Christianity and Complexity

14 Apr
April 14, 2014

Complexity is widely viewed as an embarrassment for Christianity.  How can a faith whose origins date back thousands of years possibly speak to a world as complex as we now know the world to be?  This often is the first question I get from friends who are intrigued by my faith but doubt the plausibility of Christianity.

In my view, elaborated at length in True Paradox, the assumption that complexity is an embarrassment for Christianity actually gets things backwards.  Although the materialist perspectives of Harvard linguist Steven Pinker or New Atheists like Richard Dawkins seem much more sophisticated and contemporary, their explanations of puzzles of our subjective experience—such as our perceptions of beauty and suffering—are anything but.   Pinker has described artistic creativity as an evolutionary accident, for instance, and our sense of beauty in nature as designed to alert us to the presence of food.

Christianity explains our experience of natural beauty as a reflection of the goodness for which the world was intended, and the transience of the sensation as evidence that this goodness has been corrupted.  Artistic creativity is a reflection of our having been made in the image of God.  It is one of the ways in which, to paraphrase the theologian N.T. Wright, we reflect the beauty of creation back to God.

I will have much more to say about both sets of explanations (including interesting new developments in evolutionary psychology’s accounts of beauty) in the coming months.  My point here is that critics of religion like Pinker and Dawkins, both of whom I love reading and profit from enormously, seem to flatten out some of the key complexities of human experience.  They treat some of the richest and most perplexing features of our lives as unimportant or accidental.

Christians certainly aren’t immune to this tendency either.  We make a similar misstep when we suggest we can “prove” the truth of Christianity with simple logical arguments, and ignore the messiness and complexity of the world as we actually experience it.  But Christianity itself is at home with complexity.  In my view, this is one of its biggest selling points.