Simply Complex

I stumbled on a discussion of religion in a major secular magazine the other day in which Catholicism came up. One of the participants in the conversation scoffed at the Church for thinking that you can answer the huge questions of human existence in one or two brief sentences. Presumably, he had a brush with the Baltimore Catechism as a child and wasn’t moved to look further. Few do. But the very fact that he remembered the existence of those brief catechism formulas, probably after years of never thinking about them, shows just how effective they are at a certain age. Using them is just one of the many ways in which the Church has been wise, while the wise are sometimes foolish. It takes a certain spiritual tact to know when to be simple and when complex, and how to hold both forms of truth together.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Church teaching than basic catechetics, and anyone (including the scoffer mentioned above) who reflects for a second knows it. In fact, you wouldn’t have to try very hard to find someone else objecting that Church teaching must clearly be wrong because it has built up a complex theology out of the “simple” message of Jesus. It’s an old story: any stick will do to beat up the Church. But if you look at the reason why many prominent coverts came into the Church prior to Vatican II – one of the great periods of conversion – it’s because she provided answers, simpler ones for the young and straightforward, complex ones for the complex. But in any event, answers that matter because they fit each case. As the novelist Muriel Spark said, “The reason I became a Roman Catholic was because it explained me.” How could you have a universal Church without truths that speak to every kind of person?

It’s a curious thing that our culture has changed so deeply that claiming to have answers looks suspect to lots of people – sadly, some who regard themselves as Catholic. We have taken one half of the pursuit of truth – the necessary first phase, in which we raise questions about what is really the case – as if it’s the whole story. Truth itself, though, is the point of the exercise, otherwise why bother if all we can achieve is more informed or sophisticated doubt? Since man cannot live by doubt alone, usually those who recommend doubt mean doubt about your beliefs. They’re quite comfortable with their own.

All truths are ultimately complex for human minds because all truths participate in the mysteries of God, which are not open to us. But that does not mean that short, simple answers are always inadequate. The judgment that they are is not so much wrong as unwise. We don’t use a Q & A catechism when we want to reflect deeply on the nature of things. That’s not its purpose. We do use it when we want to teach our kids and remind ourselves not simply of basic truths, but of essentials of everyday life. The simple questions and answers are like the times table. You will use the times tables and much more complex math if your job is to design a bridge or put a man on the moon. But the higher math is, in a way, a narrow specialty. It’s the simple math that has a stronger grip on human life because we use it every day – to figure out how to make up the baby formula, to budget money to pay for school, to work out a fair arrangement with a neighbor. Some simple calculations are so interwoven with daily life that life would be almost impossible without them.

It’s the same with basic religious truths. When you’re facing surgery, or are tempted to cheat or steal, simple formulas learned early about God’s love or clear rules like the Ten Commandments are what you most need. They’re what all of us need most of the time, the learned probably more than anyone because they can be tempted to think that the really important things are the ones that very intelligent people, far removed from the mere concerns of everyday life, work out on their own. It takes wisdom – not merely brains and advanced degrees – to know how such complexity has little worth if it loses touch with a certain kind of simplicity.

The Church has done a remarkable job over millennia in holding the two kinds of truth together in ways that encourage the most daring speculation without losing a grip on real human life. It’s a strange thing this simple complexity or complex simplicity. But nothing else seems quite to fit the human need. Edith Sitwell, another great convert of the century just passed, hit upon exactly the right formula. After her conversion, she took to studying Aquinas and other great thinkers, but not like you would tackle a physics textbook for abstract knowledge. She studied them because they responded to a great and simple necessity:

“To read them is like being put in an oxygen tent when one is dying.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.