Mysteries, Not Complexities

     Just yesterday, I encountered this touching essay at The Catholic Thing. It starts with the mention of a recent wedding. However, its true import is expressed in this segment:

     I’d converted to Catholicism from atheism in my mid-20s (I’m 39 now). This wasn’t news to anyone, but few expected the faith to take center stage on a day that was ostensibly about my wife and me.

     Even those I’d been closest with in recent years were surprised by the lack of subtlety. My social circle had remained secular-liberal following my conversion – I’d never been introduced to the young Catholic scene since my conversion came post-college. And while I lived the faith unselfconsciously, I never pushed my friends’ noses in it. I think (I hope) this earned quiet respect over the years.

     I’d overheard enough at parties to know how they felt about Catholicism. I’d certainly seen enough on social media.

     But they loved me much more than they hated my religion. Anything good for me was good with them. So they were able to appreciate my faith on a therapeutic level, as if it were no different than if I’d taken up yoga or started a healthier diet. Catholicism was just another item on my personal wellness plan, albeit one they considered mildly distressing.

     And so our deeply Catholic wedding was a shock for them, just as it would have been had I gotten married in a yoga studio and given all thanks and praise to the Master Yogi.

     This is a more common thing than most people, including most Christians, are aware. Nonbelievers generally regard believers as deluded, if not outright insane. The C.S.O. regards me that way – and after 31 years together, I don’t think her opinion is likely to change.

     The author continues in an evangelistic vein:

     Since entering the Church, I’ve favored the “show-don’t-tell” approach to evangelization. “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary,” Saint Francis of Assisi supposedly said, though it’s difficult to imagine him speaking in syrupy quips….

     The preach-through-example model also enables us to shirk the responsibility of explaining the complexities of our faith. Even communicating the basics – that we were bestowed existence by a Creator Who, like a good parent, both respects our freedom and loves us madly – takes preparation, practice, and effort. [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     And in this, he goes wrong.


     Complexity, properly understood, is a function of causation. Things with clear causal origins are simple. Things with muddled, multivariate causal origins – i.e., multiple factors interacting in shifting ways – are complex. Note that this has nothing to do with whether the thing itself is easily identified and dealt with. An apple is a simple thing: the fruit of a particular tree, good for eating and cooking. The biological processes that give rise to apple trees and their fruit are complex.

     In a sense, the existence of Mankind is simple: We’re here. We didn’t do anything as a species to get here. The biological, social, and evolutionary processes that produced our kind were undoubtedly complex, but as individuals, dealing with us tends to be fairly straightforward. The optimal method is summarized in Christ’s Golden Rule.

     The Christian faith, as summarized in the Nicene Creed, is also simple. It involves some simple premises:

  • That there is a supernatural realm, and a Supreme Being who rules it and all of what we call reality;
  • That what we call reality is His creation, and whether directly or indirectly, we are His creatures;
  • That because Mankind is flawed – i.e., men have a propensity for abusing one another – He sent His divine Son to preach a New Covenant to us, and counsel us to repent.
  • That there is a third Person of the divine Trinity, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” Who functions to illuminate the minds of men.

     These are premises. Accepting them requires treating them as postulates must be treated: unprovable but true. From them comes all of the Christian faith, though not all of the teachings of the Church.

     Accepting the premises is not a complex operation. It may be hard – the decision to put one’s trust in propositions about things we cannot see or touch usually is – but it’s not complex. We even have a short name for it: faith.

     Eighteenth century mathematician Girolamo Saccheri was unhappy about postulates too: in his case, the postulates of Euclidean geometry. Look what happened to him.


     Catholicism may be a ramified set of doctrines, but Christianity itself is not. Many persons are Christians but not Catholics. Accepting Catholicism requires an extra premise: that Christ has delegated the continuing elucidation of the New Covenant to the Catholic clergy. That premise, which Catholics call the Apostolic Succession, implies that the Church hierarchy has limited authority to expand on the Ten Commandments and the two Great Commandments on which they’re based: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” [Matthew 16:17-18]

     There’s no need to go into Catholic doctrines themselves. Nearly all of them are clearly wholesome and quite obviously beneficial to life, but even that is irrelevant to the central question. The point is that the premises required to accept Christianity, and after that Catholicism, are simple. Either one accepts them or one doesn’t.

     Effective Christian evangelism does not require complex explanations. It requires what I’ve set forth above. The premises from which Christians proceed are not complex but simple. However, they are mysterious: that is, they evoke questions that begin with “Why?” and “How?”

     Christianity has often been called a “mystery religion.” But it is very far from complex. Indeed, complexity would have rendered it incapable of taking hold of billions of souls over the course of two millennia, for people generally refuse to base the principles that govern their lives on complexities. Saint Francis of Assisi’s possibly apocryphal statement – “At all times preach the gospel. When necessary, use words.” – stands as the best imaginable testament to it.

1 comment

  1. FWIW, I posted a link to this post on FB. Not to educate the irreligious, but to provide a resource to the many people I know who are, in fact and by practice, Catholic.

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