The Complex, the Complicated, and the Simple – The System of Christian Faith

Lately, I have become increasingly interested in the distinction between the complicated, the complex and the simplistic. You might see signs of this in other articles I have written. My interest is primarily concerned with faith, of course, and how these three approaches to Christianity lead to vastly different experiences of God and of life.

I grew up in the Catholic Church and attended mass fairly steadfastly up until the age of 12 or so.  It gave me something, that much I have never doubted, and there were people within my parish that were earnestly devout and had real, meaningful relationships with God.  I did, however, find myself turned off by the rituals that are a big part of the fabric of Catholicism. It was all too complicated. I felt there was too much obscuring the beautiful truth.  I wanted something “simpler”, something stripped down and more essential. I found that in Protestantism, generally, the main thing was kept at the forefront; no confession boxes, no rosaries, no statues, very light on murals and stained glass, zero saints… you get the picture.  I believe that while doctrinal differences were the primary reason for the advent of the Protestant Church, the “simpler” nature of Protestant faith has spurred its growth. Since simple often means accessible.

My experience of Protestantism, however, is that sometimes it becomes simplistic rather than simple. It is most often in Protestant churches that I have come into contact with five-step plans for pretty much everything. It is in Protestantism that I, and others I know, have been frustrated by the Church’s attempt to offer overly simplified and insufficient answers for the most challenging questions of life.

The Complicated and the Complex

If “complicated” means too many rules, “simplistic-ness” means too few. Simplistic-ness is what you get when you try to simplify a complicated system.  The issue is with the system itself. The solution is to do away with the system completely. 

Complexity theory is a relatively new area of work that is being applied to fields like economics and computer science. Beyond these, I believe it has some things to teach us about the life of faith. The aspect of it that I am most interested in is best explained with an illustration. There is a viral video on YouTube that shows a set of puppies, five or so of them, drinking from a plate of milk. The puppies move in complete unison, circling the milk like a pinwheel as if programmed. You could never train puppies to do that without that plate of milk; such coordinated behaviour would be difficult even for a group of humans.  It is a complex movement (at least for puppies) and is best solved using a complex system. A complicated system is one that imposes rules that attempt to address every eventuality. A complex system provides one or two central principles that govern how to act in every eventuality. In the example of the puppies, the rule is to get to the milk. That rule is so simple and clear. Not only can it produce this coordinated movement, but it can also return the actors (puppies) to that movement in the case of momentary disruptions like the plate being displaced, a puppy losing its spot, or a slip and fall in a milk puddle. 

Complex Life, Simple Faith

It is easy to see the parallels to the area of faith.  Assumption number one is that life is complex, which is to say, each life has an unforeseeable number of scenarios that may develop.  On that premise, I think we can all agree. Religious systems attempt to apply a complicated system to life, a crippling number of rules and rituals, which are ultimately insufficient to explain all of life and to see us through its many challenges.  A “counter-religious system” maintains the premise of a complicated system but tries to simplify it by reducing the rules and rituals. But alas, the system is still the same, and the result is simplistic-ness, a reductionist interpretation of life, that seeks to reduce the complexity of life, to be able to address it through a smaller set of rules. 

The only system that works is one that accepts the complexity of life and seeks to provide one or two principles, which are simple, yet powerful enough to govern all eventualities.  I believe Christ gave us this. When asked which of the laws is the greatest, He said, “Love your neighbour as yourself, Love God with all your heart.” Imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit, these words hold the answers for all of life. They do not guarantee a result; they do guarantee guidance. Sometimes loving someone means a kiss and a cuddle, sometimes it means telling them harsh realities. Sometimes we campaign for peace; at other times, we prepare for war. It is this underlying ethos of love that allows Christ to be sometimes a lamb, sometimes a lion, and always both. Love is the centre of the Christian paradox; it is what frees Paul to be “all things to every man” while never compromising on who he is.

The Creative Power of the Simple System

So, how does a complex system look like?  That is a tough question. In my search for simplicity, I’ve found the simplistic too often. I assumed that stripped-down was always better, that somehow minimalism was a concept that should translate to the life of faith. The less, the better. I’m not sure that is true anymore. In the paradigm described above, I’ve said that the heart of the complex is the simple and that only the simple has the power to address the complex. I would go a step further to say that only the simple can produce the complex. A simple system has much more creative power. It should create a world that is exponentially more diverse, dynamic, rich, surprising and alive, than anything that could be produced by a complicated system. Take colour, for instance, all the thousands of hues that we see, are produced by the three primary colours. It belies belief, but there it is.  Something as complicated as Jewish law could only ever exist and be sustained in the nation of Israel. But a faith that takes over the world and transforms it, in the face of significant racial, cultural, geographical, political, economic differences, has to be something so much bigger, and yet the size and simplicity of a mustard seed.

I don’t mean to say there is no room for ritual, or for “Five-step plans,” but we do have to be careful how we use them and always maintain perspective on what they are.  They are helpers, a part of the tapestry, contributors to our faith, but they are not faith. When unhinged from the anchor of the gospel of love and grace, the primary colours of faith, they are in the words of Paul, “clanging cymbals,” nothing more.

I’ll admit that in the light of this understanding of the complex, I have a lot more patience for orthodox Christianity, Catholicism included. I walk into a church, and I see the extravagant, almost obscene beauty of the art on the walls, or the robes of a priest. I think that there’s no reason they couldn’t speak of something beautifully simple, more straightforward than anything, yet with infinite creative power.  How many ways could you find to say “I love you” to your spouse or your child? How many more ways could we, the generations upon generations of the body of Christ, have found to say “I love you” to God, our heavenly father. As far as ritual is concerned, if it helps you to meet with God, then use it. But if it obscures God, we are free to walk away from it. It’s all in what the spirit of it is. Speaking of spirit, the first thing that happens when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples is that they speak in the tongues of the multitudes before them.  On the surface, confusing and complicated, but behind it all, something incredibly simple, the heart of a father, trying to reach his children with a message of love.  

Photo by Len D. Cruz