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Facebook, “It’s Complicated,” and the Tyranny of Simple Answers

From time to time, I still see them crop up on my Facebook news feeds: relationships described as “It’s complicated.” Sometimes it makes me chuckle. Occasionally (as in the case with certain friends I particularly care about) it makes me feel sad. However, it always elicits one wry response from some sardonic backwater in my brain: whose isn’t?

While I love being married, it’s certainly complicated. I cringe when friends ask me “how’s your marriage going?” – not because its going badly, but simply because I don’t know how to respond. Every day has a hundred moments of success, failure, discovery and frustration. Such is the nature of relationships, because they involve people. Glorious, messy, complicated people. I can give you the definition of the word “profligate.” I can summarize “Anna Karenina.” But I can neither define nor summarize Elizabeth. She is a wife, an employee, a Christian… but also much more. She is light-hearted and expressive… except sometimes when she’s not. And it’s not just her; the same is true for every other person that I know.

It’s not just Facebook and marriage, however. The fact is, life is complicated. The more I read and think about theology and Christian living, the more I think we need to recognize this fact. I own so many books that purport to offer “the” solution. “The” view of culture. “The” position on politics. “The” final answers on doctrine. In almost every case, the singular answer they supply is singularly insufficient to address the problem they confront.

I’m not trying to undermine the existence of truth – or even of Truth, as much as it might frustrate some of you. What I am proposing is that truth is not necessarily simple. In fact, it is necessarily as complex as the thing it is seeking to describe. It exists in propositions, but also in contrasts, tensions, and situations. There are true and false words for a given object, but the final word might sometimes be a sentence or a paragraph, a story or a poem.

Since I’m notoriously abstract, let me offer a concrete example. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his well-known book “Christ and Culture,” gives five different perspectives Christians have toward the broader culture (opposition, affirmation, synthesis, paradox, transformation). Interestingly, he argues that all of these perspectives can, at one time or another, be correct. While I might quibble with details in the book, this is a profound insight. In every culture, there are things Christians should approach in each of these ways.

This is because culture is necessarily a complex thing. It is not geographically consistent. Even within the same place, it comes in different shades and shapes. There are sub-cultures and counter-cultures. There are inconsistencies within cultures. To take one position over against the others is necessarily to belie this complexity, to pretend as if culture were a monolith rather than a mosaic.

The same is true in other areas. We cannot sum up Christian living with a simple purpose statement, because living involves a multiplicity of things. When we try, we either truncate life (as in those who separate secular and sacred vocations, or those for whom “spirituality” is a dimension of life disconnected from everything else) or offer a statement so broad as to be useless in particular application (it is true that I need to glorify God in all of life, but without complex application I still have no idea how to raise my children or what to eat for dinner). We cannot sum up church strategies with a single ministry model. Answering the question of whether to feed the poor, preach the bible, love the sacraments, evangelize the lost, worship God, seek justice or disciple believers with anything less than a “Yes” leads to distortion and error. In a real sense, we cannot even sum up theological truth in such easy propositions. God is holy, just, merciful, loving, angry, Three and One. Christ is our sacrifice, our ransom, our elder brother, our penal substitute, and our victor. While we can look at the relationships between these truths, we must not remove a single one of them or we become something less than Christian.

This point is important because we often live under the tyrrany of simple answers. We feel obliged to make our case for the eye, or the ear, or the foot, and to do so to the detriment of the rest of the body. This reality does not mean we should embrace relativism – if the body has cancer, we should not welcome it but rather cut it out. There are wrong answers to questions of culture, life and theology. But to deny every one of the above statements about God or Jesus is no more an error than to affirm all but one of them.

In practice, this means we need to constantly be on guard against either/or distinctions that pit truths against each other. This has come out a lot in my recent reviews of Brian McLaren’s new book. He constantly offers us the either/or. Either we must stop loving certain doctrines or we will fail to engage with the world. Either we must embrace all religions as equally good or indulge in discrimination, hatred and genocide. However, this is not an error he alone makes. It is rampant in our world, in our churches, and in our own hearts. In the end, this is where the true battle lies. The sort of brazen confidence we crave, the world where we can give our pithy answer and consider the matter settled, simply doesn’t exist. The beautiful thing about the bible is that it doesn’t require such a world. It is a beautifully complex book, looking at God and history from a variety of angles, different times and places, in different eras and through different eyes. It is complicated enough to deal with the complexities of this world, and it should be lived out no other way.

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