There is a tendency in our modern world to make things as simple as possible. We hide the complexities behind a keyboard (I don’t know how my computer works – or not very well) or we treat things that seem complex as unnecessary obfuscations. This same drive to simplify was very much alive in the 16th century as Christianity underwent reform in many places of the world.
Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer, railed against the complexity of the service books required for a Roman Catholic Mass and managed to bring everything down to one small book. Every service required by a cleric could be found in the one Prayer Book, which also contained the book of Psalms.
Cranmer’s work was often outdone in other places – some eventually discarding the use of any book but the Bible. Following Martin Luther’s lead, the Scriptures themselves were limited to 66 books (discarding those Old Testament books which did not have a Hebrew original – the so-called “Apocrypha”).
This, of course, is not all of the story of the Reform. At the same time that services were being simplified, there were massive productions of new commentaries and works of theology. Thus there was both a simplification and a new layer of complexity.
As centuries have gone on, the drive to simplify has not disappeared. Frontier preaching in America had little place for complexity and the proclamation of the gospel became quite straight-forward indeed. A common tool in use throughout various religious movements in post-Guttenburg Europe, was the religious tract. Produced by the thousands and millions, these small summaries of the faith or of a point of doctrine were spread throughout homes and the streets and occasionally played important religious roles in religious movements (I’m not sure how much they do today).
How simple should Christianity be? Should it be reduceable to four spiritual laws or summarized in a paragraph or two? Is John 3:16 the perfect summary of the perfect faith? If you were shipwrecked on an island and could only have one chapter of Scripture, what would you keep?
I would like to suggest several principles that might be of help in thinking about such things.
1. Christianity is not an idea.
2. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth.
3. Reality cannot be simplified.
On the first point – Christianity is not an idea. I could say that it is also not a philosophy. It is a faith about how things (all things) are and Who God is, and what God has to do with us (or us with Him). It is thus a full account of reality, even though much of that account may remain unspoken. Christianity is either everything or it is nothing.
This leads easily to my second point. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth – that is, it is not a subset or comparment of something else. Since it is the fullness of reality in its truth – there is not a larger fullness (other than God) in which it may be contained.
My third point – reality cannot be simplied – may sound obvious – but we frequently live in simplified, digitzed, simulacra of the world itself. Given the choice between life on earth as we know it, and life in a holo-deck as pictured in the Star Trek movies and series – many people would gladly choose the holo-deck, some already opting for its current low-tech version in various games and such.
The invitation to another human being to embrace Christ as Lord, God and Savior is thus an invitation not to a religious hobby, but to the truth of the world as it is and as it shall be. Christ reveals reality in its fullness. Thus Christianity can never properly be a diminishing of human life.
It is interesting to me, having spent the last 10 years of my life (and a little more) as an Orthodox Christian missionary in the American South (or one small corner of it) to note how much I have learned in those 10 years – far more than I knew when I started. For one, I am not in a hurry. An invitation to reality (which is the essence of Catechesis) is rarely something you can do in a single moment (with apologies to the good thief who was far more worthy than I to be saved). Catechesis is the invitation “to put your hand to the plow and not turn back.” It is an invitation to a fullness that cannot be contained and yet is placed in our mouths at communion. It is a fullness that has birthed cultures and sustained hermits. It is the fullness that brought the whole of the universe into existence and towards which the entire universe is being gathered.
Shame on us for ever having diminished the faith – for reducing it to something less than all that is (and more). Shame on those who would remove whole elements of reality (the saints, the angels, etc.) for a simplified world. Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works! There is no word to hymn Thy wonders!