December 3, 2020

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

“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.

Think 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. You said it, I. Monk!

    I believe it is precisely because of our complexity that God has simplified all of this for us.

  2. It strikes me that one of the benefits of confessions of faith – despite the danger of their becoming grids through which we force biblical texts – is that at least they put our presuppositions “on the table”, as it were, in full view and capable of examination and critique.

    As you point out in your post, those who say “I just read the Bible” are no less influenced by their presuppositions than those who hold to a confession of faith – it’s just that they are frequently unaware of those presuppositions, or even that there is such a thing as “presuppositions” that they might have, and hence interpret every questioning of those presuppositions as an “attack” on the “plain meaning of Scripture”.

  3. Actually, humans are remarkably predictable in their motivations. Its just our inability to be honest with ourselves that complicates things. We aren’t complex – we just have one big, deep-rooted problem with which we will struggle our entire lives

  4. Amen! What you just said has been one of the truest things I’ve learned. I am an onion, and the work of the Spirit is to peel away the layers of my soul. This also reminds me of Calvin’s double knowledge–knowledge of God and the self. The two are intertwined, and we can never truly know one without the other. Greater knowledge of myself has always led me to deeper knowledge and experience of God. As I’ve become open to the fact that I do have an unconscious world, there has been much more honesty in my spiritual life.

  5. I continue to appreciate your writings, Michael, and this post was no exception. Most of the written word on the internet depresses me. The persistently generous spirit on your blog is an unfortunately rare gem.

    You may well have already read it, but George Marsden’s _Fundamentalism and American Culture_ has some really interesting insights into the historical roots of the strand of thinking that leads to claims like, “My theology is simply what I read in my Bible.” He traces this particularly American form of Christian thought back to Scottish Common Sense philosophy. I’d do it an injustice if I tried to summarize it; you (or your readers) might check it out if you’re interested: it’s a slim book and well, well worth a look.

    I don’t know how to embed links in this kind of thing (because of the aforementioned depressiveness I rarely comment on blogs!) so I put the Amazon link for Marsden’s book as my website.

  6. You have revealed what I see to be a major problem with much of what passes for Christianity today. Yes, it is extremely simple on one hand, but in that simplicity complexity resides, as it does in each of us. Yet we continue to see and hear advice such as just pray the so-called “sinner’s prayer,” and you’re on your way to heaven as if that’s all there is to it. Following Jesus has become a journey/pilgrimage/path for me, too. Along the way, people such as Bob that you mention, and others that I could mention, and Henry Walters who affected both us, do help us see ourselves, others, the world, the Bible, and Jesus better. As Paul said, “For nw we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

  7. Beautifully written and (as always) thoughtfully expressed.

    You have drawn a fascinating contrast between “reading the Bible,” assuming we’re “all that,” and letting the Bible (and the Spirit) read you. One is a spiritual wallflower. The other is wonderfully alive as it is informed by scripture, the Holy Spirit, thoughtful interaction with others, and honest reflection.

    Peel that onion!

  8. Michael:

    Great post; profoundly true. I wonder if this would help garner some insight on the mystery of who we are, what we do, and why we do it:

    Something to think about.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  9. IMonk,
    Thanks for the transparency and personal observation/insight! I must confess that I have to spend more time than I would like to admit on forgiveness/critical spirit issues toward people who bring their onion/iceberg to the Bible and demand that it be normative for the rest of us. I’m so glad God did not deny the “onion factor” in the gospel writers, but drew upon their unique perspective, personalities and insight for His glory. I think God likes onions and while being peeled involves some painful work at times, it’s really cool to see what He is shaping on this incredible journey.

    A Fellow Onion

  10. Michael,

    Thanks for always being vulnerable. I agree wholeheartedly with you. Growing up it was always “The Bible says it, and that finishes it”. This also seems to be part of the argument against education in some fundamentalist churches.

    More and more I look at what really has an effect on the church’s theology and I really think that the best place for us to see our theology in action is by the songs we sing together. These devotional practices are what formed the church that wrote the canon. It is possible for us to be passionate about the word of God, and not buy into some of the more close-minded thought that has surrounded evangelical faith in the last 50 years.

  11. Icebergs and Onions?

    Anything like “Bullfrogs and Butterflies”? (hee hee hee)

  12. Once you start peeling that “onion” of your life the tears start to flow; tears of despair, tears of joy, and tears of hope.

  13. Amen. The only “being” I am capable of “being” is a human being.
    Once I accepted this I stopped being a “humaphobe”