The other side of complexity  2

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr)


When I lived in Nepal we used to say that after a few months in the country you felt like you wanted to write a book about all you were seeing and experiencing. There were so many fascinating sights, sounds and customs to describe.

Indra Chowk, Kathmandu by Erik Törner  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

After being there for a year or so, however, you felt like you could only write an article about the culture. Some of the things that seemed exotic were now normal, yet at the same time you were beginning to realise that the differences were more than skin deep. There were different assumptions and values operating in ways that you couldn’t fully understand. This strange combination of things becoming more familiar while at the same time realising how little you really understood meant that you could actually write less than before about the culture.

After a few more years in the country, while in many ways feeling more and more at home, you were increasingly aware of the complexities of the culture. At this stage you began to feel that you might only be able to sensibly write a few paragraphs about it.

I am finding a similar process at work in my faith journey. When faith was first kindled within me during my teenage years it seemed so fresh, exciting and hopeful. It was wonderful good news and I had great enthusiasm for sharing it with others. It was also quite simple; all clearly laid out in the Bible.

Since then I have lived and worked in Nepal, studied some theology, been minister of two congregations and had a couple of other jobs. And while I have settled more and more into the life of faith I have also found levels of complexity that I could not have imagined.

My interest in theology has always been directed towards the real world. I have no interest in a faith that doesn’t engage with the world as it is, or with a faith that doesn’t work in the real world. But this means that I come across many issues that I don’t fully understand and am often conflicted about how to apply my faith. Things often are not black or white, yet I often feel forced to take a stand one way or another.

Engaging in theology in the real world reveals complexity. And a simple retreat to the Bible doesn’t take the complexity away. Not only is the world complex, but once your eyes are opened to the intricacies of Biblical interpretation even reading the Bible is no longer simple.

I must confess that I sometimes wrestle with the Bible. There is so much that is immediately life-giving in it. Through it I do often experience a real and profound connection with God. Yet I often find it a real struggle to know how the Bible relates to current social issues. Even more troubling I am sometimes confronted with God saying things, or doing things, in the Bible that I simply don’t understand – or, if I am honest, that I don’t like.

Let’s have some complexity by CC BY 2.0

The complexity is reflected in more personal ways. Looking back on my life I can say God has been faithful. But I can also say that I have been disappointed by God. Some of my expectations have not been met; expectations that I thought were based on my reading of the Bible.

So my experience on my faith journey is of settling more and more into the ‘culture’ of faith so that it is an inextricable part of my life, but finding that in many ways there are levels of complexity beyond my comprehension. Sometimes I feel like I have got very little concrete to say about my faith or about God, even though both are central to my life.

I have recently come across Paul Ricouer’s concept of second naïveté. He applies the concept particularly to reading the Bible, but I find it applies equally well to my faith journey. According to this concept the first stage of our spiritual journey is a first naïveté in which we take everything at face value. We read the Bible as if there was very little distance between the world of the Bible and the world we inhabit now. However, if we take the engagement between the Bible and the real world seriously the complexities begin to force their way in and cause us problems. We become aware of the tensions within the Bible itself, we recognise the complexity of trying to apply it to the world we actually live in and we have to face up to the fact that the life of faith has not delivered all that we thought had been promised.

It is possible to move from this stage of crisis to the second naïveté. The point is not that the complexities are ignored or denied in an escape to fundamentalism. Rather, the debates are temporarily set aside to allow a deeper engagement with the text itself. We read the Bible and approach our faith not as an external authority being imposed on us, but engage with it as the place we expect to meet with God.

Here the Word is approached, not by focussing on the individual words but rather on the individual’s imaginative, transformative interaction with the words and with the Event that gave birth to them.[1]

Second naïveté feels like a good description of the place I find myself in on my faith journey. The complexities of faith still remain, yet I find that I am becoming more interested in actually living the life of faith. God is bigger and more mysterious than he used to be, yet I am increasingly finding God’s presence in the ordinary and in everyday life. Reading and interpreting the Bible is a complex process, yet there is enough clarity for it to challenge the way that I live.

Perhaps the best way to describe this simplicity on the other side of complexity is with some practical illustrations. See the next post, to follow shortly!



[1] Peter Rollins, The Fideltiy of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief, p 47


Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking essay, Peter. It’s good to hear where you are on your journey of faith. Looking forward to your additional thoughts. Blessings galore!

I like your honesty Peter. I wrestle with things that I don’t agree with or understand too, the longer I walk in faith the more I realise how little I understand but it doesn’t stop me trusting that God knows what He’s doing.

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