Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

Part 1 made the case that truth is not simple.  This article explains why acknowledging complexity is important.

First, it needs to be said that understanding complexity is different from acknowledging that it exists.  Whereas I think acknowledging complexity is important for everyone, understanding it is not.  If we recall, C.S. Lewis admits this as well.  “A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.”1  Many people are content to stop “there”, i.e. at simplicity.  And I admit that in most cases that is all that is necessary.  For example, a person does not need to understand alternative numbering systems or why we have settled upon Base-10 in order to learn basic arithmetic.  They may be content to be told, “We use 10 digits and here they are.”  And for the general population that is all they need to know to balance their check book, to invent a budget, or figure sales tax.  But.  There are some people who must acknowledge and understand the complexity latent in numbering systems.  A person cannot get far in certain technology fields without understanding binary notation which is a Base-2 numbering system.  If a person refused to admit that there were alternative ways of counting and insisted upon Base-10 as “the right way” or perhaps “the simple way,” and if he refused to use binary because it was “too complicated”, I imagine he would be looking for another job.

Again, I readily admit that most people do not need to know that different planets spin on their axis at different rates and that the rate of their  rotation stands in a different relationship to their orbits around the sun than does the earth.  Most people are content to know that there are 24 hours in an (earth) day and that there are 365 days in an (earth) year.2 There are, however, some for whom the former is not only interesting but necessary. Those who are responsible for landing probes on Mars will need to know that Mars moves differently than the Earth. If a calculator at NASA refused to acknowledge that “years” are not always 365(.25) days and that “days” are not always 24 hours, because it was “too complicated” and it made his head spin, then he would not be of much use to NASA.

The same can be said when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  What a person “has to know”3 in order to be a faithful Christian appears simple, and it will remain simple for most people. But inevitably there will arise circumstances for certain individuals and for certain congregations that step outside of the norm. On these occasions “simple” just will not do. I offer one example here but anyone with an “inside” view of Churches of Christ will know that these examples could be multiplied. I feel confident in saying that the most common musical experience an outsider would have when worshipping with a Church of Christ would be a cappella singing lead by an individual man. Supposing an outsider asked why we do it this way, and precluding the opportunity for a more in depth answer4, we might say, “We sing a capella because instruments were not used by churches in the New Testament. A man leads because women are not to usurp authority over men.” A single sentence answer for each of the two curiosities inherent in male lead a capella worship. Now, a person might hear that and be satisfied. Maybe. But this simplicity only hides the latent complexity which will arise in different circumstances.

I have had the grand opportunity of doing extensive mission work in Brazil. On one occasion I even had the privilege of living with a Brazilian family for 2 months. While our worship services were much the same they sometimes differed on this point. In a smaller gathering it was still most common to see worship lead just like it is here, one man leading the church in a capella singing. A larger church, however, often did things differently. They had two men leading worship. When I first saw this I was a little startled. It was certainly different. But I thought very little of it. An even bigger group saw three men leading together. A still bigger group saw six men all standing in front of the congregation leading us in song. When I inquired as to why they did it this way they responded that often younger boys feel too timid to stand alone in front of the church. Being surrounded by their family and friends helps them to over come that fear. It turned out that this was their way of discipling worship leaders, and an effective one at that. Upon return home I continued to reflect upon the practice. I heard so much about the sin of “Praise Teams.” They were simply “unauthorized.” I began to wonder, “What was the difference in that group of men leading worship in Brazil and a Praise Team in Mississippi?” More questions began to arise. “What constitutes a ‘team’? Were they a ‘team’ when they were two? Or did it take as many as six to make them a ‘team’?” I further questioned, “Which one of them was leading? Were they all leading? Is it possible to have more than one leader? If everyone lead does it mean anything to call them leaders? Can a leader be a leader if he has no followers? Then what about certain devotionals where no one stands in front but any one is free to lead at any time? Is there really a leader? Are there really followers?” My questioning didn’t stop. “What if there is a mixed group of men and women up front but they were all subordinate to a leader? Does that mean that the women are usurping authority over the men in the pews even though they are subordinate to the man leading the praise team? What is different when these women are seated in the pews in contrast to when they stand behind a man on stage?” These questions were overwhelming. Then I landed at this one, “Where in the New Testament do we find an example of even one man standing in front of the congregation to lead the church? Where did I get the idea of song leaders in the first place?” If a person is satisfied with a simple answer then they need not worry about these problems. But what happens when a young man, recently baptized, wants to lead songs but is too shy to do it without his father? Are they both allowed to stand in front to lead the church? And if two may lead then why not three? And if three then why not six? And if we can have a team, why can we not have women?  I am not here advocating Praise Teams or women worship leaders. All of this is merely illustration to prove a point. Our simple answers “work” most of the time. But our simple answers are not suitable for every circumstance. Exceptional circumstances are unavoidable. In such cases we need leaders who are willing to grapple with the complicated realities that so evidently describe our lives. One who refuses to accept the complexity of truth is not willing to do that. And that is problem #1. For most Christians simple answers satisfy. Others, specifically leaders, will have to be prepared for that which is not simple. The leader who is not willing to entertain complex answers to irregular situations is not prepared for the irregularities of ministry.

