Monday, May 10, 2010

Simply Complex

According to St Thomas Aquinas (Book I, Question 3 Article 7), St Augustine is correct when he says in De Trinitate "God is truly and absolutely simple."

By this, both saints refer to God not being comprised of identifiable bits. Of course the objection arises, "Well, if God is simple, then how can Christians believe in a Holy Trinity?" St Thomas replies (Question 30, Article 1, replying to objection 4)

Number is twofold, simple or absolute, as two and three and four; and number as existing in things numbered, as two men and two horses. So, if number in God is taken absolutely or abstractedly, there is nothing to prevent whole and part from being in Him, and thus number in Him is only in our way of understanding; forasmuch as number regarded apart from things numbered exists only in the intellect. But if number be taken as it is in the things numbered, in that sense as existing in creatures, one is part of two, and two of three, as one man is part of two men, and two of three; but this does not apply to God, because the Father is of the same magnitude as the whole Trinity, as we shall show further on (42, 1 and 4).

Got that?

My point is that when we think about things, even simple things, they can get very complicated, that they present logical consequences that can affect the way we live our lives. It is a fact of life that simple things lead to complicated behaviour. One only has to look at the simplicity of the rules generating fractals (q.v. the Mandelbrot set) the BZ reaction in Chemistry, Langton's ant to see that from a comprehensible rule, the patterns which are caused merge and convolve and self-interfere (feedback) to produce some staggeringly wonderful behaviour.

However, there appears to be among many Christians a desire to be simplistic. There is a desire to purify the faith, to make Christianity more simple by removing from it any problematic parts, so that everybody can climb on board the "Kingdom train" (please don't ask) without any baggage and thus avoid any argument or discussion. Many such folk hide behind the epithet that "we don't need religion, we just need a personal relationship with Jesus."

All Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus. If they don't then they should certainly be cultivating one. We cultivate this relationship clearly by Baptism, repentance, and accepting His rule. However, Christianity just isn't this simple. If one tries to be simple about this, then we remove from our understanding of Christ great swathes of how He relates to us. He is our friend, so we greet Him by embracing Him. But! Hang on a minute! He is our God, so we should fall on our faces before Him. But then, He is our Defender, so we can stand with Him. And then, He is our judge, so we need to approach Him with fear and trepidation.

If we start thinking like this, then we'll never get near Him!

Yes, He is near us. Yes, we can just sit down and be open to Him, and let Him tell us how we can approach Him. This is part of our "personal relationship with Jesus".

However, the Lord presents us with a life which needs must be relational. He bids us not only to have a relationship with Him, but with other people and affirm our belief in Him with other people. Other people make the simple life incredibly complicated.

There is is this idea of free-will (or free-won't if you're a neurologist). God creates us to be free to choose (within some limited sphere of influence) and that freedom to choose presents the logical necessity of that which is Good (i.e. following God) and Evil (i.e. not following God). Yes, that now raises all kinds of Kantian arguments - more complexity. In order to choose either Good or Evil, we have to see Good and Evil, hence the necessity for a Universe in which both Good and Bad things happen - or perhaps this is all philosophical rubbish, but it's more complexity. Simple ideas breed more complexity. Christians just cannot afford to be simple minded!

If we are to relate with others then we need to bind ourselves to each other. Binding of course restricts movement and freedom, and this creates religion, a voluntary renunciation of certain freedoms in order to relate with others who share the same belief, so that we can articulate and communicate that very belief in a language that can be understood by others. Even those who do not say they are religious are actually religious.

It's when people try to change the language of religion that the complications really fly about. Take this statement from Thinking Anglicans (whose very title seems to imply that Conservatives do not know how to think!):

"WATCH has argued for this for the last fifteen years, as there are sound theological reasons for it as well as scriptural warrant: the first chapter of Genesis says we are all made in the image of God, both male and female, and St Paul says that in Christ there is no male or female."
The trouble is that WATCH is trying to present a simple argument for the "ordination" of women from Biblical texts which say nothing of the sort. It is being simple-minded and trying to cut out the complications of the situation.

Both the passage from Genesis and St Paul are referring to common humanity, not common priesthood. Throughout Biblical History, God has made some baffling choices, discriminations which seem almost scandalous to inclusive eyes. Why did God choose Abraham? Why did He then persevere with the Jews? Why did he choose certain foodstuffs, certain ways of sacrificing? Why sacrifice in the first place? Why sacrifice in the first place if it leads to His only begotten Son suffering an agonising Death? Why, at the end of Time, is God going to choose some of us for Eternal Life and others of us for Eternal Death?

There are many and varied answers to these questions within Scripture and Tradition among the Church Fathers and from wise souls. God does discriminate - from the word "Go" he discriminates between Male and Female. Notice that He never discriminates in order to disadvantage anyone, but rather to propel folk into becoming whom He meant them to be. God's discrimination empowers us, and still further defines us more closely than any identity we would wish to give ourselves.

Still, in not one place in Holy Scripture, in not one place in Holy Tradition is there a woman conclusively ordained as a priest. It's simple, but it puts forward so many complications, so many stumbling blocks, so many tears, arguments, frustrations, schisms and hurt among Christians because they try to make things simple which are inherently complicated.

We Christians cannot afford to be simple-minded. We can, however, strive to be simple hearted, to live lives of simplicity by binding ourselves to each other in obedience, community, and constant re-orientation towards Christ. To develop a "personal relationship with Jesus" and also to express that relationship that the Church has with Christ to the world. If we truly trust God, then we accept humbly the limitations He imposes on us and accept that this will bring complications which we must live out in faith until He gives us the wherewithal to resolve them or, more likely, He resolves them Himself.

1 comment:

poetreader said...

Hadn't been here in a while. I rather wish I had read this piece before the following one. Together they are a fine bit of reasoning.If my comments to the next piece sound as though I might have read this one, that is because all these thoughts indeed do work together. The simplicity St. Thomas wrote of is found in the realization that some things are too simple for the finite mind to grasp. It requires a certain degree of complexity to deal with simple things in minds such as we have, but with it a certain childlike willingness to accept what cannot be digested.

what I just wrote for the mext post carries this though further.