The Unsimple Truth

einstein_simplyIf you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

-attributed to Albert Einstein

According to Rashi, the question is directed against Rav Yirmiyah who had said that the basket in the tree does not actually have to be within ten tefachim of the ground to be valid. We are dealing with a long basket where it could be tilted and emptied even without being brought below into the reshus harabim. In contrast to this, Rav bar Sh’va brings a Baraisa where an eiruv is not valid unless it is actually brought to where it must be situated. Here, we do not take into consideration the fact that the eiruv should be valid due to the potential that it could
theoretically be brought during bein hashemashos to its destination.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
from “Rabbinic injunctions and Bein HaShemashos
Eruvin 33

I’m a failure. More to the point, I don’t understand God, Jesus, faith, and spirituality well enough. I can’t explain it simply. I’m not sure I can explain it at all. Certainly the fact that I have posted nearly eight-hundred articles in this “morning meditations” blog (not to mention other blogs) about these subjects and have hardly scratched the surface must mean I don’t understand all this well enough. I can’t explain what I believe simply. I certainly can’t explain it briefly.

I quoted from a commentary on an excerpt from Talmud above to illustrate the level of complexity of the halachot related to Orthodox Judaism. Although I read from the Daf Yomi Digest daily, I scarcely comprehend what I’m reading and what I understand most clearly is that the Talmud is an enormously complex set of works. I don’t know how observant Orthodox Jews manage to obey all of the minute details involved in daily living. I can only imagine that Einstein would have contended with the sages based on his above-quoted statement (though it is unsure if Einstein or Richard Feynman actually said those words).

I can hardly be said to live anything close to an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle in my “observance” as a Christian, but as I write and write and write, and then read back what I’ve written, I realize that I am no closer to truly comprehending God and faith than I was when I first accepted Jesus Christ as Lord. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve even gone that far.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Romans 7:15-19

If we’re honest with ourselves as Christians, then I suppose we all have to admit that this statement of Paul’s is also true of us. How can we live a life we call “holy” and yet still struggle with the mundane, the common, and even the evil within us? If God’s Word is written on our hearts, how can we defy that word and pursue what we know isn’t right? I can only imagine that atheists have moral struggles as well, though as I recall myself from before I came to faith, they didn’t seem as dire.

Is a life of faith really that hard or that hard to explain? It certainly seems that hard to live. But then again, is Einstein’s quote the litmus test we should be using against ourselves? After all, he also said this:

If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.

Einstein made that statement in response to being asked to give a brief quote on why he won the Nobel Prize. That’s the problem with taking quotes out of context. It’s easy to make a person seem completely inconsistent. How much more difficult it is to analyze “chunks” of the Bible and find consistency and comprehension?

My conversations with Pastor Randy (which are on hiatus for the month of April and for several weeks in May) about D.T. Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians aren’t hugely complex, but they do get detailed…and we’ve barely covered one chapter in Galatians! How about the book of Romans?

mystery-in-midtownI know that Mark Nanos is popular in Messianic circles, but some years ago, when I tried to read his book The Mystery of Romans, I gave up, not getting very far in his book. Maybe I’d be better able to comprehend his writing now, but Paul’s letter to the Roman church is extremely dense with meaning that I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand either Paul or Nanos. I know the Nanos books on Romans and Galatians should be on my “required reading” list, but who knows if they’ll do me any good? I’m tasked to understand a scholar and author in order to understand the mystery of “letter writer.” Are these reasonable goals?

In some ways, trying to comprehend a life of faith is a fool’s errand. While the concept of Christian salvation is supposed to be simple enough for a small child to understand, the fact remains that the Bible contains depths that if plumbed, would make even explorers such as Jacques Cousteau bolt for the surface as if hotly pursued by Leviathan.

Maybe it’s not quite that bad, but I feel that way sometimes.

Of course there’s a difference between understanding a life of faith and living it. Well, maybe not for the Orthodox Jews since behavior and conceptualization are largely interwoven, but certainly for Christianity, where one can live a basic Christian life without having to know much of the Bible at all. You can feed the hungry, visit the sick, remain faithful to your spouse, give to charity, pray to God, and fellowship with other believers without having to spend even a single day in seminary. Of course studying the Bible gives such a life context and meaning, but you don’t really have to know all of the arcane debates about the doctrine of Divine Election, for example.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading. I enjoy studying. I enjoy discussing all of these little details. But at what point do you turn it all off and just spend time with God? What’s the point of all of our debates on the web? Why do you try to convince me you’re right about something and why do I try to convince you that I’m right about something? What difference does it make? OK, probably a pretty big one, depending on what we’re talking about, but we can’t all be right? Can we all be wrong? That seems far more likely.

If we believe God exists, then He must exist separately from what we believe and from the web of theology and doctrine we’ve spun for ourselves. God must be an “objective” God. If the world’s population stopped believing in God totally and completely, God would continue to exist and His plan for the universe would continue to move forward toward its ultimate conclusion. We spend all our lives examining the Bible trying to uncover the clues to that plan and what it means in our lives, but we only get bits and pieces, and much of the time, we can’t really be sure we understand what we think we’ve got in our hands.