Second, another problem with believing that truth is simple is that it changes what I think of other people. It leaves only two opinions about those who disagree with me.  They are either bad or brainless.  They can be wicked or they can be wacky.  But they cannot be genuine and genius at the same time.

I have recently begun to substitute at the local schools. Every class is a mixed bag. I have some children who are special ed and some who are just special. If I were to teach a basic mathematics class and a young man insisted that 2+2 was 11 I could react a number of different ways. If I refused to admit the possibility of alternate numbering systems and insisted upon Base-10 being “the right way”, then I could only think two things about this fellow. One possibility is that something has gone wrong with his education. He has not learned to count, and that is a sad situation indeed. But it is, at least, a situation with a remedy. I need only sit the young man down and return to the number line. The other possibility, however, is much more distressing. It is possible that the young man is being intentionally obstinate and disruptive. In this case he is intelligent enough to see that 2+2 is 4 but he chooses not to admit it for his own twisted amusement. If I were to meet this sort of thing in an adult I might wonder if he had some other motive. Perhaps insisting that 2+2=11 is an odd sort of wish fulfillment. Maybe he wishes to work two two-hour days and get paid for 11 hours of labor. Whatever his motive is it is surely a bad one. The problem is not the man’s head, it is his heart. And if that is the problem then no amount of education will save him. I should not waste my time trying to teach him. I should spend my time praying for his soul.

But. What if I was willing to admit that even the simplest of equations has a number of correct answers? This admits a new possibility. It is not that my student is dorky or deficient. Perhaps he is neither puerile or pernicious … he is quite possibly precocious. Maybe he sees some disability or clumsiness in our Base-10 numbering system that I am unable to see. Yes, he’s well aware that 2+2=4 the way that I reckon it. But maybe he has a reason for preferring to reckon it otherwise. If I were to crush his spirit I could be crushing another Einstein. If I decided to prove my authority by inspiring fear I could be inspiring another Sandy Hook. All because I insisted upon a much “simpler” and “traditional” way of reckoning numbers.

The same could be said for the length of days and years. If a young lady insisted that days were longer than years I could think that she was intellectually puny or that she was morally pugnacious. But, if I’m willing to entertain the possibility of complexity, I may entertain the possibility of a Perelandrian.5 And I would regret it if I forfeit the opportunity to introduce myself to a visitor from Venus.

These same responses fit matters of doctrine. Most often our initial response to those with whom we disagree is to assume that something has gone wrong with their education. We try to school them in elementary principles and bring them up to speed. If disagreement persists we do not assume that the trouble is with the topic. We do not assume that an educated fellow could genuinely disagree with us. Instead we assume that he must not want to know the truth. Documentation of these phenomena would be necessary if they weren’t so frequent. A duck inside a mainstream Church of Christ, a short listen to an online sermon, or a quick perusal of the many Facebook groups headed by members of the Church of Christ will be evidence enough. We are quick to say things like, “They decided to follow Man instead of the Bible.” “Some people just want their ears tickled.” “That man is a liar and a false prophet.” “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “I remember the days when the simple gospel was enough for people. Now days all they’re interested in are fancy auditoriums and youth groups.” Still, overlooking the unlikelihood of an insider being unacquainted with such remarks, I share a personal experience where this attitude is evident.

