Simplicity on the Far Side of Complexity

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes


Jodi CraiglowWhat does Athens have to do with San Francisco?¹
Talking past each other about the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage

by Jodi Craiglow

So, if you’ve been anywhere near . . . the United States . . . this month, you’ll have heard about the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling. And if you’ve been anywhere near social media since then, you’ve probably seen more than your fair share of polarized posts about the issue. As I’ve scrolled through my schizophrenic news feed, though, I’ve noticed that more often than not folks are talking across each other—nobody’s really making headway. Then, as I’ve continued to scroll, I’ve started to realize that it might just be because people are speaking two different philosophical languages.

In order to understand these “mother tongues,” we’re going to have to go back. Way back. All the way back to ancient Greece. (Trust me on this one—it’ll make sense soon.) Round about 2,500 years ago, two philosophers were wildly instrumental in structuring how we as Westerners think about the nature of reality. The first was Socrates (or at least Plato’s version of Socrates), who argued that ultimate reality was grounded in the ethereal (you might even say spiritual) realm of ideas; the stuff we experience in our daily lives are merely manifestations of those timeless, universal ideals. The second was Aristotle (incidentally, the prize pupil of Plato, Socrates’s own prized pupil), who reversed that philosophy almost completely. Instead of situating reality in the “ideal” realm of universal principles, Aristotle argued that it was to be found in the material substances we experience and interact with every day.

Now I admit that I’m painting with extremely broad strokes here. This dichotomy, like most dualities, is actually a lot more complicated and nuanced. We generally don’t fit into neat categories; our thinking invariably (and often unconsciously) slips across the boundaries we have drawn. The same is true for the dichotomy I’m about to describe.  

In many ways, evangelicals (especially the more conservatively-oriented ones) are the philosophical heirs of Socrates. They tend to ground reality in the abstract realm of universal principles—big ideas like redemption, holiness, and sanctification. They’re big fans of doctrine, because it provides them with a timeless set of ideals from which they can derive our time- and context-specific particulars. They tend to be drawn to the more propositional sections of Scripture (they love them some apostle Paul), and they put a high value on orthodoxy—right belief. They sometimes shy away from social justice issues, unless they can see a clear connection to biblical principles.

‘I’ve started to realize that it might just be because people are speaking two different philosophical languages.’

If conservative evangelicals sit in the seat of Socrates, I’d be willing to argue that progressively-oriented Christians tend to follow in the footsteps of Aristotle. Bristling at the notion of a grand, transcendent, one-size-fits-all view of reality, they instead lean into the idea that reality is what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Words like reconciliation, community, and compassion resonate with them. They’re often drawn to the narrative portions of scripture (bring on the parables!), and they prize orthopraxy—right actions. Social justice is of crucial importance, because it puts feet on what the Bible teaches.

That’s all well and good, you may be saying, but what in the world does that have to do with same-sex marriage?

Progressive Christians, viewing the issue through their Aristotelian glasses, tend to see same-sex marriage advocacy as a matter of boots-on-the-ground, meeting-people-where-they-are pastoral ministry. Conservative Christians, looking through their Socratic lenses, see faithfulness to the doctrine of traditional marriage as their prophetic duty. And, what’s more, conservatives are trying to persuade progressives with principle, while progressives are trying to persuade conservatives with personal narrative—but all each camp usually succeeds in doing is further convincing itself that the other side “just doesn’t get it.”

So, which side is right?

Both. And neither.

In our current era of polarized, “A–or–B” thinking, let me offer for your consideration secret option C. It finds its roots neither in Socrates nor in Aristotle, but instead in . . . well, Jesus. It’s the seemingly impossible combination of principle and practice, of universal and particular. Theologians would call it the irrevocable joining of transcendent and immanent. (Do you see where I’m going with this?) Yes, it’s the incarnation. By becoming human, God (who is by very nature universal, transcendent, and beyond our comprehension) proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that matter matters. Throughout his life, Christ demonstrated over and over that principle and practice can—and, indeed, must—work together. (If you have any doubts, just look at Matthew 22:35–40.) Where we run into problems is when we try to prioritize one to the exclusion of the other.

What might this mean, then, for the way we interact with each other over issues like the SCOTUS marriage ruling? I’d encourage us to try communicating in the way we’re not accustomed to—kind of like writing a letter with our non-dominant hand. If you’re more naturally drawn to doctrine, try looking through the lens of practice. If you’re into concrete expressions of faith, see what a stroll through the land of principles might teach you. The great part is, both are completely legitimate expressions—in fact, God actually calls us to be philosophically bilingual.

Do I see this bringing a quick and tidy end to the debate? Not even I’m that naïve. But I’m willing to wager that what it will do is make those debates more productive—and it will draw us closer both to the God we’re all trying to honor and the brothers and sisters we’re trying to convince understand.

Jodi Craiglow is an adjunct professor and PhD student at Trinity International University, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, Illinois, and a curriculum developer for the Synod of Mid America’s Theocademy. In what spare time she has, she loves to sing and travel (together, if the opportunity affords).

1. A play off Tertullian’s famous quip, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”