter that Christ's 'example' made this new thing possible, but only by him.

This is difficult for moderns - Christ as a teacher is fine, but then that makes Christ dispensable and detachable from his teaching.

It is hard/ impossible to avoid metaphysical descriptions, and modern people don't do metaphysics (they have a metaphysics (albeit vague and incoherent) that is secular materialism/ relativism etc - but they deny that it is a metaphysics).

This is one reason I found Rupert Sheldrake's ideas of Morphic Resonance to be so interesting and compelling - they provide a way of partially explaining the effect of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, in terms of God becoming Man in order to 'set-up' a new 'morphic field' in the universe which Man can then follow.