October 20, 2020

Sunday with Michael Spencer: Complex Me

Chapel in Tuscany (2019)

Sunday with Michael Spencer
Complex Me (from “Icebergs, Onions and Why You’re Not As Simple As You Think” – 2008)

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.

Comments

  1. IMonks are like ogres – ogres have layers, IMonks have layers!

  2. Michael Z says

    I’m convinced that our ability to know God and our ability to know ourselves go hand-in-hand. Because God is truth, as we draw close to God we are forced to face the truth about ourselves – and, conversely, if there are truths about ourselves or feelings buried within us that we’re hiding from, we will reflexively shy away from God’s presence because being close to God destroys the defenses we’ve built up.

    • You have expressed so beautifully something I have experienced and believe also to be true. Thank you.

  3. 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. ….. 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.

    Simple statements of the Bible? Everything Michael has said about himself in the above lines, applies equally to the Bible. After all, it was written by human beings as layered, complex, mysterious, opaque to themselves, full of thousands of experiences all co-existing at the same time, full of presuppositions and passively accepted versions of the truth, only partially aware of their own complexity. And I don’t see any evidence that in the Bible God miraculously cut through all that to express anything in a simpler way, or to make it simpler or easier for its equally complex and layered and mysterious and unknown to themselves readers understand it either.

    • flatrocker says

      ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

      Pretty simple statement.

      Your point is well taken with the comprehensive whole being overwhelming. Can we be ever drawn back to the uncomplicated focus of the above statement once we’ve been exposed to the complexity of the rest of it?

      I was hungry…
      I was thirsty…
      I was a stranger…
      I was naked…
      I was sick…
      I was a prisoner…

      Sounds kinda simple.

      • Except in the passage Jesus seems to be saying that our spiritual state, and consequently our ultimate fate, depends not on doctrine but how we treat each other. Preach that sermon in most pulpits in the land and see how complicated it becomes!

        • –> “…our ultimate fate, depends not on doctrine but how we treat each other.”

          Yes. See my comment about obedience and the Good Samaritan. The one who helped the one in need wins out over the one who kept the Law. Btw… I often fail miserably at this, just so I don’t give the false impression of getting it right. I might be at 10%. Might.

      • Yes to flatrocker and Yes to Robert. I see it both ways, as simple and complex. That’s probable because the commands are simple, but the obedience isn’t. Maybe that’s what separates the Good Samaritan from the Pharisee. To the Samaritan, love was simple: Help the stranger in need; to the Pharisee, it was difficult: Helping the stranger would impact himself.

        That’s kind of how I read Michael’s statement, then — that as complex as he saw himself, that was no excuse to see a simple Biblical statement and not act on it (as a religious fundamentalist rooted in the Law might not).

        Flipping it a bit, it’s also easy to turn simple Biblibal statements into pithy cliched tripe. Take “God is in control,” for example (something I hear ad nauseum right now). Sure, God is in control, but how exactly does that help the world right now and how does that help the five-year old in India who has six siblings and whose mom has just contracted COVID-19?

        Simple and complex, yes. A mystery, I tell ya!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          ake “God is in control,” for example (something I hear ad nauseum right now).

          Spoken by those who are personally Comfortable during the situation.
          (i.e. “Doesn’t affect Me!”)

          Sure, God is in control, but how exactly does that help the world right now and how does that help the five-year old in India who has six siblings and whose mom has just contracted COVID-19?

          Doublepluswarmfeelies and doublepluspiousfeelies for the speaker who ISN’T affected like the five-year-old in India.

      • @flatrocker — Oh, the words sound simple enough, but their application in the world is tremendously complex — two thousand years of Church history, in which the meaning of those words and the interpretation of how they should be applied – particularly to whom they should be applied — have been hotly, and sometimes violently, disputed gives plenty of witness to that. Not only that, but the the words themselves have an immense and complex background of cultural, linguistic, and religious history and context that legitimately lead to questions about what exactly Jesus meant when saying these things. There are issues in our own contemporary situation in which Christians have contentious and divisive disagreement about how these words should be applied — not a few of them are political, but I won’t go into details; if we can’t think of them on our own, then we have a paucity of imagination. You can also be sure that there were parallels in the ancient world leading up to and including the time of Christ that involved disagreements, just as or more divisive and contentious, about interpretation of words like these — and many of those were political too.

        • flatrocker says

          Agreed.
          But back to your original point – Simple statements in the Bible?

          Simple enough until we make them not so.
          (it’s seems to be our special talent)

          • One cannot read a “simple statement” without complicating it by interpreting it; even the simplest statement does not interpret itself. “Simple statements” of the kind that Jesus made were actually packed with meaning, some of it nuanced and not easily interpreted once you start applying it to actual behavior. They actually only appear and sound simple. When Jesus said these things, they may have sounded just as simple then as now, but they were not in fact simple. And I can guarantee that those who actually tried to implement them fell to arguing almost immediately about how they should be interpreted, who they should and shouldn’t apply to, and etc. As an example: “Give to all those who ask of you.” Simple sounding, but just start applying it. The Roman Catholic Church dealt with it by interpreting it as a “Counsel to Perfection,” applicable to those with a special vocation and in special orders, not to everyone in all circumstances. But to get there it had to interpret that simple-sounding saying in a complicated way as a special counsel to poverty, not for everyone and not so simple-sounding anymore.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              My experience in-country made me very suspicious and skeptical about “simple statements” and “Plain Readings of SCRIPTURE”. All too often these “simple statements” had been weaponized.

      • When I was in college and Grad school, dealing with the complexities of academic achievement, I remember distinctly wishing that I could make things simpler. I wished to dumb it down. I thought at the time that the prospect of doing that was simply impossible. Once a head is jam packed with knowledge, well… The thing I didn’t know then was that if given sufficient time and a dearth of reading one can forget a lot of things. Things really can and do become simpler with sufficient non-effort. Sweet relief!!! Now I remember just enough to make me sound stupid.

      • anonymous says

        in this world, kindness is seen as weakness instead of strength, when it’s the opposite

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    The simplest words are the hardest to parse. The simplest actions are the hardest to perform.

    The moral calculus of the Battle Monkey is easy enough to understand; my tribe and I against all those other malparidos, my clan and I against all the other clans in my tribe, my grandfather’s house against the rest of the clan, my brothers and I against our cousins. All good families do operate as close to the ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his necessity’ as they can. That’s what defines family. The problem is that rascal Jesus keeps trying to stretch the boundaries of the mishpocha and its claims not only past where we instinctively place them, but out where they stop making any sense at all, out to where no one is family because every one of the sorry bastids are family.

    Some days I think Ivan Karamazov was right. Getting someone else to handle the psychological weight of all this and tell you what to do was inevitable.