The tightrope of simplicity and mystery: talking about anything that matters

The other day my six-year-old daughter asked me why people stop being married. She didn’t  even know the word for it.

And so I tried to reduce a complex -- perhaps unreachable -- answer to a simple statement, as parents often do. “People stop being married because they can’t find a way to live together in peace.”


It is that simple. And, of course, it is not that simple.


I have long struggled with this tension between simplicity and mystery when it comes to speaking the truth, or trying to talk about anything that matters, including God. There are obvious dangers to both poles: to talk only in simple declaratives is to quickly declare yourself a fool, because the created order simply is not that simple. To dance only around the pole of mystery, never venturing toward any clear claim, renders all words superfluous. It feels like pretending our universe is a great blackness of “we don’t know,” denying the existence of light and stars. How to name the stars without losing sight of the real fact that they are surrounded by so much black?


This is on my mind as Texas and Louisiana continue to be battered by the after-rains of Hurricane Harvey, as the floodwaters rise and the ground beneath so many people’s lives disappears, at least for a time. The waters raise with it the age-old question of God’s part, God’s place, God’s role, God’s presence, God’s care.


Simple answers like “it is God’s will” from people who love and trust God (obviously) don’t help, and are (obviously) beyond the scope of any human knowledge. At the same time, people acting with compassion, generosity, kindness, mercy, and courage obviously helps, and I have little trouble saying to my same daughter that this kind of response is the will and hope of God, from everything humans have learned about God over the past several millenia. (I don’t say millenia, yet.)


Marilynne Robinson says there are two things that are simply beyond the pale of explanation, things we should certainly never venture to answer with simplicity, things we must simply dance around in mystery: the depths of human suffering and the question of predestination.


Somehow this simple claim helps immensely. We walk this tightrope between simplicity and mystery often in our lives, our families, our churches. At least for me, it helps to identify places that simplicity simply cannot reach.