While I was in school I once had an instructor who proudly confessed that he would be willing to volunteer any of our graduates to debate the students of any university, regardless of their erudition. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, no matter. We would defeat their liberalism with plain simple truth. If they disagreed with us they were either less intelligent or less sincere.  Either way they are “less.”  This assured him of our victory.  At the time I contributed my “Amen” to the chorus of the class. Now I feel fairly confident that we would be whipped in debate. What’s worse, we would be whipped and walk away thinking we had won.

This should not be surprising. If truth is really as simple as we insist then what option do we have? Either they are too ignorant to see what is plain or they are too stubborn to submit to God’s power. What other explanation is there for an intelligent man to disagree with us? He must not want to agree with us. The only thing that allows me to view my dissenters as good and intelligent is the belief that the thing about which we disagree is difficult to agree upon. If we are wrestling with a complex problem I should expect well meaning and gifted men to disagree with me. But if we are arguing about the color of the carpet he is either carnal or color blind (or maybe I am).

This is an important lesson for everyone to learn, not just the religious. Those who have taken it upon themselves to comment on politics would also do well to admit the complexity of the problems they debate. If determining the goodness of our president is as easy as comparing photos of the inauguration then there is only one explanation as to why people should think Trump a better choice than Obama. They are either bad or brainless. But if a president’s quality is more complex than paralleling polaroids then I might have to do the hard work of listening to those who think differently than I do.

If my presidential choices are defined by whether or not I support “killing babies” then there is only one way to explain why my neighbor would vote for Hillary. She is either wicked or wacky. But if electing our leader isn’t reducible to one issue then I may have to swallow my pride and have a conversation with my neighbor.

If my policy on refugees is as simple as defending against terrorism then there are only two reasons not to support my president’s temporary immigration ban: either I don’t understand terrorism, or I am a terrorist. But if immigration and harboring refugees is about more than terrorism then I might want safety for my friends and safety for the strangers.

The way that I view Truth and the way that I view Man are connected. If I am to leave room for love I must leave room for mystery. Being zealous for simplicity may mean being over zealous for prejudice. But when I make room in my head for the Sphinx, I make room in my heart for the foe.

Conclusion
It is not at all necessary for a person to understand all of the nuances of truth in order to be a good person or to be a faithful Christian.  When a child asks why Mommy’s belly is so big an acceptable answer would be, “Mommy is growing another baby in her tummy.”  It tells the truth but not all the truth.  In order to fully explain it we would have to say something about love, intimacy, marriage, sex, and embryology.  Of course, most of it would be meaningless to the little one and therefore unnecessary.  But when it comes to our own daughters having babies, we certainly want them to understand something about love, intimacy, marriage, and sex.  We may even want her to know a bit about embryology.  When it comes to the OBGYN we certainly want him/her to know something about it.

Some Christians are “new borns” or “children” in the faith.  Whether that is because they are recently converted or because they have failed to grow, “children” is an apt description.  In such cases they cannot stomach the food of the mature Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1, 2; Heb. 5:11-14).  They need a simple presentation of complex truth.  It would be silly of me to deny this.  But it would be just as silly to think that my simple explanation has exhausted all there is to say.  If I fail to recognize this I dishonor the truth.  In addition, if I do not acknowledge the mysteries of the truth then it is only natural for me to think less of those who do not see what I see.  I do not have to see it all, but I must admit that there is more to be seen.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40.
2. Even this is a little too simplified. There are in fact 365.25 days in a year. This is the reason for Leap Year. Every four years we must add an extra day to the year in order to stay on track.
3. Even this, by the way, cannot be agreed upon amongst my brethren. Why then do we insist that it’s continue to insist that it’s simple?
4. The very fact that a more “in depth” study would be desirable should indicate again that this is not a simple issue.
5. “Perelandra” is the native name of the planet Venus in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel by the same title.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 1)

 

For months I have had the idea to write an article about the problem with simple Christianity.  I put it off for a time but now feel I ought to wait no longer.  I recently found this remark online:

“If your doctrine takes forever to explain, question whether it’s true.  Truth is almost always easily explained & easily understood.”

