December 1, 2020

iMonk Classic: Icebergs, Onions and Why You’re Not As Simple As You Think


From April 24, 2008.

“My theology is simply what I read in the Bible.”

Sure it is.

“What I believe and practice is simply what the Bible teaches and nothing else.”

Of course. What else could be simpler?

I’m sure several of you won’t be surprised at all to learn that I meet with a pastoral counselor on a regular basis. It’s one of the best things I do. We talk about all sorts of things, and we’ve developed a very beneficial dialog around many of the the issues that are part of a Jesus shaped spirituality.

Almost every time we meet, one of us will wind up saying that human beings are far more complex than anyone realizes. And that goes double for our view of ourselves. We’d like to think that we’re quite simple in our motivations and behavior. Our self-description is almost always biased toward “what you see is what you get,” even when we are well aware that such is not the case.

Working with a counselor constantly reminds me that there is far more to what I feel, perceive, think and do than I ever recall at any moment. It’s not unusual for me to leave my counselor’s office with fresh illumination regarding memories, events and various influences that have contributed to who I am. Insights into my family of origin, primary experiences as a child, uncritical acceptance of some proclamations of reality, even manipulation and brainwashing: all of these may appear on my radar after a session with Bob, made obvious by our conversation and God’s Spirit.

What’s stunning is that all of these things were no less part of me when I walked into the office, totally unaware of their existence and influence. Where were all these things before? With me and part of me, but unknown to me.

onion-layersThink about that. It’s just as true of you.

If I ever tell you that all I do is just read the Bible, then believe and do what it says, you have permission to laugh at me. Pay a small fee and you can smack me and say “What’s the matter with you?”

I’m an iceberg, an onion, a mystery. I’m complex and rarely insightful into myself. Thousands of experiences co-exist in me at the same time. I’m a library of presuppositions and passively accepted versions of the truth. When I write a post, preach a sermon, respond in a conversation or give advice to a student, I am anything but simple. I’m complex and only partially aware of that complexity.

This doesn’t mean I can’t understand the simple statements of the Bible or believe and act on them with integrity. It does mean that I need to stop talking about myself as if I am a blank slate, and begin accepting myself as a human being.

I am a person on a journey. That journey has been rich and diverse. It began before I was born. It’s gone on when I was aware and unaware of all that was happening to me. I’ve been shaped by God through a variety of influences, and in one way, there is a sacredness to how God has chosen to shape my life. At any moment that I present myself to God, I am accepted as the “iceberg” of known and unknown influences that make me ME.

I don’t need to fear my complexity. I don’t need to ignore it or misrepresent it. There’s no point in speaking as if my understanding of truth is unaffected by all that preceded this moment and what is going on at this moment.

The Holy Spirit works with us as the human beings that we are. “Search my thoughts O God” is an invitation for God to work with me and all that makes me a person at this moment.

Is this an endorsement of some postmodern skepticism toward propositions? Is it another emerging denial of truth?

No. It’s simply an observation that I don’t “just” read the Bible and do what it says without bringing along all my personal influences and multiple layers of my personal history and experience.

There’s a reason certain ideas appeal to me, others are uninteresting to me and some never will make sense to me.

There are reasons I’ve come to the “obvious” conclusions that I have.

There are reasons I perceive some truth and can’t see other truth.

There are reasons my understanding of being a Christian falls easily towards some things and is repelled and conflicted by others.

I am complex. I have a history. I have influences. I’m not a robot. I am a person.

Knowing God’s truth is always a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I’m beginning to appreciate that more and more as I come to understand all that’s made me the person I am today.


  1. What this post asserts about individual human persons is also true of every human institution, both now and throughout history, including the Church(es). When the Church(es) assert that, “We only believe this because the Bible teaches it,” or “We only believe this because Holy Tradition teaches it,” or “We only believe this because it is true,” you can be sure that there is far more below the surface, beneath the top layers of the onion, than is being acknowledged, recognized or admitted.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It is the use of the term “only” [like the term “just” – which is almost always a fallacy red-flag] that is the issue. But it is equally a fallacy to assert that every institution asserts this; I listen to or read Roman Catholic speakers or documents and they are rarely peppered with the only-just claims I constantly encountered in Protestantism [which may inherit this need for exclusivity from its self-perceived revolutionary roots]. Most RCs seem to readily accept the complex mixity-mash that is the origin of church tradition and teaching [and they acknowledge the distinction between valuable tradition and “doctrine”, which is very refreshing; separating something as tradition from doctrine does not make something worthless – which would be the Evangelical interpretation of that distinction].

