Are you Looking for a Simple Religion?


Many people insist on a simple religion…or otherwise a simple philosophy on life. If you don’t want to defend yourself often, the easiest thing is to simply not believe in much. It’s part laziness and part busy-ness.

We’re too busy with media and with constantly reacting to a world that is daily and relentlessly thrust upon us. And we’re too lazy to do anything about our busy-ness. When it comes to our religion, this leads to literal shallowness and a forced kind of false black-and-whiteness that eventually becomes problematic if we’re honest about it.

As an easy example, we see this in many of the endless branches of denominational Christianity. Doctrine like the “bible-alone,” the absolute assurance of salvation, disregarding of Christian Tradition, the “just Jesus and me” mentality and many others. So many people are in search of an easy, nice and neat, contemporarily palatable answer. So when they find something that doesn’t fit that, they just throw it out.

They end up with some great evangelical sound bites that sound simple on the surface and work well in modern-day marketing campaigns. And even though they are far from unproblematic, many are attracted to their seeming simplicity. It’s something people can remember quickly from a 15 minute pep-talk each week and then regurgitate in social situations where such a dogma is generally socially accepted and will most often go unchallenged. I get it. And I’m sure it’s helpful on some level. But it also misses so much.

At the other end of the spectrum many Christians reduce their faith to just “be a good person” or “all you need is love…love.” And here they use an over-simplified definition of “love” that leaves out all the hard parts about what it means to truly love. Both ends of the over-simplification spectrum miss out on the best stuff – on the full mystery and gift of reality itself. In the end, reality is not that simple. And a true religion reflects that.

“It is no good asking for a simple religion.  After all, real things are not simple.  They look simple, but they are not.  The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of – all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain – and, of course, you find that what we call “seeing a table” lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.  A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.  But if you are not – and the modern world usually is not – if you want to go on and ask what is really happening – then you must be prepared for something difficult.  If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

There is something more to Christianity than pop-Christianity likes to admit. Authentic Christianity is a journey through history, the human story and a religion of mystery…and therefore a religion of great humility and adventure. Honestly embrace it – especially the difficult parts. And resist the urge to over-simplify it or you’ll end up missing out.

21 comments Add comment

Bill April 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

It often seems to me that when people say they want a “simple religion,” what they really mean is, “I want a religion that will let me do it my way and not give me any trouble about it.”

Vince July 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Exactly right.

John February 3, 2013 at 5:44 am

Matt thank you for the article you wrote, it was quite impressive, Bill, very true. You are right. That is what some of the people ask for ” Simple religion” they want to be allowed to do what they think is good for them to do, but that will never happen.
As a conformist Afghan Christian I encourage my christian brothers and sisters to read the articles and comments of the friends in this blog, I am sure they will find the right answer to their many unanswered questions.
God bless ya Matt, Dale and Bill brothers.
I would be glad to read more and more of your articles and comments to enrich my religious knowledge.

John April 1, 2013 at 3:28 am

I agree with you Bill. I see most of the people are quite reluctant about their religion. And they are reluctant to admit they are in the wrong path. Most only care about themselves rather than others.

dancingcrane April 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Both article and comment are spot on. I see this everywhere, even, tragically, in the Churches that have the richest liturgical and theological traditions. So many lack any connection with the Reality that saves, even receiving the Eucharist without discerning the Body of the Lord. They figure that if they can lay claim to membership in a Church, they’re covered, and don’t want to be bothered otherwise, and don’t even talk about their morals…We have to pray always, and act to reverse this when we can.

Daniel April 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm

But Catholicism is a simple religion. It’s all about love.

Matthew Warner April 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Totally agree, Daniel, on one level. But once you begin to ask what does it mean to love? What does it look like? How do we accomplish it in a complex, fallen world? It starts to get a lot less simple and mysterious. And that’s ok.

Some Catholics definitely “over simplify” as well…to the point of ignoring the hard aspects of what it means to love, like calling a sin a sin, discerning right from wrong, standing up for good and standing against evil, etc.

Daniel April 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

You’re absolutely right. I really just meant that (without going into the “how”) the “why” has always been simple.

