Why is Christianity so complicated?

July 3, 2013

Not to pick on the New Atheists—it seems as if their moment onstage has already come and gone—but I remember Richard Dawkins explaining in The God Delusion why he doesn’t bother learning Christian theology. He said it’s because it’s just so darn complex, and it doesn’t need to be. The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in—and therefore the only God who could ever exist—is the sleepy, indulgent grandfatherly type—the old man with the long, gray beard, way up in the sky.

Christian theology, by contrast, makes God so elusive, so mysterious, so hard to pin-down. Why?

If Christianity were true, it wouldn’t need to be so complicated. Dawkins suspects that we have to make theology this way so it can stay a step ahead of the latest scientific breakthrough, which, as far as he’s concerned, always represents another nail in the coffin of faith.

Not so, says C.S. Lewis. Reality is always more complicated than our intuition suggests. He uses an analogy that Dawkins would appreciate: quantum physics.

Men believed in atoms centuries before they had any experimental evidence of their existence. It was apparently natural to do so. And the  sort of atoms we naturally believe in are little hard pellets—just like the hard substances we meet in experience, but too small to see… The real atoms turn out to be quite alien from our  natural mode of thought. They are not even made of hard ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ (as the imagination understands ‘matter’) at all: they are not simple, but have a structure: they are not all the same: and they are unpicturable.[1]

Our original, natural guess about atoms wasn’t utterly wrong, he writes, but it needed serious correction. “The first shock of the objects’ real nature, breaking in on our spontaneous dreams of what that object ought to be,” always has the characteristics of being “hard, complex, dry and repellent” when compared to our first guess.

In this way, he writes, popular or “natural” religion, which from Lewis’s point of view always veers toward Pantheism, scorns Christianity for the “pedantic complexity of our ‘cold Christs and tangled Trinities’…

To the large well-meant statements of ‘religion’ [Christianity] finds itself forced to reply again and again, ‘Well, not quite like that,’ or ‘I should hardly put it that way’. This troublesomeness does not of course prove it to be true; but if it were true it would be bound to have this troublesomeness. The real musician is similarly troublesome to a man who wishes to indulge in untaught ‘musical appreciation’; the real historian is similarly a nuisance when we want to romance about ‘the old days’ or ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans’. The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies—a wretched, pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it.[2]

1.C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 134.

2. Ibid., 136-7.

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