October 17, 2017

iMonk Classic: Icebergs, Onions and Why You’re Not As Simple As You Think

Onion (after van Gogh), by melisdramatic

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from April 2008

Note from CM: Yesterday I had my interview with a counselor about the results of the psychological testing that is part of the ordination process in the ELCA. More about that later. It brought to mind some of Michael’s insightful writings about his own journey of self-understanding. Here is a great example of that.

• • •

“My theology is simply what I read in the Bible.”

Sure it is.

“What I believe and practice is simply what the Bible teaches and nothing else.”

Of course. What else could be simpler?

I’m sure several of you won’t be surprised at all to learn that I meet with a pastoral counselor on a regular basis. It’s one of the best things I do. We talk about all sorts of things, and we’ve developed a very beneficial dialog around many of the the issues that are part of a Jesus shaped spirituality.

Almost every time we meet, one of us will wind up saying that human beings are far more complex than anyone realizes. And that goes double for our view of ourselves. We’d like to think that we’re quite simple in our motivations and behavior. Our self-description is almost always biased toward “what you see is what you get,” even when we are well aware that such is not the case.

Working with a counselor constantly reminds me that there is far more to what I feel, perceive, think and do than I ever recall at any moment. It’s not unusual for me to leave my counselor’s office with fresh illumination regarding memories, events and various influences that have contributed to who I am. Insights into my family of origin, primary experiences as a child, uncritical acceptance of some proclamations of reality, even manipulation and brainwashing: all of these may appear on my radar after a session with Bob, made obvious by our conversation and God’s Spirit.

What’s stunning is that all of these things were no less part of me when I walked into the office, totally unaware of their existence and influence. Where were all these things before? With me and part of me, but unknown to me.

Think about that. It’s just as true of you.

If I ever tell you that all I do is just read the Bible, then believe and do what it says, you have permission to laugh at me. Pay a small fee and you can smack me and say “What’s the matter with you?”

I’m an iceberg, an onion, a mystery. I’m complex and rarely insightful into myself. Thousands of experiences co-exist in me at the same time. I’m a library of presuppositions and passively accepted versions of the truth. When I write a post, preach a sermon, respond in a conversation or give advice to a student, I am anything but simple. I’m complex and only partially aware of that complexity.

This doesn’t mean I can’t understand the simple statements of the Bible or believe and act on them with integrity. It does mean that I need to stop talking about myself as if I am a blank slate, and begin accepting myself as a human being.

I am a person on a journey. That journey has been rich and diverse. It began before I was born. It’s gone on when I was aware and unaware of all that was happening to me. I’ve been shaped by God through a variety of influences, and in one way, there is a sacredness to how God has chosen to shape my life. At any moment that I present myself to God, I am accepted as the “iceberg” of known and unknown influences that make me ME.

I don’t need to fear my complexity. I don’t need to ignore it or misrepresent it. There’s no point in speaking as if my understanding of truth is unaffected by all that preceded this moment and what is going on at this moment.

The Holy Spirit works with us as the human beings that we are. “Search my thoughts O God” is an invitation for God to work with me and all that makes me a person at this moment.

Is this an endorsement of some postmodern skepticism toward propositions? Is it another emerging denial of truth?

No. It’s simply an observation that I don’t “just” read the Bible and do what it says without bringing along all my personal influences and multiple layers of my personal history and experience.

There’s a reason certain ideas appeal to me, others are uninteresting to me and some never will make sense to me.

There are reasons I’ve come to the “obvious” conclusions that I have.

There are reasons I perceive some truth and can’t see other truth.

There are reasons my understanding of being a Christian falls easily towards some things and is repelled and conflicted by others.

I am complex. I have a history. I have influences. I’m not a robot. I am a person.

Knowing God’s truth is always a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I’m beginning to appreciate that more and more as I come to understand all that’s made me the person I am today.

Comments

  1. “Knowing God’s truth is always a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I’m beginning to appreciate that more and more as I come to understand all that’s made me the person I am today.”

    Amen.

    “Flesh and blood have not revealed this (that Jesus is the Messiah) to you, but my Father in Heaven.”

  2. I am complex and therefore terrifying – to myself and others. We are better than the sum of our worst deeds and much worse than all our noble ones.

    Being human, born of a human, means we’re completely drenched in sin and born by one the same.

    When one gets ahold of that and, then, is blessed to be with others (maybe just one) who can just be with that . . . that is truly a manifestation of Grace.

  3. “Almost every time we meet, one of us will wind up saying that human beings are far more complex than anyone realizes. And that goes double for our view of ourselves. We’d like to think that we’re quite simple in our motivations and behavior.”

    Are motivations are simple, it’s our justifications that are quite complex.

    Love Michael’s writings.

    Brad

  4. The more we know ourselves, the more room we have to invite the Lord into.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “My theology is simply what I read in the Bible.”

    Sure it is.

    “What I believe and practice is simply what the Bible teaches and nothing else.”

    Of course. What else could be simpler?

    Truth in Advertising would be more like “Ees Party Line, Comrade!”

  6. When i first headed off to Bible Collge God said to me the following words…

    “The Bible is an onion jack, you need to peel it one layer at a time, as you do so it should make you cry”

    Editor and Street Chaplain

    http://www.thechristiannetwork.com

    • Jack:

      How did the article today strike you personally? I am wondering how the Bible being an onion relates to the article of today?

      On the one hand, Michael seems to be saying we need to look at ourselves and how we are layered and by implication it impacts how we read scripture. Our hermeneutic is colored by our past and our current set of assumptions.

      Your comment seems to say that somehow we can just look at he Bible objectively outside ourselves, which is really what this article seems to refute as being too simple.

      What do you say?

  7. I guess the folks at “Growing Kids God’s Way” and whatever it morphed into these days would disagree.

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      what’s the reason for bringing up the Ezzo’s parenting philosophy/ministry/training methodology???

      any personal experience with it, or just a philosophical/theological difference you have?

  8. Some days I think I’m beginning to get a handle on myself and why I do what I do. Invariably, something happens to blow my theory out of the water. If we’re created in the image of God and He is complex and unfathomable in so many ways, it only stands to reason that we would be, too.

  9. It is uncomfortable for me to admit that half the time even I don’t have a clue what my motivation is or why I am doing—or NOT doing—something.

    And it gets worse as I get older. My theory is all the roles that I have every played are stacked up like so much cordwood in my heart and head. When I was ten, I was only a child and a daughter. Now I am a child, teen, young bride, new mother, nurse, mother of teens (AACKK-not AGAIN!) empty nester, wife, grandmother, mother in law, teacher………and all these girls and women are sometimes fighting to be the one in charge.

    Memories…curse and blessing.

  10. Randy Thompson says:

    Like icebergs, most of our consciousness is under water.

    What’s above water is motivated by what’s under water.

    An important part of the Christian life should be underwater exploration.

    Anyone for snorkeling?

  11. humanslug says:

    I suspect that this kind of honest introspection would make communication between Christians of different brands, people of different religions, and even believers and atheists and agnostics a lot more civil and fruitful.
    While expressing or arguing matters of belief or worldview, people tend to wave banners of superior reason, evidence, theology, or biblical interpretation — when, truth be told, there’s a lot more in the soup than these simple ingredients.