      • Of course. What could be simpler?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Reciting chapter-and-verse without engaging any neuron above the brainstem.

          • H.U.G.

            I find this kind of language offensive. Person X believes differently to me, therefore person X is not engaging their brain.

            Part of the whole purpose of this post was to show that individuals are complex persons. Dismissing people like this goes against what this whole post is all about.

          • justin case says

            without the brainstem, there’d be no heart beat to feel the neurons that seem to love getting fired up…
            These simply forget Who fed who what and why and participate in “separating from the head”.

            sometimes the neurons pick apart the brainstem…
            sometimes the neurons short circuit themselves trying to sneak a hot wire brainstem “connection they can relate to”. (metaphorically speaking)

          • I think it’s a somewhat fair statement. I recently got involved in a rather lengthy online debate on whether or not Christians should go view movies like The Book of Eli. The dissenter was mentally roadblocked at a particular verse as if it was THE key answer to every debate. He could not get around that verse at all, and any discussion ended with him asking if that verse was binding, when it had no bearing at all on the discussion.

            So yeah, HUG may be crude, but there are many who do just spit out chapter and verse with no thought. It’s often followed with “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

          • Marcus Johnson says

            @ Michael Bell:

            Granted, but I think there is a difference between having different beliefs and values, and refusing to think critically, which a lot of well-intentioned folk have been conditioned to believe is the equivalent of faith.

            I can respect the belief, for example, that same-sex orientation is an identity that is not affirmed by the Bible. I can neither engage in dialogue with, nor can I respect, someone who finds the practice of pointing at Bible verses and dismissing the context in which that verse was created. I can’t find common ground with someone who doesn’t believe that they don’t bring their own personal experience into their reading. That, to me, is reciting without thinking critically. That, to me, is unacceptable.

          • Michael Bell,

            “Part of the whole purpose of this post was to show that individuals are complex persons. Dismissing people like this goes against what this whole post is all about.”

            It also sidesteps the most important question we should ask ourselves based on this post: where do I avoid confrontation with the complex truth of my own beliefs by falsely reducing there complexity? If as a result of this post I only question other people’s beliefs, and not my own, then I’ve missed the bus.

      • Adam, the RC Church certainly does assert uniqueness based on exclusive claims. For instance, the Pope is believed by the Roman Catholic Church to be the only person who cannot fail to speak truthfully when speaking ex cathedra, and, however rarely that is said to be done and under whatever conditions, it is believed by the Roman Catholic Church that it in fact has been done on at least a few occasions (some scholars say more, other scholars say less, the Church itself has given a list of 12 or so instances, but states that the list is not exhaustive). Even just the two that seem most clearly to be infallible papal definitions, and that most authorities in the matter seem to agree were in fact infallible papal definitions, 1) the Immaculate Conception of Mary 2) the Assumption of Mary, have widespread repercussions and implications in matters of faith, doctrine, and ecumenicism. There most certainly is an “only” in this, even if that “only” does not much seem to effect facts on the ground in the average Roman Catholic parish in the US, where thoroughly modern Americanized Roman Catholics take what they want and ignore the rest. The international institution that is the RCC itself makes such “only” claims, and places great emphasis on their theological significance and centrality.

      • And btw, I didn’t say that every institution asserts this.

  2. I don’t know where anybody got the idea that the Bible was simple. I remember the first time I read it, I thought to myself ‘This thing’s a mess. Someone needs to drain it, turn it, and fix it up a bit.’

    Still, the Capra-esque myth of the Plain Man with the Open Bible speaking the Unvarnished Truth appeals to me more than the alternative; the Bunch of Really Smart Guys Telling Everybody Else What To Do For Their Own Good.

