The Grammar of Simplicity

Like many of you, I've been watching Pope Francis and have been impressed so far with what I have seen. I hope he keeps going in the direction he seems to have charted for himself and the Catholic Church.

Over the weekend I took note of some words Francis shared with the bishops of Brazil. Lamenting the decline in church membership there Francis pointed to a few different issues. One of them was that the church had become too intellectualized:
"At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. Without the grammar of simplicity, the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to 'fish for' God in the deep waters of his mystery."
Amen. I recently made a similar point about progressive theology becoming too intellectualized, too reliant upon Continental philosophers like Lacan, Derrida and Hegel.

I think progressive theology has "lost the grammar of simplicity." In my own experience when I am "reading the bible with the damned"--in prison or among the economically vulnerable--I find myself reaching for "the language of simplicity" and I hear myself, more and more, sounding like a fundamentalist.

I find myself speaking of simple things, things like sin, brokenness and the mercy of God.

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7 thoughts on “The Grammar of Simplicity”

  1. A deeply felt and echoed "Amen". I have no idea how to communicate anything much these days, and perhaps never did.

    Perhaps, like happiness or humility or butterflies, the communication of faith is a goal lost in its very pursuit. Perhaps the very notion of communicating faith has lost itself on the journey away from participation towards didactics, from acts of mercy and service to pulpits and divisions of power.

    How can I really communicate anything that another person has not already experienced? I am simply borrowing from the life of another in the attempt.

    We have all, I'm sure, been surprised in this way by a line of poetry that 'communicates' a truth already known but as yet unexpressed to ourselves. I think for me the best communication is poetic in this sense, giving another the words to understand their own journey and thus to recognise the foot-weary needs of a fellow-traveller.

  2. Sorry for the brevity of this comment (bit busy at the moment), but what you said resonated with something I read recently in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (pg 7 in the 2nd edition):

    "To enable the poor to read the Bible has involved a programme of education about the contents of the biblical material, so that it can be a resource for thousands who are illiterate. In such programmes full recognition is taken of the value of the experience of life. 14 It can be a form of Bible study which goes straight to the text with no concern to ask questions about its original historical context. 15 Such a reading of the text can serve to encourage faith and confidence in the individual’s relationship with his/her Lord. The community setting means an avoidance of a narrowly individualist ‘religious’ reading. The approach to Bible reading in the CEBs [base communities] has many similarities with Protestant forms of Bible study which are increasingly prevalent in Latin America. Indeed, one should not ignore the enormous inroads into Latin American Catholicism of evangelical Christianity with its similar ‘direct’ way of reading the Bible, though with less overt political content to the interpretation."

  3. Argh, ignore the 14 and 15 in the middle - I copied from a .pdf, so they're just footnotes I didn't get rid of.

  4. What I love about this quotation is that its call for simplicity moves almost immediately to "the deep waters of his mystery." It reminds me of a famous comment about the gospel of John (which is some of the easiest prose in the NT, and is often a favorite for 1st-year Greek students as well as new converts reading their Bible for the first time): "Children can wade in it, and elephants can drown in it."

  5. Simplicity without being shallow was wonderfully demonstrated by Thomas Merton. From his earliest books to his grand achievement, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander, I see a growth that clearly shows that being a progressive does not mean having to be an egghead. Intelligent, he was; but his mind and heart were so connected that one could not see without the other, and in such a way that he is able to reach into each person who is reading him and show them their own.

  6. Karl Barth is quoted to have responded to a question as to the essence of the greatest truth of Christianity, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.". Anyone who has ever tried to understand let alone plumb the depths of the Church Dogmatics can marvel at this utterance of profound simplicity.

  7. Kathleen Norris argues something similar in her essay "God-Talk" (part of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith): "In a religion that celebrates the Incarnation – the joining together of the human and the divine – a spiritualized jargon that does not ground itself in the five senses should be anathema. But the human tendency to disincarnate language is a strong one…I’ve learned that if these words are to remain viable, I must find ways to incarnate them, so as to make them accessible to believer and non-believer alike."

    I'm also reminded of the opposite approaches to language taken by the iconic feminist writers Judith Butler and Susan Bordo. I don't have either of their words in front of me to document this, but this is what I recall: Butler is suspicious of common and natural ways of speaking and thus writes in a style that some consider indecipherable: complicated, jargon-filled, your typical humanities academic. A sort of fear of ideological contamination. In contrast, I remember Bordo once discussing how she had to "leave" the academy linguistically and its elitist ways of thinking and speaking that have little to do with ordinary people.

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