Both/and discipleship: Why Christians need to embrace complexity

'Why do you have to make everything so complicated?'

Avril Lavigne's teen-angst accusation articulates pretty well one of our great (post)modern heart-cries. Our culture has a decidedly fraught relationship with complexity. On the one hand, as Oliver James notes so incisively, the bewildering variety of options available to us at every turn makes life extremely stressful – he calls it 'The Tyranny of Choice'. On the other hand, the solution is 'simples': whether it's adverts with meerkats or soap for sensitive skin, simplicity is everything. One-click for this, just-pop-it-in-the-microwave for that.

We're used to instant information.Pixabay

Our soundbite culture

The problem is that this is all very well for throwaway purchases, but not so good when addressing the deeper questions of life. We often try the same approach for politics, religion, relationships – and end up with soundbites, reducing truth to digestible one-liners.

The proliferation of technology plays its part. The amount of data on the internet apparently doubles every two years. Some of it is marvellous. Whether we want to compare recipes for macaroni cheese, list every goalscorer in every cup final or establish the veracity of any urban myth, you can usually get it on the internet.

On the other hand, much of what we find online is – let's be honest – facile, irrelevant or just plain wrong. As a Guardian blogger put it memorably in 2012: 'The worst thing about the internet is that we have the wealth of human knowledge at our fingertips, but all we want to do is watch cat videos.'

We are lost in data. 'Too much information' we cry, or as TS Eliot puts it more eloquently:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

This takes us to the heart of the problem. Our culture is obsessed with information. It has to be. There's so much of it, it's practically a full-time job just processing all the information we think we need to know, let alone work out which is really insightful and which redundant. This instant availability of information has, ironically, decreased rather than increased true knowledge – just as TS Eliot observed prophetically almost a century ago. And wisdom – the stuff which really enables us to live well – is rarer still. We're too busy sifting through, well, stuff.

Little wonder then that we like our spiritual input in bite-sized chunks. Both/and thinking makes the uneasy demand that such an approach is inadequate to truly life-transforming, deep discipleship. No more soundbites! Or at least, to adapt Newton's first law, every soundbite should have an equal and opposite roundbite – that is, a complementary soundbite which rounds out the inevitable over-simplification of the original phrase.

You might call it the kick alongside the kiss. I was taught that every preacher should write KISS across the top of every page: Keep It Simple, Stupid... the preacher, not the congregation, though the way some preachers address their flock you'd be hard pushed to tell. Quite right too – at least for sermons. But perhaps we should be aiming not just to KISS our congregations but to KICK them as well: Keep it Complex, Kingdom-seeker. And you can call that a roundbite.

Naturally, we all prefer to be kissed. But isn't it about time we got a good kick as well?

A fragmented church

Both/and thinking would be challenging enough if we just had our culture to grapple with. But the church doesn't escape either: we might claim that we believe in 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church', as the Nicene Creed puts it, and most of us probably believe that this is at least an eternal reality, if not a present one. But we live in our tribes, almost as bewilderingly complex as the brands of shampoo on the supermarket shelves. Even many mature Christians scratch their heads trying to get their heads round the spiritual equivalent of pro-vitamin B being offered by different churches.

And that's just the cosmetic stuff. What about the deeper doctrinal differences, some of which cause the cosmetic differences, some of which are altogether more obscure?

This is more than just the natural diversity of unique human beings. It reflects the tendency to 'either/or' faith we prefer to offer people. Complexity sucks – let's boil it down. Are you Word or Spirit focused? Activist or contemplative? Traditional or progressive? What's your USP?

And so we lob our doctrinal grenades over the trench. But wouldn't life look so much richer if, like the British and Germans on Christmas Day 1914, we got out of our respective trenches and appreciated the view – and the community – in No Man's Land? What if the truth were so much richer and more profound, so much more inclusive? You can see where I'm heading with this: not either/or, but both/and.

Of course, although the church was mandated by Jesus to go into the world, the problem throughout the church's history is that the trend tends rather to be in reverse. Thus the church simply reflects the fragmentation of our (post)modern culture: in fact, where tribalism is concerned, not just our culture, any culture. Division is not a religious thing, it's a human thing. Look at the animosity of rival football fans, many of whom can live in the same street and work in the same building, and then fill their Saturday afternoons shouting venomous taunts at each other, for no other reason than that their team wears red and not blue. Or neighbouring villages which haven't fraternised with each other for decades because of a feud which no one alive even remembers.

Football fans are deadly rivals: here Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus shoots during a match against Manchester United at Old Trafford.Reuters

It's particularly difficult to remain united with those we are close to. Differences seem just that bit more important. And it's not that the variety of churches is wholly a bad thing. Given our basic flaws as human beings, it is probably just as well that there is a church to suit every taste.

Nevertheless, we cannot avoid the implication of Jesus' words that, 'By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another' (John 13:35). For any human community to love each other for an extended period of time is such an extraordinary feat that it cannot help but shout to the world of the reality of which we speak. Only God could do that! Yet it is hard to manifest such love in any meaningful sense if we are hidden away from each other in our separate tribes.

Both/and discipleship is, therefore, not just about personal faith journeys, but the formation of mature communities. Embracing complexity in our thinking might also help to generate more consistency in our loving. As we hold on to competing values in ourselves, so we are able to accept them in others.

Our modern obsessions

A common critique of today's church is its obsession with technique and novelty. Neither likes both/and thinking. Both rest heavily on the old Enlightenment myth that we are constantly improving and perfecting ourselves. Complex truth, which might have two competing ideas which are both true, is just the childish thought pattern of a primitive culture. Isn't it? Surely our ever-perfecting human selves will eventually find the one universal and totally resolvable truth for every situation?

Ironically, here's where the current cultural shift towards postmodernity is actually rather helpful. We like ambiguity a lot more than we used to. The more science discovers about the world, the more we find irreconcilable 'truths' there too. We're back to particles and waves again, aren't we? Maybe the truth really is as complex as ancient religions originally insisted it was. Either way, new is not necessarily better. We don't need 'new' truth nearly as much as we need a better grasp of old truth, or perhaps a better mindset with which to approach it.

Thankfully, the ancient paths seem to be making something of a resurgence. Whether it's labyrinths in cathedrals or new monastic models of community living, we are slowly discovering that our modernist arrogance towards older cultures was often misplaced. Alongside these ancient spiritual pathways, maybe we need to re-discover the (equally) ancient biblical idea that God is bigger than our capacity to comprehend him, and therefore his truth might well involve us living with competing values. It's a thought, isn't it?

The instant me generation

The final challenge both/and thinking needs to fight and conquer today is what we often refer to as 'hurry sickness'. Yes, you might be thinking, we want deep truth over simplistic soundbites, we want deep church over spiritual pro-vitamin B, we want ancient profundity over shallow novelty... But does it always have to take so long?

God's perspective is different. His texts took about 1,500 years to send first time around. His Outlook Calendar is measured 1,000 years at a time. His Live Messenger started connecting the church at Pentecost, and managed quite happily without the alternative for 2,000 years.

In short, God rarely hurries. If you've skim-read this article to save two minutes, maybe it's time for some in-tension-al therapy? Kick it and see.

Rev Matt Trendall is Rector of Walton Churches Partnership, Milton Keynes.