This is not an isolated statement, but a representative one.1 Brother Lee Snow is merely stating what is widely believed in our common tradition.2 I myself was convinced of this for years and taught it just as vehemently. I have since come to believe, however, that there is hardly anything with which I could disagree more.

My first doubt arose when I realized how difficult it seemed to explain things that I once held to be obviously true. As is common in my tradition I believed and taught that a cappella singing was the only authorized sort of music in worship. Yet, it was the most curious and difficult part of my tradition for others to understand. They responded, “But they worshipped with instruments all the time?” To which I would respond, “Yes. They did. In the Old Testament.” This, however, did not help my case. Admitting that they worshipped with instruments in the Old Testament seemed to be as good a reason as any to worship with them today. The response from my questioner was usually raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders, and raised hands, perhaps even an audible, “So?” I was then required to set out on the adventure of explaining to them why the Old Testament is not an accurate guide for today’s worship practices. After a long journey through Acts, Hebrews, and certain key passages in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians I ended with my confident rhetorical flourish, “So you see, because we are no longer under the Old Testament then we ought not to use instruments in worship.” If complexity had already been built atop the assumed simplicity of my doctrine it was only the foundation for further complexity. The inevitable response from my interlocutor would be, “So … you don’t believe in the Old Testament? But Jesus and the Apostles quoted from the Old Testament all of the time.” I was then compelled to explain to them the hermeneutical system by which Jesus and the Apostles (obviously) determined exactly which things from the Old Testament were “binding” and which things weren’t. But after much struggle I learned that it’s just easier to say, “If it is repeated in the New Testament then it’s binding.”

 

The most difficult problem, however, was a problem of my own making. Frustrated at my brethren’s inability to understand the proper use of the Old Testament3 I set out to write an article which would explain it clearly and definitively once and for all.4 As I wrote, I found my own (mis)understanding challenged. I began with an illustration which had helped me in the past. An instructor of mine once asked, “How many of the 10 commandments do we keep today?” To which the class rightly (or so we thought) responded, “Nine.” My instructor with a sly grin responded, “None.” “You see,” he continued, “we do not keep the other 9 ‘because the Old Testament said so.’ We keep them because they are repeated in the New Testament.” Then he offered the illustration that continued to be helpful for so long. “For example, the United States of America used to be under British rule. Under their law it was forbidden to rape, murder, and steal. It would be incorrect, however, to say that we still obey the British Law which tells us not to rape, murder, and steal. We do not. We obey the American Law. Now, they happen to have these things in common for they both forbid raping, murdering, and thievery. But we do not obey them because the Queen said so but because the President said so.” This made incredible sense. There were a great number of places in which the commandments found in the New Testament overlapped with those in the Old Testament but that was no reason to say that I obeyed the Old Testament. I did not. I obeyed the New Testament and it just so happens that they often said the same things. As I set about to demonstrate this for all the world I hit upon this curious truth: it wasn’t true. Over and over again the apostles appealed to the “Old Law” (as we are accustomed to calling the Law of Moses) not as an illustration or principle, but as an authoritative command. For example, Paul writes, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder, You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:9, 10). To which I ought to respond, “Why should I care to fulfill the Law? The Law of Moses was nailed to the cross.” Yet, Paul strangely quotes the Law and expects his hearers to have a desire to obey it. I met the same strange thing in Peter. Peter insists, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” To which I ought to respond, “Good riddance with ‘it is written’! I’m no longer under that Law.” To me this was just as good as saying that I ought not to steal a man’s car because it would bring dishonor to the crown. Hang the crown! My concern is for the stars and stripes. Paul and Peter could just as easily (and more simply) have said, “God has granted us authority to make rules in his name and we judge that you ought to be holy and not to commit adultery, to murder, to steal, or covet.” But they didn’t. Instead they appealed to the authority of a Law that I believed had been stripped of its authority. The truth was stranger and more complex than I had ever imagined. How, if I struggled to understand the truth at all, was I supposed to make this simple? For I certainly believed that we ought not to offer bulls and goats on an altar in Jerusalem, yet now I was forced to believe that somehow I ought to obey Moses without dishonoring Jesus. At this point I was not ready to forfeit my insistence upon a cappella. That came much later. But I conceded this at least: the truth, as I saw it, was not simple at all. It was stranger than I could imagine and more complex than I thought fair.

