….Why is the Christian religion so hard to understand? For no particular reason I looked up predestination on the net – or it may be I looked it up because it was the hardest word I remember in religion. Whenever I try to get deeper into religion I'm hit with a volley of impossible words. When I looked up predestination I got these beauties (I wrote them down). Omniscience, determinism, supralapsarianism (wow!), infralapsarianism, immanence, transcendence, premotion…. How many people know what those words mean? Can I get deeper into my religion without studying all that [material]…? I thought Christianity was for everyone….. JH
Dear J, Yes, it’s for everyone – including people who addle their brains with supralapsarianism, etc. But they would be quite a small constituency, I'm certain. The Christian faith is very ancient; it has spread and developed in many different cultures since the beginning. Instead of trying to be a self-contained package, it has always tried to integrate with each culture in which it found itself: theologically, philosophically, socially, every way (with varying degrees of success). And so, much of the language of theology reflects debates that were vital in their time, but are now long-forgotten – by everyone except professors of theology. Every one of those issues is fascinating, if you had time to go into it. But so is astrophysics, I’m told!
Not everyone who tries to unravel predestination will enter the kingdom of heaven. There’s no mention of it in the gospels. It was a theological question that occurred to people centuries later, as they reflected on the Gospel. I'm aware that your question isn’t about predestination as such, but about whether depth necessarily leads to complexity.
I don't think it does. The deepest things are utterly simple. That's what makes them difficult to grasp. Up to a point, we are more at home with complexity than we are with simplicity. A complex notion (like a complex object) can be taken apart and examined piece by piece, but a simple notion has no parts: it has to be grasped whole. For example, if we weren’t so used to zero in mathematics, we would find it very difficult to grasp. You can imagine ancient people asking, “Why do we need a symbol for nothing?” In religion too they talk about ‘Nothing’, but I’ll come to that.
It struck me very forcibly once when I was celebrating the Eucharist with a group of people, that we would not be here doing this thing if Jesus had not walked the roads of Palestine. Each of us would be somewhere else, doing something else; we would not be praying these prayers or saying these things to one another, nor sitting, standing, moving in the way we do; this building would not be here, arranged in the way it is…. Nothing but the fact of Jesus makes sense of what we are doing. This makes him as present and as real as the walls around us and the roof overhead. The roads he walked lead to here. There is no separation, no distance. His sandals are lined up with ours. There is no abstraction; it is all as concrete as anything could be.
It doesn’t matter now whether we are infra- or supralapsarians. What matters – and what has always mattered – is the presence of Jesus in us and between us, and in everything we do. This presence isn’t something you can check out with instruments; it is spiritual presence – which means real presence, not something imagined. If someone knew the whole history of the debates about predestination but didn’t know this presence, he or she would not have entered into any depth of the Christian faith.
Sometimes a Christian has moments when the mind is clear of all thinking and there is just presence. It is an awareness so free of the clutter of thinking that the mystics have spoken of it as an experience of ‘Nothing’. It’s not that there is nothing there! It is that there is no thinking there, there is nothing to say because there is no distance. Meister Eckhart spoke about becoming “pregnant with Nothing.” To get passing glimpses of what he experienced is much more important than to become entangled in the thoughts of people who may never have had that experience at all.
What I would suggest, PJ, is that you develop an eye for the things that are so simple and so constant that we usually don't notice them at all. This is the path that leads into the depth of our religion.