Religion is monstrously complicated. There are so many of them, and even when you open the guts of one of them, you find further diversity. Different denominations, different theological camps, all boasting arguments in their favour. The atheist world isn’t all monotone and simple either. Atheists radically disagree about what atheism entails. Some think that as God goes out the window, meaning and morality leave with him. Others think we ought to barely notice that we’re a deity down.
Despite the bewildering options, most of us manage to take up some position or other on religion. Maybe we opt for Evangelical Christianity, or Sufi Islam, or Humanist Atheism, or our own preferred spiritual blend. And hey, we may have thought hard about where to pitch our tent. But most of us recognise that there are a lot of stones we left unturned. Did we look at all the options? Did we look at all the arguments? Certainly not. We’re not even aware of all the issues at any one time. And even if we were, sifting through all of them would be above our pay-grade.
So most of us are in the position where we have some convictions. We have plumped for some beliefs and not others. But when we pause and look over our shoulders, a jungle of complexity comes into view. And it threatens to engulf us. It threatens to make a mockery of our commitments, chosen as they were with most of the jungle left unexplored. How can we really be sure that some hidden beast – some argument out there – won’t show our life path to be wayward?
There are two approaches to this existential threat we should avoid. Both fail by offering an illusory sense of control. In my experience, most of us are tempted toward one or the other.
The Paralysis Approach
People who slip into this approach are acutely aware of the complexity out there. They are very sensitive to it. They feel the force of the threat. And the way they stay in control is to minimise their vulnerability to it. If they don’t heavily invest their life in a particular path, then (so they reason) they can’t be disappointed or caught out if something comes up to problematize that path.
I’m not necessarily talking about the full-blown agnostic. This could be the Christian who believes and tries to live to please God, but struggles to really go all out. Whenever Christian convictions call for something to be put at stake, there is a struggle to let go. Maybe the Christian suspects that God is asking her to get heavily involved in ministry to the homeless. She knows she wouldn’t do it if it weren’t for her belief in God. So now it hits her: what if God doesn’t exist after all? The prospect of costly time investment summons doubts. “I haven’t read enough on the problem of evil. If I could just get that sorted in my head, I’d feel certain enough to do the homeless thing.” Feeling anxious and uncertain, she finds a way to avoid the homeless ministry. And of course, even if she did get a better grip on the problem of evil, it wouldn’t stop there. There would always be some other problem, lurking in the complexity jungle that she’d need to tackle before she’d feel ready to commit.
The illusion here is that she has a choice about whether to make a risky commitment. But she doesn’t. Her inaction is itself an action. When she avoids signing up to the homeless ministry, her action isn’t neutral as to whether God has asked her to do it. She acts exactly as if God hadn’t asked her to do it. By copping out, she acts exactly as she would act in a world in which God had made no such request. By refraining from acting as if God has communicated, she thinks she has positioned herself in some safe place immune from any risky investments. But she has invested herself in the implicit belief that God hasn’t communicated. This belief is equally vulnerable to the complexity jungle. Maybe God does exist and has communicated!
If we are tempted by the paralysis approach, we need to accept that we are always making vulnerable commitments. There is no safe space we can hide in. But we can learn to better tolerate that vulnerability. To fear it less and so feel the anxiety of uncertainty less forcefully. That way, we can whole-heartedly give ourselves over to our convictions. We never pretend the complexity isn’t there. But knowing that there is no other human option but to live a life riskily ventured on fallible convictions, we refuse to let complexity bully us. We refuse to be cowed into fear. We own up to the need to take action in a world we can never fully comprehend.
The Head-in-Sand Approach
People who slip into this approach are acutely aware of the need to take action in the world. They value full-blooded conviction. They are on a mission. They aren’t paralysed by complexity. No, their problem is that they try and ignore it. Their response to the threat is to avoid it, to push it aside. That’s how they try and stay in control. They fear that if they let complexity into their life, their bearings will be destroyed. They won’t know where they are heading any more. They won’t know who the good guys are, the bad guys are, and how to win.
Again, this could be anyone but consider a Christian portrait. The Christian tempted by this approach tends to be uncharitable towards differing camps. Atheist views won’t be given their due. May even be made out to be obviously false. “Of course the problem of evil doesn’t threaten belief. We have the answer to this problem right in Genesis 3, don’t we?” Even other Christian views that fall outside the accepted boundaries might be viewed with hostility. But it’s not all necessarily hostile, it might just be, well, simple. “I don’t get involved in these debates. It’s enough to follow Jesus, right?” Oh, he holds a whole host of theological assumptions, he’s just not aware that they are assumptions. He doesn’t know that half the things he believes could even be in dispute by fellow Christians. He’s never got engaged enough in the issues to find out. He just wants to press on, living life according to his tidy picture of it.
The illusion here is that he has a choice about which world he lives and acts in. But he doesn’t. He is stuck in the real world. He may have a lot of passion, and may do a lot of gutsy things for his convictions. But the world he is trying to make a difference in is partly a fantasy world. All the grey and rough edges of the real world have been smoothed out to be more manageable. But of course, the complexity and its threats don’t go away if we ignore it. Indeed by ignoring reality, we increase our chances of making life commitments on bad grounds. Downplaying evidence that is potentially contrary to your beliefs is not a good recipe for holding true beliefs. If you want to navigate a bold life on a sea-worthy conviction, it helps to have a conviction that has confronted reality and passed!
If we are tempted by the head-in-sand approach, we need to accept that we are always vulnerable in a world larger than our comprehension. There is no neater, tidier little world we can retreat to. But we can learn to better tolerate our vulnerability to the real world. To fear it less and so feel the anxiety of uncertainty less forcefully. That way, we can whole-heartedly live with eyes open to the world and its complexity. We never allow the complexity to sap us into paralysis. But knowing that there is no other human option but to live a life riskily ventured in complexity, we refuse to be coaxed by cosy illusions. We refuse to be cowed into fear. We own up to the need to take action in a world we can’t bend to our wills.
The Virtuous Approach
From the mistakes of the two bad approaches, we can piece together some picture of how we should cope with complexity. We ought to retain the recognition of complexity from the paralysis approach. And we ought to retain the commitment to action from the head-in-the-sand approach. We should bravely face up to complexity – look it squarely in the eye – yet venture our lives in the midst of it. This takes some courage. It is hard to put your life at stake in a conviction that may indeed be false. But as neither complexity nor the need to act will disappear, it’s the best we can do. None of us do it perfectly. We are all tempted toward the 2 bad approaches. But the third, virtuous approach is the balanced ideal to aim at. Best as I can tell.