Bobby Bambino April 21, 2011 at 7:05 am

Right, we want to be careful about defining our religion or ethic based on love. Joseph Fletcher came up with a whole philosophy, supposedly based only on love, called situation ethics. It is very problematic, yet all he was doing was starting with love as the greatest good. I’m at all suggesting that this is what you had in mind, Daniel. Just mentioning it. God love you.

Barrett April 21, 2011 at 10:55 am

But we also get in trouble when we overcomplicate the Gospel. Our sanctification is a journey, but salvation is quite simple. “Jesus saith to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me.” John 14:6.

And, how do we do that? “…if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” Romans 10:9.

There are mysteries and areas of disagreement, the continual process of believers attempting to become more like Christ, but I don’t think any sincere believer in Christ or his message of salvation would say “oh yeah, this is easy” or “yup, simple stuff.”

Matthew Warner April 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Barrett – I totally agree we have to be careful not to “over-complicate” as well or to be too scrupulous. However, your second paragraph seems to be a good example of over-simplifying salvation.

Is Romans 10:9 true? Absolutely 100% it is. But is it the whole story? Not if we care about the rest of scripture and revelation. Other scripture indicates additional or other requirements to be “saved” and what it really means to “believe.” I wrote more on this topic of salvation here and here that you may be interested in.

And even from that single verse, it begs more questions of what does “saved” mean? Is it once and for all? Or is it an ongoing process? After all, our sanctification is all tied up in our “salvation.” (I think you may be referring to “justification”). And can we lose that salvation? And what does it mean to “believe in thy heart”? And who exactly is Jesus? Asking this questions are not “over-complicating” anything. They are digging in to a real matter that naturally actually is a bit complex. It’s simply the truth about the matter.

The good thing is that we don’t have to fully understand it in order to participate in it. But it is healthy to be comfortable with the mystery involved or the limits to our understanding. And we must resist the urge to – just because we can’t fully understand it – oversimplify it or reduce it to one verse, etc.

The opposite of over-simplifying it is not necessarily over-complicating it. The opposite of over-simplifying something could also be simply to let it be. And resisting the urge to reduce an irreducibly complex matter to something overly-simple so that we feel comfortable with it. When we try to do that, we end up missing out on good stuff and often embracing errors.

Peace be with you!

Linebyline June 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Chesterton said that the opposite of funny isn’t serious, but just not funny. I think the same applies to oversimplifying and overcomplicating things, as you mention here.

Interesting you should mention scrupulosity: Having a touch of that myself, I tend both to oversimplify things and overcomplicate things. Sometimes the same things!

Vince July 21, 2011 at 2:55 pm

There are a lot of simple religions out there – we call them false religions. They’re usually defended by simple comments as “your daddy will always love you.” I’ve literally heard that one from a well-meaning Protestant.

Why anyone would think that something as complex and wonderful and incomprehensible as God would be simple to understand is beyond me. Catholicism – real, hard core, fundamental Catholicism – is a religion for people who understand that it’s a little more complex than saying a “Sinner’s Prayer” in the back of a church one day and claiming now to be always saved.

Your daddy may always love you, but you can separate yourself from His love by your actions and your stubborn defiance to his commandments.

Remember what CS Lewis said about atheism and simplistic religions, “Both these are boy’s philosophies.”

John April 1, 2013 at 3:38 am

Dear Catholic Christian brothers, peace be with you and your loved ones. As an Afghan Catholic Christian my special thanks wholeheartedly goes to brother Matt for his creativity and establishment of this blogma. Your thoughts and viewpoints are undoubtedly quite helpful to me. I learned a lot about my religion, Christianity, here and I appreciate your great efforts in putting your lovely words here which is a clear guidance to Christians like me who live in a country surrendered 99% by Muslim majority and where there is no Church and Christians like me are not allowed to have church and to practice their religion.
Lets pray for me, my family and kids, my country as a whole for our safety and security and for having a lawful government to allow minorities like me, christians to be also able to practice their religion and be able to open Churches for the followers of the Christian faith.
Love you all brothers and sistes,
Your prayers are the utmost importance for me.

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