I was helped later by an unlikely source. C.S. Lewis was one of the first men I ever read outside of my tradition and after I had finished his book I concluded that this was his only fault. In Book II, chapter 2 of Mere Christianity he wrote these words which I have never forgotten:

“It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of–all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain–and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not–and the modern world usually is not–if you want to go on and ask what is really happening–then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple. Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time.”5

I found myself nodding in agreement with him though it would be longer still before I began to consider the implications of what he had written. I was encouraged to do so, however, by another writer to which Lewis himself is indebted: G.K. Chesterton.

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was a duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on the one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong … Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose … to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”6

I had been confronted twice now by men admittedly greater than I saying the exact opposite of what I had long held to be axiomatic. Yet they were not opposing me through and through. Both admit that truth appears simple. This we had in common. But where they had gone right and I had gone embarrassingly wrong, is that they knew that things were not always as they seem. Truth may seem simple but it is not. This came as a flash in the dark when I finally realized that even that which I considered to be the simplest of problems was not simple at all. Now I confront you with that most simple of all problems. What, if you please, is 2+2?

This is a fine example of the deceit of simplicity for a number of reasons. My debates and, alas, frequent arguments with others over matters of doctrine would almost certainly end in the objection, “That’s your interpretation.” Being young(er) and impetuous I would respond, “There can be no interpretation about something as simple as 2+2.” And that is how I felt. Deep in my bones. There were things in the Bible that I thought took effort to misunderstand. In my mind they were so simple that I thought rejecting my conclusion was as pig-headed as rejecting that 2+2=4.

Which brings us back to the question. I assume when I asked you “What is 2+2?” you answered 4. And I’m glad that you did. Because that is just where you would be wrong. What if I told you that 2+2 equals 11? You might say that I’ve lost it. But why should you? And why should 2+2 equal 4? You see, the answer “4” assumes a Base-10 numbering system. That is a numbering system which symbolizes quantities using ten digits, namely 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. If you imagine these digits on a numbering line and then add the quantity XX (symbolized by the number 2) to the quantity XX (also 2) you get XXXX (symbolized by the number 4).

– X X – – – – – – – + -X X – – – – – – – = – X X X X – – – – –
0 1  2  3  4  5 6 7  8  9 + 0 1 2 3  4 5  6 7  8 9  =  0 1  2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

But what if you did not have ten digits? What if you only had three? What if you had to symbolize the same quantity, XXXX, with the digits 0-1-2? You could count to two without any problem. It would look exactly the same.

– X X
0  1  2

But what happens when you exceed that quantity? Well, you need a place marker. So the quantity XXX becomes one full set plus zero.

– X X X
0  1  2 10 (1 full set + 0 = 10)

Are you getting it? Finally, we have arrived at where we can symbolize the quantity XXXX with only three digits. How do we do that? You guessed it: 11.  One full set plus one.

– X X X X
0  1 2 10 11 (1 full set + 111).

In a base three numbering system the symbol “4” doesn’t even exist. If a person using that system were to ask you, “What, if you please, is 2+2?” “Four” would not only be wrong it would be nonsensical.

Now, if you’re clever you may respond to this by pointing out that changing the symbol of a quantity does not change the quantity itself. Whether you call it 4 or 11 the quantity is still XXXX, which is true, but that leads us further to ask, “Why should we use a Base-10 numbering system at all?” And the answer is that we have five-digits on each hand making 10 total. The point of this exercise, however, is to show how the simplest of all problems (2+2) can lead us into boggling complexity. We began with invented numbers and ended with created fingers. The simplest of problems turns out to be more complex than we imagined. And we could go further still. We might wonder why we settled on Base-10 instead of Base-20 as we might have done, for as much as we have 10 fingers we also have 10 toes. Our wonder would increase if we realized that having six fingers is often the dominant trait in humans and animals. How then is this dominant trait so uncommon?7 Curious indeed. What would our world have been like if we had a Base-12 numbering system instead? And regardless of how many fingers and toes we have, why should that be the basis of numbers at all? It might surprise you to know that ancient Sumerians had a sexagesimal (Base-60) numbering system, and as far as I know they didn’t have 60 fingers, nor 30 fingers and 30 toes.  So why did they choose 60?  And why should we have chosen 10?  When we realize that numbers mustn’t be reckoned according to the (recessive) number of our fingers the very fact that they are becomes exponentially more quizzical.