    • yeah, I’ve been guilty of being drawn to either of those at different times. I see flaws in both now. There must be a third way. Men with “just the Bible” have ruined this country for hundreds of years, and a group of men telling us truth ex cathedra have done the same as well.

      • Wow, this is an interesting conversation.
        I wonder if we can gain any insight by looking at the NT historical accounts?
        I don’t see “really smart guys”, but I do see apostles; they seem to function in a “telling everybody else what to do” role. I don’t see “Plain Men”, but I do see Bereans, cross checking the apostles’ teachings. I wonder if we need some kind of combination; a relational exchange of truth. One thing I definitely see in the NT is that the apostles seem equally concerned with how people behave as with what they believe. Anyway, if you find that third way, do let me know.

        • the Internet!

        • I believe that even a recent Pope has recognized that the early church most likely had a Presbyterian structure of authority (though not the accompanying Calvinist doctrine). Episcopal structures, and centralized authority with ranks, are nearly universally held to be a later development. Decisions were made in councils, involving the entire church, and entrusting special authority to men of proven character, and especially those appointed by Christ himself.

          I always advocate the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in these matters: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. How you balance or prioritize those will influence which Christian tradition you are more drawn towards.

          “Men with just a Bible” are often too arrogant to learn from their fathers in the faith, even the Apostles themselves, how to rightly interpret the scriptures, so they usually wind up in some form of err. Arguing from tradition above all will also lead to err, as there will always be at least some cognitive dissonance between popular historic teachers and the true meaning of particular Scriptural passages. We need the whole picture. The Gospel is what matters, the Scriptures are the “cannon,” or measuring device against which all doctrine is measured, tradition tells us how the Scriptures are rightly understood and passes this knowledge to successive generations, and reason helps us understand doctrine and walk the fine line of authority between Scripture and tradition (reconciling them where possible rather than pitting one agains the other). The entire process is one confusing experience.

          It’s no wonder there’s so many different versions of Christianity.

          • In fact, recent scholarship seems to support the idea that there was much more diversity in the first few centuries than had been previously thought, including Eucharistic liturgies without the words of institution, and using elements other than bread and wine. And these things took place not in heterodox circles but in provinces considered part of the one Church.

            Whatever uniformity we see in the second half of the first millennium may have been the result of centralization of the churches due to the Constantinian settlement, when it became extremely politically important to have agreement and uniformity in matters of practice and church polity.

          • I do believe the Words of Institution were not originally a liturgical text, but a catechetical one.

            But I’m not sure I’d blame the push for uniformity on Constantine. Similar phenomenon have occurred in Christianity and other religions outside of that institution. The “Common Service” of early American Lutheranism comes to mind.

          • I’m willing to concede the point about Constantine. I’m just trying to make the point that uniformity in liturgy and practice, even in areas that are considered essential to catholicity today, came centuries after the beginning of the Church, and did not exist in the earlier centuries among those bodies considered apostolic. When such uniformity was established it was through the growing influence and superstructure of a top-down institution, rather than natural and organic growth. We should always remember that Constantine died on the wrong side of the Arian debate, and in fact had Athanasius banished.

          • Fortunately, Constantine wasn’t actually a Father or Presbyter of the church. I can see that the kind of uniformity Roman Catholics have today in the mass was most certainly after Constantine, in fact, very far after, as many major components were not introduced ’till centuries later. However, throughout the spectrum of Christianity there has always (consistently!) existed a tension between those in lock-step conformity and those doing things differently. I’m sure there was plenty of variation during the apostolic era, in terms of liturgical detail, but they all evolved from the same ground soil. The pattern of word and sacrament emerged quite universally, and the service of the word was patterned largely after Jewish synagogue worship. They didn’t exactly have the Book of Common Prayer, but they were still, roughly and for the most part, “on the same page.”

          • Recently I’ve read that we actually have very little knowledge about what a Jewish synagogue service was like, and would not be able to reconstruct a typical Sabbath liturgy on what scant evidence is available. Is this untrue?

    • A great quote from an E.O. acquaintance;

      Something stated ad nasum which is absolutely not true, “The Bible interprets itself.”

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I am complex. I have a history. I have influences. I’m not a robot. I am a person.