This theologian espouses one particular theory and another theologian opposes him or her. More theories spring up, more debates occur. But God is God. Our theories and debates don’t affect him in the slightest. He exists as He exists regardless of our “religious orientation.”

We’re all seeking truth but even with the help of the Holy Spirit, who is supposed to guide us in all truth (John 16:13), we all come up with different conclusions. You’d think if there were one Spirit and He was guiding us to One truth, we’d all arrive at the same conclusion.

But we don’t.

I’m most of the way through Carlos Castaneda’s book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. It’s not really what I expected, but I appreciate Castaneda’s honesty in saying that he didn’t quite succeed either in his field study or as a disciple of don Juan. I decided to read this book because I hadn’t read any Castaneda before and felt I owed it to myself to have the experience.

letting-goMaybe I should just let go and move away from religious and spiritual reading altogether and just read for pleasure (not that reading books on religion and spirituality aren’t pleasurable). I used to read a lot of science fiction and mystery back in the day, with a few of the classics thrown in just for giggles. Maybe that would be more satisfying. Nothing I know or don’t know affects God. I’m not sure it even affects me. I can probably explain simply Castaneda’s book, but how could I possibly explain even one letter of Paul’s? Many have tried, including Nanos and Lancaster, but what does it matter if you end up with a body of work about the Bible that is fraught with disagreement?

I guess there’s a reason people pursue truth all their lives but either never find it or find only what some people (but not all) call “truth.” Maybe we never find it at all. Maybe we just delude ourselves and say what we have is “truth” because living a life of existential uncertainty is too difficult to bear.

Maybe that’s why there are so many atheists. There are no mysteries to the universe beyond what they can see. It’s all nuts and bolts with no colors, textures, or moods. There’s only light and darkness. More’s the pity.

One who returns from the darkness must bring of it with him and convert it to light. He must exploit his experience to surge higher and higher with greater strength.

Therefore, the one who returns from a distance is greater than the one who was always close. What matters is not so much where you stand, but with what force you are moving in which direction.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Exploiting the Darkness”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

So which direction should I move in next in pursuing truth or God or whatever?

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16 thoughts on “The Unsimple Truth”

  1. James, I wonder if many of us admitted it, that if our seeming certainty of “knowing” so much about God and our relationship with Him were changed into a form of “less certainty” … that “trust” would grow in places where “certainty” resides… and we’d be the better for it.

  2. I’ve said more than once that you can’t live a life of faith unless you feel just a little bit “edgy” all the time. Occasionally, “edgy” gets a little overwhelming and hence, today’s “meditation,” Dan.

  3. Perhaps Dr.Einstein’s dictum, about not understanding something well enough if one cannot explain it simply, needs to be balanced against another one of his dicta: that explanations should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. In other words, one should not ignore necessary details merely for simplicity’s sake. Or, like the other dictum you cited, that if Einstein’s material was so simple that every layman could understand them, he would not have deserved a Nobel Prize.

    Numerous scriptural principles can be reduced to simple statements, like “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But the practical application of that simple principle can be extraodinarily complex. And even one attempt at a simple interpretation, “What is hateful to thee, do not to another”, still requires elaboration when specific cases are to be considered.

    Part of the Talmudic complexity derives from our need to translate technical jargon that was more familiar to the actual participants in the discussion that is depicted in such Daf Yomi segments as you cited. Many of the references are shorthand for some other discussion whose content is not visible in any one particular excerpt from a discussion, and an excerpt may not indicate all of the context for even the particular discussion that is being quoted for consideration. So understanding it really requires something akin to hyperlink technology (though when it was written only a human brain processor could store and access sufficient memory to associate and interpret all the related bits). Nonetheless, performing actions that conform with these principles is not as complex as the discussions that derive them. Orthodox Torah obedience is not a matter of calculating vast amounts of detail, but rather of familiarity with standardized simplified practices that have been derived out of all the complex deliberations.

    However, you did accurately identify the real difficulty: that knowing the right thing to do is not as much of a problem as is actually doing it.

  4. Numerous scriptural principles can be reduced to simple statements, like “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But the practical application of that simple principle can be extraodinarily complex.

    Maybe that’s the best way to distill the argument between simplicity and complexity relative to the Bible (or anything else for that matter).

    Orthodox Torah obedience is not a matter of calculating vast amounts of detail, but rather of familiarity with standardized simplified practices that have been derived out of all the complex deliberations.

    I think this is what’s so difficult for Christians (including me) to understand, since we only observe this from the outside rather than living out a dedicated lifestyle and immersing ourselves in study.

    However, you did accurately identify the real difficulty: that knowing the right thing to do is not as much of a problem as is actually doing it.

    The ultimate truth of our existence.