Other examples of deceptive simplicity could be given but by now you know that I have something up my sleeve. If I were to ask you, “Which is longer: a day or a year?” You would think a bit longer before answering, “A year.” You would expect a trick. And you would be right. The question assumes a particular planet. A different planet requires a different answer. On Venus a day is actually longer than a year. So you see, to answer the question truly and thoroughly one must discuss the rotation of a planet’s axis (a day) in comparison to that planet’s orbit around the sun (a year), which is itself an amazing assumption. It was not long ago when men were killed for saying that there was a such thing as an orbit around the sun because the sun so obviously orbits around the earth.  If you doubted it then finding proof was as simple as watching the sun rise and set.  That should settle the matter.  But of course you know that it doesn’t.

When we ask for simplicity we find complexity. And if we insist on simplicity, men lose their lives. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for refusing simplicity. The question, then, is this: am I Giordano Bruno, or am I Pope Clement VIII?

If all of this questioning seems absurd that’s because it is. My intention isn’t to fish for Red Herring but to make an all too obvious point which turns out not to be so obvious. And if this seems like the eternal childish questioning of an infant–“Why? But why? But why?”–that too is on solid ground. For,

“Children ask magnificent questions. ‘Why are people?’ ‘What makes the cat tick?’ ‘What’s the world’s first name?’ ‘Did God have a reason for creating the earth?’ Out of the mouths of babes comes, if not wisdom, at least the search for it. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too. The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. Adults do not lose their curiosity that seems to be a native human trait, but their curiosity deteriorates in quality. They want to know whether something is so, not why. But children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia. What happens between the nursery and college to turn the flow of questions off, or, rather, to turn it into the duller channels of adult curiosity about matters of fact? A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of the best answers. It is easy enough to learn the answers. But to develop the actively inquisitive minds, alive with real questions, profound questions–that is another story.”8

Truth often appears simple, but it is not. And if physics, which is observable, testable, and measurable, is so complex, can we really expect metaphysics to be any simpler? The Bible often appears simple. But if we want the truth we must be prepared for complexity.

[Editor’s note: upon publication I extended an invitation to brother Snow to respond if he would like. I committed to publishing his response without alteration. He graciously accepted. His response can be expected soon]

©M. Benfield 2017


1. For example, one blog in my tradition carries the title “Plain Simple Faith.” Another well known anecdote comes from Tolbert Fanning, former editor of the Gospel Advocate, who gave a glowing recommendation of J.S. Lamar’s book on hermeneutics with this caveat: “It seems to imply that the Bible needs interpretation, whereas, in strictness … The Scriptures fairly translated, need no explanation.”
2. Brother Snow’s quote was originally anonymous. Because I did not intend to “call him out”, and because the sentiment is so common, I did not think it important to name the author. Upon his request the article was later edited to include his name as well as a link to his information.
3. This itself presents a problem. If my own tradition, after preaching this particular doctrine for nearly 150 years, still has difficulty understanding it, how can we call it simple? We’ve been explaining it for a century and a half and cannot seem to get to the bottom of it.
4. I now realize and confess the hubris inherent in such a thought.
5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40-41.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 123-125.
7. Exactly how this can be is discussed here: http://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/polydactyly ; Internet; Accessed 11 February 2017.
8. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 270.

How to Simplify Your Life (Part 5)

 

After discussing the benefits and challenges of simple living we finally ask the most practical question: “How do I simplify my life?”  Mostly I’ll point you to others which much more experience than I have, but we’ll discuss three areas: 1. Your clothes 2. Your kitchen 3. And everything else.

