In Praise of Complexity
Does complexity pose a difficulty for evangelism? And do the many paradoxical situations in our world make our task of outreach more daunting?
I don’t think so. But it’s not quite so simple.
Do some of our unsaved friends reject the gospel because they think it’s too simple? I do think that’s an issue we need to consider carefully. I have met some outsiders (that’s the term Paul uses in Colossians 4 to refer to non-Christians) who think Christians are simpletons, who just don’t (and can’t!) think deeply enough about the realities of life. To be sure, some of their stereotypes fit into the category of insults that Jesus warned us about in his beatitudes. People will most certainly “falsely say all kinds of evil against [us] on account of” Jesus and we shouldn’t be surprised. (see Matthew 5: 11).
But some of the accusation has a basis since some Christians think “Jesus is the answer” will suffice for all questions. Ultimately, Jesus certainly is “the answer” but we would be wise to allow our expressions of this truth to be as full and rich as the ways God has revealed truth in his word and his world.
In fact, the complexities of our world can actually aid us in evangelism. Complex issues require complex understanding and the gospel can actually make sense of things that other worldviews cannot. That’s the argument of David Skeel’s recent book True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World.
Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has provided us with a good tool to engage in pre-evangelistic conversations with thoughtful inquirers. And, thankfully, his book is short. Even for some intellectuals, large books get rejected because the “pile on the nightstand” is already overwhelming. True Paradox is short enough to get read and written well enough to earn respect.
Even if you never buy, read, or give away the book, you might want to know the categories of complexity that Skeel says point to the Creator. “Ideas and idea making” suggest an intelligent God who gave us minds that reflect his. “Beauty and the arts” give us glimpses into the true nature of the universe. “Suffering and sensation” bother us far more than they should if we’re only the products of random processes of an impersonal force. “The justice paradox” (the fact that we long for something that is violated so often in our messed up world) calls for insights beyond mere societal pragmatism. And “Life and Afterlife” can’t find sufficient explanations in atheism, deism, pantheism, and other non-Christian worldviews.
Skeel models well for us the art of putting skeptics on the defensive but does so in gentle ways. I think we need to hone this approach in our ever-polarizing world today. Rather than accepting a defensive stance in apologetics, we need to ask our naturalist or agnostic friends to defend their explanations of why life is so complex.
I’m reminded of Ross Douthat’s insight that Christianity has, at its core, “a commitment to mystery and paradox” and that works in our favor when introducing our friends to a framework for living in our paradox-laden world. Douthat wrote in Bad Religion, “Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.” He illustrates his point with such paradoxes of Jesus being both divine and human, God being one as well as three, and the world as corrupted by sin and yet somehow having “the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew” (page 10).
We can be embarrassed by complexity or fall in love with it. We can apologize for our shallow answers or we can change them. We can hear people’s accusations as obstacles to evangelism or as opportunities. Best of all, we can find common ground with outsiders at the many places where life’s complex, paradoxical, and multifaceted aspects point to the God who made them and gave us minds to explore them.