Thursday, November 12, 2015

Keep It Simple, Stupid

I used to think that being intelligent meant being complicated.

It just seemed like the more complex, convoluted, and intricately byzantine a person could be, the smarter they appeared. When our culture places so much emphasis on cerebral intelligence (think of the value we place on IQ and ACT scores), it is no wonder that so many of us chase this distorted professorial image – the esoteric thinker, stroking his Rasputinian beard, waxing eloquently about something so mind-blowing and magnificent that none of us simpletons could possibly understand it.

We sit back in awe of such people, with a wonderment that approaches worship, and imagine all the good they’re doing in the world (while consequently feeling inconsequential about our own mundane contributions). “They are so smart,” we mumble, which often merely translates: “I have no idea what he/she just said.”

It seems this phenomenon can infect the Christian ranks as well. We often equate the verbose with the very smart, the opaque with the omniscient. If you really want the good stuff, we intuit, you gotta read the heavy-hitters - Aquinas and Augustine, Bonaventure and Barth, Schweitzer and Schleiermacher (no knock on any of these, by the way). When the Rahnarian run-on sentences become so long that we forget what day it is before reaching the fifth semi-colon, we rest assured that we’re really onto something sophisticated and fresh (though we haven't a clue what that is). 

It is perhaps not surprising that Soren Kierkegaard, nineteenth century Danish philosopher (and no dunce himself) suggested:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.[1]

Well, I don’t exactly share Kierkegaard’s conspiracy theory about theological reflection. I don’t think of Christians as scheming swindlers (well, at least not all of them).  But I do think he’s touching on something important.  It has to do with the relationship between simplicity and power:

Simple truths transform us.

This perennial axiom is nowhere more important than in our presentation of the gospel. It’s what Pope Francis was getting at when he said, “The message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing.”[2] We should not be “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines,” he urges. “Do not be preachers of complex doctrines, but rather be announcers of Christ.”[3]

So the question becomes, “What is the core, the essential, the most beautiful, the heart of the Christian message?” Try a few of these on for size, taken from Pope Francis’ exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:

·      “In [its] basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.”[4]
·      “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us.”[5]
·       “The joyful, patient and persistent preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be your absolute priority.”[6]
·      “The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift.”[7]
·      “What is essential is that the [Christian] be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love has always the last word.”[8]

What Pope Francis is getting at here is of supreme importance. It’s a message that we’ve heard proclaimed and prescribed by every pontiff before him in the modern era. “The essence of Christianity is Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “not a doctrine, but a person.” Pope John Paul II declared, “We shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person.”[9] “Nothing,” Pope Francis reminds us, “nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than the initial proclamation.”[10]

The point is that the most essential thing, the heart of the Christian message, the essential core of the Gospel is not complicated. It is not complex. It is not a doctrine even. It is a living, breathing reality. It is the simple presence of God among us. It has a gentle face and tender flesh. “Christian doctrine,” Pope Francis pronounces, “is called Jesus Christ.”[11]

The unparalleled brilliance of the mind of God shines forth in the humility of the stable, in the selflessness of a servant, in the scandal of the Cross. It is the simplicity of the Savior, not the complexity, which makes all the difference in the world. For Protestants and Catholics alike, our primary mission is the same – to announce, in word and deed, to each and every human being, the Person of Jesus Christ. There is nothing more important (and more intelligent).

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough, 2002), 201.
[2] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 35.
[3] Pope Francis, Address to the National Ecclesial Congress of Italy (Nov 10, 2015).
[4] Evangelii Gaudium, 36.
[5] Ibid, 39.
[6] Ibid, 110.
[7] Ibid, 112.
[8] Ibid, 151.
[9] Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29.
[10] Evangelii Gaudium, 165.
[11] Pope Francis, Address to the National Ecclesial Congress of Italy (Nov 10, 2015).