 

Clothes
There is something called The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.  Originally described by Vilfredo Pareto (for whom it is named) in reference to economics, it has now been applied in various fields.  In business, for example, they might say that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.  And when it comes to clothes you’ll find that you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.  The other clothes you use the other 20% of the time are likely seasonal items like rain boots or a heavy jacket.  In the end, we tend to wear the same clothes over and over again.  So why not get rid of the ones that you don’t?  Here’s how:

The Reverse-Reverse.  Go into your closet and turn all of your hangers around the wrong way.  Through out the year turn the hanger around the right way whenever you wear a piece of clothing.  At the end of the year take the clothes you didn’t wear and donate them.  If you haven’t worn it in a year is it likely that you’re going to wear it any time soon?  Chances are if you didn’t wear it you probably forgot it even exists.  Benefit someone else by giving them to a charitable organization.  I’ve done this several times in my life and I’m in the process of doing it again.  It always feels like a weight off of my shoulders.

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe/Uniform.  Nobody knows capsule wardrobes like Courtney Carver.  Her Project 333 is increasingly popular.  A number of minimalists have simple wardrobes as well as men like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.  You can read about their wardrobes and reasons here.  But why would you want to wear the same things over and over?  Well, Joshua Becker gives you 8 reasons here.  So, how do you do it?  In addition to Courtney Carver’s website, Jessica Dang‘s article is also helpful.  Neutral colors, layers, and multi-functionality are your friends.  And if a capsule wardrobe seems too stressful you could always consider a uniform.  Aja Nicole Edmond offers great advice, and Ryan Nicodemus of theminimalists.com can almost always be found in a black t-shirt and jeans.  Don’t knock it til you try it.

 

Kitchen
My way of simplifying my kitchen is very similar to the Reverse-Reverse mentioned above.  I took everything–and I mean everything–out of my kitchen and stored it my pantry.  Every bowl.  Every fork.  Every pot.  Every pan.  Everything.  Then I took it out of the pantry as I needed it.  After a year about 80% of it was still in my pantry.  The Pareto Principle strikes again.  How did I end up with that many glasses?  Where did I get 15 spatulas?  Who knows?  They can be successfully regifted or donated to the less fortunate.  Again, if you haven’t used it within a year are you likely to use it next year?  Probably not.  Chances are you need a lot less gadgetry than you think.  Take a look at Jessica Dang’s minimalist kitchen here.

Everything Else
So far I’ve mentioned our closets and kitchens.  I mention those because they so easily get overcrowded.  But once you’ve experienced the freedom of paring down you’ll likely want to extend the practice to everything else.  Here are two things to consider once you’re ready to do that:

Reverse-Reverse EVERYTHING.  Remember the backwards hanger trick?  It can be modified to apply to everything.  I did it with my kitchen.  You can do it with your bathroom.  Or your office.  Or, if you’re super-human, you can do it with your entire house.  That’s what Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus did.  They literally packed up their entire house and only unpacked what they needed as they needed it.  They recorded their 21 day journey into minimalism.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Maybe you’re not ready to go all out, and that’s fine.  You can do one room at a time.  Or even one room a year.  First you closet, then your kitchen, then your office, and so on.  The most important thing is that you start.

The Joy Test.  It’s been called different things but the bottom line is the same.  If something–it doesn’t matter what it is–doesn’t spark joy in your life then chances are you don’t need it.  If it doesn’t make you say “Wow”, if you don’t put on a shirt and think, “I LOVE this shirt!”, if instead you look at it and say, “Eh“,  then chances are it’s just cluttering up your life.  In the end, when everything else has gone, you will be surrounded by only your favorite things.  Could you imagine living in a house where you love everything you see and everything you wear?  That’s a fantastic life.  And think of all the people that you get to help by donating the excess stuff you no longer need.  Just because it doesn’t make you say “Wow” doesn’t mean that it can’t do that for someone else.

Remember, 80/20.  We don’t need most of our stuff.  And with all the poverty in the world, can we really afford to hold on to things that we don’t need?  With all of the stress related illnesses, can we really afford to worry over things that don’t really matter?  Less.  That’s the greatest secret to productivity that no one is talking about.  It will help you put first things first.  And we need little reminder as to how important that is.  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).

 

©M. Benfield 2017