  5. The great physicist and most religious people share a certain misconception. Einstein’s quote is based on a rationalist view of things that was typical in his time. And the question he did not address is how to describe, in simple terms, a non-scientific “it.” That said, there are millions who apply that kind of approach to the infinite One, neatly summarizing God and spiritual reality in terms of formal or informal propositions. Paraphrasing J.B. Philips, “Their God is too small.”

  6. Loved your article. I always loved Romans 7:15-19. Try saying those verses really fast. As brillant as Paul was, he still struggled with the message of Yeshua. After that Damascus experience, and with his eyes opened to the gospel, some would embrace his conversion others would run from it. I find that true with my life experiences. When I try and share what beauty I’ve have found in the acceptance of Yeshua, some accept me, then others run from me. Some call me a fanatic, others a Spirit filled person. Hard to explain.

  7. I guess my frustration is in those people who seem to “know it all” about faith, religion, and God when to me, it’s all so vast, so…well, infinite. How can any religious pundit be so sure that their particular brand of theology and doctrine is the only and correct one when compared to just the mysteries of the Bible, let alone the mystery of God?

  8. Great post James…

    I think a big portion of learning comes from an opposing view, because it questions what you/me will simply accept and believe and how well we actually know whether our beliefs are easily shaken or not. When someone shows an error in our beliefs or theology, then we have to reassess and continue on our search. Some are afraid of disagreement and some are afraid to have their beliefs questioned, they do not want to deal with their errors, it is a matter of our comfort zone, we hate to think we might be wrong… Reminds me of Proverbs 12:1. But it makes us stronger, when we see our errors and thus change or grow…

    You are one of the few who actually is more liberal in allowing disagreements on your blog, many people, including those you share similar doctrines with, censor disagreement at any moment. I would say you have a greater approach to learning than they do, and even in our disagreements, I enjoy many of our discussions, even the ones that oppose my beliefs and understandings, I consider some of our discussions as a testing ground. Obviously not all that you write is opposed to my beliefs, we are brothers at the end of the day, sharing quite a range of beliefs and the most important of all… I tend to focus more on the opposing beliefs, as I find the most growth in those who disagree, than with those who agree.

  9. One of my favorite teachers, and a person I respect tremendously, made a comment the other day that I think fits with what you wrote today:

    “…But as you can see, when we really start to look, we are left with a mighty molehill of questions. So, that helps me realize that I do not believe and trust in God because I have answers. I believe and trust in Him because of who He is and I see who He is in the the things that He does, not the answers that He gives to my theological and philosophical inquiry. We are like Job, I suppose. Who are we to demand answers of Him? What makes us think that having the answers is the equivalent of faith.

    There are answers, of course, but perhaps they are not as easy to discover as we once thought. And perhaps we won’t find them without struggle.”

  10. @Carl: Ain’t that the truth!

    @Zion: That can swing either way. If someone is actually going to listen, then yes, debate can be a testing ground of sorts. However, most people have made up their minds and aren’t going to be shaken no matter what you say to them. To be fair, people can’t go around with belief systems made of molten plastic, just flowing and gooey, and ready to be reshaped by anything that comes along. Otherwise, we’d be at the mercy of anyone with a philosophical or theological ax to grind. At the end of the day, we have to have certain truths as solid in our lives, such as (in our case) the belief in One God, the path of salvation offered by Messiah, and the life in the world to come.

    On the other hand, there’s quite a bit of “wiggle room” within Christian doctrine that allows for debate and discussion and I don’t believe things are settled in those arenas. Also, in attempting to comprehend the mind of God, who can know, so there’s a lot to talk about there.

    All that said, I still have to beware of those folks who come along and argue for the sake of arguing (not pointing fingers…just saying). Plenty of trolls on the Internet who need to be shown the door and given the message, “please don’t come back.” Once they’re on their way, the rest of us can get on with our chats over (virtual) coffee or beer.

  11. There are answers, of course, but perhaps they are not as easy to discover as we once thought. And perhaps we won’t find them without struggle.

    In a totally objective sense and from God’s point of view, there are answers to all things. For the rest of us, depending on what we’re talking about, maybe not so much. It’s the questions that drive us (I’m tempted to say “Neo,” since that’s almost a direct quote from a line Trinity delivers in the original Matrix film).

    Only God has the answers. We strive anyway because it’s better than waiting and doing nothing.

  12. “At the end of the day, we have to have certain truths as solid in our lives, such as (in our case) the belief in One God, the path of salvation offered by Messiah, and the life in the world to come.
    On the other hand, there’s quite a bit of “wiggle room” within Christian doctrine that allows for debate and discussion and I don’t believe things are settled in those arenas.”

    Took the words right out of my mouth, James.

    I always tell myself that my “center” is my belief in, and conviction of, Yeshua being the Christ. All other things, though still important, are in a way, superfluous to my life and how I live it.

    And as you said, there are certain things we can be sure of; a loving Father, life in abundance, hope beyond the grave, etc.

    The one thing that I would add would be the certainty of our knowing we should be striving, everyday, to love one another, to serve our fellow man, and to be selfless in all things.

    And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

    Peace to you, friend.

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