There Is A Simple Answer For Everything And It Is Inevitably Wrong

Not long ago, I received a message on twitter from an acquaintance of mine who gave himself a particularly ironic nickname.  He commented that my discussion on the deeper meaning of the Book Of Job [1] was pointless because the book of Job was simply a novel written to show how a good man could suffer.  This is the equivalent of saying that Plato’s republic is simply a book written to show how people can get out of a cave, or that Josephus’ account of the revolt of 66AD was simply done to justify himself.  To be sure that is an element in what is being written but it is not the only one.  Given the immense length of time it takes anyone to write anything, the fact that anything is written, especially any material of considerable length, suggests the desperation and seriousness of the communication that often solitary people engage in by seeking to write.  To boil down many hours of writing and editing to a simple one sentence summary does a great deal of injustice to the sort of works that are being so airily dismissed.

Anything worth reading or listening to or watching or becoming familiar with is worth being taken seriously.  Even small children are capable of creating stories of considerable worth and complexity.  I have an intelligent young friend, for example, who has constructed a whole legendarium in which I am a tree that eats bad people and digests them and turns them into sweets like cotton candy or ice cream that she can eat from the top of my balding head even as she treats my arms like strong tree branches.  Admittedly, being someone fond of fantasy literature, I am amused that she would think of me as a similar species to Tolkien’s Ents, even if I talk much faster than they do.  When the imaginative life of an elementary school kid, albeit a very intelligent one who happens to greatly like books and verbal knowledge in general, is so complicated as to refashion friendly adults into species of trees (all the better to climb on, I suppose), we have to recognize that inevitable human tendency to complicate things that must be admired and taken into account when we seek to understand them and enjoy our time spent with them.  We are made more complicated by the stories that others tell about us, and when we spend time and get to know others, we inevitably find them to be less simple and straightforward than we may at first think.

It is for the better if we understand the roots of that complexity.  Bookish and intellectual human beings (for such I am, and of such I speak) inevitably have a deep private life in addition to whatever goes on in their public life.  The reading of books, the viewing of other people as texts to be understood, and the problems of conveying at least some aspects of a rich and creative and complex internal life to an outside world that is uncomprehending and often threatening and hostile, are all problems that make people very complex.  Our complexities are increased by the stories and myths that we attract from other people, some of them ascribing to us cosmic evil or superhuman and mythic traits of power and ability.  We do not always say what we mean, and others certainly do not say what they mean to us.  We live in worlds where private vice and public requirements for virtue, and public vices and private virtues that would estrange us from a prejudiced and fallen society must be compartmentalized, never the twain shall meet.  That sort of wall-building, along with the various ways we find it necessary to act in order to get along in diverse and contrary social worlds, puts a strain on someone.  Our self-consciousness leads us to hide aspects of ourselves that we do not think will be approved of or appreciated, or that may make us vulnerable to the gossipmongering and exploitation of others.

And if all of this makes us complicated as individuals, we are certainly no less complicated when looked at in groups, whether we are looking at families or neighborhoods or congregations or departments in an office, or any other such groups as we may be a part of.  Complex individuals, imperfectly shown and certainly imperfectly understood and imperfectly relating to others, are bound to increase the level of complexity involved.  This is even the case when people only show superficial aspects of themselves to those they are around.  If things may appear simple to us, it is most often because we do not understand them well and do not have enough of an interest in them to understand them better.  Anything in creation, from children’s novels to the Bible to other people, to geography or any subject of interest to people, becomes insanely complicated and richly layered if you take a serious look at it.  Nor do things become simple if you look at them from a higher or lower scale, where there are further layers of organization and structure all the way up and all the way down, all of them showing their own types of complexity and rich variety, from different types of galaxies and groups of galaxies like our own local group to the behavior of quarks and other subatomic particles.

What makes simple answers wrong does not make them useless.  Understanding important facets of complex realities is certainly useful.  We may conduct a pareto analysis or seek a deep look at data to better understand the people and institutions that we have to deal with.  If we cannot handle all of the layers a given text or person brings, we may focus on those which are the most important to us at a particular time.  All of this we do because we lack the time and ability and interest in understanding or conveying all of the layers and facets within any individual text or person.  Yet even if this reduction of complexity through systematizing and classifying tendencies is without a doubt useful, let us not thing that we understand something we have only classified and summarized.  Is Job a novel?  No, such genres did not exist when it was made.  It is ancient Near East literature in dialogue form, closer to a play than to a novel, but of the kind that is also somewhat close to what later became the dialogues of philosophy, far from the material we would think of as contemporary novels.  Is Job simple?  No, and its complexity reflects the challenge of justifying God without blaming Job, a similar problem faced in life when we seek neither to blame God for the suffering of the (relatively) innocent nor blame the victims of misfortune and the sins of others.  And life is full of such complexities, which we ignore and oversimplify at our own peril.  The more we oversimplify so that our puny minds may grasp some aspect of reality, the more we mistakenly believe that reality is itself simple and facile and that other things are not so complex or so rich in nuance and texture after all.  And to the extent that we do this, we are deeply wrong.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to There Is A Simple Answer For Everything And It Is Inevitably Wrong

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I agree. The book of Job is a wonderfully rich, multi-layered interpersonal interaction that reaches out in so many ways! We have the God vs. Satan one, the Job vs his three friends going back and forth, which give us unique insights about their perspectives on life and God; Job and his wife, Elihu’s wisdom, and finally God’s answer to the puzzle and Job’s understanding the meaning of his life. It is an amazing book that expounds the greatness and power of God and His creative genius. It also contains a short lesson in astronomy and an in-depth description of the demons and Satan (chapters 40 and 41). There are far, far, far more items and issues contained in this most extraordinary of books. To summarize its purpose in a single statement is doing a mighty disservice to the book and to the one who does so, for it closes the mind to understanding what our human condition is and what our divine calling is about.

    • Yes, I agree. I wonder why it is that some people choose to take something that is obviously a complex work and see it in such simplistic and reductionistic terms. What encourages that tendency?

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