Monday, 21 April 2008

Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

There are three levels of theological knowledge. The first is the level of simplicity where a person possesses a certain basic level of knowledge. This is not to be derided, for it can be a good, solid understanding of some core theology. However, there is often a lack of critical awareness and an ignorance of the breadth of the Christian tradition.

The second level of theological knowledge is the level of complexity. This begins when people begin some serious study, often at a university degree level. At this level a critical awareness is fostered where the old certainties are questioned and the rich resources of the Christian tradition are encountered. Specific bundles of knowledge on particular topics of theology are acquired, but the person does not see in the complexity the unifying patterns and, ultimately, the beauty of the whole, a whole to which all individual bundles of knowledge must yield. Some people lose heart at this stage, nostalgically remembering the old certainties, but lacking the knowledge and perseverance to push through the sheer busyness and complexity of this stage to the third level of theological knowledge.

The third level of theological knowledge is a deep simplicity that is informed by the complexity of the Christian tradition and its challenges while maintaining a critical awareness. In and through the complexity and the questions that arise people are able to recognise and intuitively grasp the overall structure and meaning of the Christian faith. This does not mean that they know everything, but have learned to recognise the patterns of the Christian faith that make up the beauty of the whole. They are then able to use this intuitive grasp of the whole to explore new questions and apply the profound insights of the Christian faith to life.

The tradition from which I come (Anglican, in the middle, but on the catholic side) is good at all three levels. Despite the Anglican-turned-fundamentalist jibe that says while Anglican they learned nothing and knew nothing, and had to join the fundamentalists to become Christian, Anglicans are generally well grounded in a simple faith that carries them through life and beyond. And we are certainly good at the complexity stage, and have plenty of examples of those who have attained the third level of deep simplicity. Where we have failed is communicating the complexity, and most especially, the deep simplicity in a popular way and at the popular level. The fundamentalists are excellent at this popular level, although they don't have to worry about translating complexity or deep simplicity into a popular level! (What they have is simplistic, but they are very good at communicating it at a popular level.) We need to embrace the popular and communicate both the complexity and especially the deep simplicity, and encourage and develop people who can do so.

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