Keeping it complicated

A friend of mine recently blogged about keeping the gospel message complicated (read his whole post here). He is a staff member of Cru (I knew him back in the day when it was still called Campus Crusade), and works with college students, professors and Cru staff members. He writes to a largely Christian audience, especially encouraging them with various ways to share their faith. His post got me thinking about my own faith journey and I thought I’d share a bit about that.

This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.   -G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Chapter 6 of Orthodoxy is really amazing. G.K. Chesterton is amazing (and Wikipedia has a decent entry, if you are not familiar with him). The whole chapter is about the paradox of Christianity, and begins thus:


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.

Isn’t that an apt description of our world, of life? It doesn’t quite fit any category we try to give it. Much of the time, I feel that way myself. My mom and hubby think I am great (more or less) and yet I feel my own flaws deeply. Some of my friends think that I am overboard religious, and others think I am not religious enough. Some think I am too conservative, some think I am too flamingly liberal. I feel the squeeze of not fitting into the Republican or the Democratic party.  I like to read and write and am mystified when friends say “I have read two books this year;” I’m also embarrassed when I talk to others and have to admit that I haven’t read St. Ignatius Loyola (or Fifty Shades of Gray, but that is on purpose and a whole different story and I digress).

The point is that I, like many of you I dare suppose, feel like there are a lot of crevices –  crags on a rock – in life and that it doesn’t all perfectly mesh together. Oh, how I wish it would. I’d like a formula for parenting: if you do X, you’re children will turn out Y. I’d like families to be far less complicated (less craggy), friends to be perfectly friendly, and a justice system that is perfectly just. Of course that would mean that people themselves would be less craggy; I’d like to know what is best for me and do it without struggle, I’d like to be less grouchy, uncharitable and despairing and more kind, magnanimous and cheerful.  It’s not that I want perfection per se, but I feel a deep longing for life to be less..craggy and more…smooth. But that’s not the life we find ourselves in.

That is exactly what Chesterton addresses. Paganism (it’s enough to say “not Christianity” without a full philosophical treatise) is that smooth pillar, perfect in symmetry. Christianity is the craggy rock. Christianity then matches our experience of life; it too seems full of paradoxes:

One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.

One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world.

The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep…I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood.

What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.

Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation. The charge was actually reversed.

Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.

The list goes on and on (I’m telling you, this is an amazing chapter of an amazing book!) as Chesterton moves through this litany of paradoxes and accusations and initially comes to the conclusion that Christianity must be evil, false, from hell itself to be such a mismangled, craggy shape. But then:

…in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.

Here’s the next shift:

Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency. Now, it was just at this point of the speculation that I remembered my thoughts about the martyr and the suicide. In that matter there had been this combination between two almost insane positions which yet somehow amounted to sanity. This was just such another contradiction; and this I had already found to be true. This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which sceptics found the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right.

There we are. Or at least there Chesterton is and I find myself with him. Learning to be with Jesus, to follow Jesus and to be like Jesus is complicated. It’s not often easy to figure out what one ought to do, which course of action is better, what sort of person to become. It’s plain old complicated.  Not complicated in an “I’ll never figure this out” way, but in a deep mysterious “pull you in so you can explore the depths” kind of way.  Truthfully, I’m discovering I’m kind of glad it’s all not so simple.

2 thoughts on “Keeping it complicated

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