    The robots are those who recite “My theology is simply what I read in the Bible”, “What I believe and practice is simply what the Bible teaches and nothing else”, “It Is Written! It Is Written! It Is Written!”, “Scripture! Scripture! Scripture! Scripture! Scripture!”

    No need to think, no need for anything except rewordgitating.
    Stimulus –> Response.

    • …and that is MOST evangelical church members. The most mistrusted person in the church I formerly attended (denomination NOT stated) is the person who attempted to think deeply on, or at least just below the surface of, the denomination’s stated theology and practices.

      I’m not saying that I was one of those people, but I WAS look on suspiciously for my past Christian experience because it did not totally agree with the church’s own system of belief. Doubts are frowned on and only perceived certainty is trusted. No church is immune…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “Look at the Emperor’s Wonderful New Wardrobe!” combined with “Beware thou of the Mutant.”

        “Doubt leads to Thinking.
        Thinking leads to Questioning.
        Questioning leads to Heresy.
        Heresy Must Be Dealt With.
        Blessed is the mind too small for Doubt.”
        — Warhammer 40K

        • I really, really need to start reading Warhammer 40K stuff. I have a copy of that newer xbox game, should start that soon…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Be warned: WH40K is the game universe that coined the trope names “Crapsack” and “Grimdark”. Total Nihilism, Total Mayhem, “Am I Not DARK and EDGY?”

            When I refer to it, it’s NOT a complement.

          • Well it can’t be worse that brony subcultures, can it? lol

    • “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!”

      Whatever happened to prophetic sci-fi, especially on television? When was the last great “whoa” moment in scifi for making people think? The Matrix?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Whatever happened to prophetic sci-fi, especially on television?

        Replaced by Duck Dynasty, Truth About UFOs, Honey Boo-Boo, and the Kardashians.

      • Dr. Who is a place to start for prophetic sci-fi

        • Yeah, I can see that, but for me at least Dr Who has rarely hit me hard enough to rethink some things. Mostly I get annoyed at the “the Doctor won’t kill, but actually does kill by letting others do his killing for him!” and anti-guns type of thinking.

          • -> Mostly I get annoyed at the “the Doctor won’t kill, but actually does kill by letting others do his killing for him!” and anti-guns type of thinking.

            I’m wrestling with that notion in the sci-fi book I’m writing. It’s kind of like the people who pat themselves on the back “I don’t drive a car, aren’t I a great conservationist!?” yet have friends who take them everywhere in THEIR cars. But I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to present “peace” in a world that demands war.

          • But isn’t his complexity something to think about? Seems like a good example of the “we are not simple” idea both as himself and how he sees other beings–we all have to live our story. That’s how I see his character–helping people live their story, good and bad.

            I only got about 4 episodes into The Prisoner before I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again.

      • Caprica was pretty insightful.

      • “I will not be subject to criminal abuse.”

      • ->Whatever happened to prophetic sci-fi, especially on television? When was the last great “whoa” moment in scifi for making people think? The Matrix?

        Hmmm…for me, there was a moment on “Sharkzilla” on the SyFy channel, when Debbie Gibson…or maybe it was Tiffany, that 1980s one-hit wonder singer…anyway, there was a moment when grade Z actress said, “blah blah blah,” and the shark ate her…that was a pretty “whoa” moment for me.


        But seriously, you’re probably right. The movie “Prometheus” SHOULD HAVE HAD a moment like that, but in my opinion the screenplay totally blew its opportunities for profound insight by crippling the movie with stupid clichéd characters and moments, especially the ending!

      • “Prophetic Sci-Fi”? Won’t see it on the telly. Read more Frank Herbert.

  4. My credit card is in hand waiting to buy a book of all of Michael’s essays. Please.

  5. I just started Henri Nouwen’s book Spiritual Formation, and it address this idea of our complexity. Part of becoming spiritually formed is articulating our many layers, but the good and the bad.

  6. “There are reasons I perceive some truth and can’t see other truth.”

    Best line of the essay.

    • Christiane says

      “There are reasons I perceive some truth and can’t see other truth.”

      that line reminds me of Emerson’s insight,
      ““. . . There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without pre éstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. . . ”
      ( from the essay ‘Self-Reliance’, Ralph W. Emerson)