The Simple Life
by Vernard Eller
Table of Contents
this publication was originally published by abingdon press (nashville: 1971). some material has been added by the author.
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Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In memory of one whose labyrinthine life,
by the grace of God, did come to be
- If It's the Simple Life, Why Does it Have to Be so Complicated?
- The First and the Rest
- As You Were
- In but not Of
- Simply Put Parables
- It's the Life Insights
- Why Didn't You Do What We Wanted You To?
- It Really Is the Life
If It's the Simple Life, Why Does it Have to Be so Complicated?
Simply put, it's the life! And that being so, one would think that the book about it could be simple as well.
By "the simple life," we are going to start saying now and continue saying until the very end, we mean to designate that stance toward possessions and "things" that was recommended, taught, and practiced by Jesus--only this and nothing other than this, even though something other might seem to qualify under the rubric. This is to say that our entire discussion will assume the Christian orientation of both author and reader and take place within that context. No opinion will be expressed regarding what values or possibilities there might be in a non-Christian "simple life." A book on that subject could be written (and many have been), but this is not one of them. Our interest is the Christian understanding of the simple life.
One may say, "And such a qualification should have the effect of making the discussion just that much more simple."
It does. And the Christian doctrine of the simple life would be simplicity itself, except:
- If we let it get too simple we won't have the wherewithal for a book.
- The Christian teaching is by nature dialectical.
- The people who are supposed to be following the teaching are human beings.
The "Dialectic" of the Simple Life
This matter of "dialectics" is going to be with us all the way, so let us get it well in hand right here at the beginning. Thinking becomes "dialectical" when it finds itself being pulled two ways at once--when it finds it necessary to give weight and attention to two different and apparently opposed poles of thought. The best picture of "dialectic" I can propose is a demonstration seen frequently in appliance and department stores. The store wants to call attention to its vacuum cleaners and so rigs one with the hose pointed upward and the machine turned on "blow." In the jet of air above the nozzle rides a ping-ong ball, dancing imponderably in space. Actually, the ball is caught in the balance between two opposing forces. Gravity is at work to pull it down. But when the ball gives way to that gravity and does come down, this brings it that much closer to the source of the air jet, which has the effect of blowing it up. Yet, when the ball assents to that force and goes up, it quickly gets out of range to the point where gravity takes over again and pulls it back down.
(For those who appreciate a bit of sophistication in their theology, it can be said that it is the Bernoulli Principle that keeps the ball from slipping out sideways. In theology, then, it is the Sin Principle that enables people to slip out sideways--which is why so many more people than ping-pong balls are lost and physics is so much more of an exact science than theology is.) Plainly, the ball is not fixed in place but can stay in place only as long as it continues dancing in and out of place. Thought (or action) that operates out of this sort of dynamic tension, giving attention to one truth in such a way that attention must then immediately be given to its counterpart--this is what we mean by "dialectic."
Of course, the simple life is by no means the on dialectical teaching to be found in Christianity; and, indeed, we will discover several different dialectics operating within the simple life itself. However, the most central one is this: essentially, the simple life is the believer's inner relationship to God finding expression in his outward relationship to "things."
This is what might be called a "weighted dialectic," in that it clearly is the first pole that takes priority, is determinative and all-controlling, and is in fact the source that gives rise to the second pole. Yet, even though the pole of outward expression is secondary, it is absolutely essential: this is a true dialectic. If someone were to claim that the simple life is that life which wants to go all the way with inner relationship to God and so deny the need for appropriate outward expression, that would be proof enough that the inner relationship itself lacks probity. But on the other hand, there is no sort of outward expression that, in and of itself, can be taken as proof that the inner relationship is true. There is no alternative but to keep both elements in view simultaneously. At every step our consideration of the simple life must dance back and forth between the inner relationship to God and the outward relationship to "things," each move toward one pole calling for a corrective move toward the other.
A Simple Life Parable of Kierkegaard
The plan for this book called for Søren Kierkegaard, to be brought into play only in the second part; but because he has a parable that gets to the very heart of what Christianity understands by the simple life--and because it so beautifully underlines the point we are making--we have chosen to give him a piece of the action herehere.
When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable--but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.1
Clearly, "the view of the stars" here intends one's awareness and enjoyment of God--which is, of course, an inner relationship. Yet notice that the intensity of lantern light cannot be equated simply with a person's financial worth. Kierkegaard elsewhere specifies that one's concern over what may be the little he owns or, for that matter, his concern over precisely that which he does not own but would like to--these concerns can be just as obstructive of the star view as can the actual owning itself.
Likewise, the parable does not necessarily demand the extinguishing of each and every carriage lantern; from one source or another the horses need at least enough light to see where they are going; and in our day and age, if not in Kierkegaard's, the law would require enough of a running light to keep the carriage from being run down. And even more so with the simple life than with the carriage, it will be completely impossible to set down a hard, fast, universally applicable law as to how much lantern light is contributive and how much constitutes an obscuring of the view.
And then consider that the extinguishing of lantern in itself in no way insures that the rider will in fact catch the view of the stars; there always is the possibility that he may keep his face only to the ground. There just is no outward arrangement that can stand as a guarantee of the inner relationship. Actually, the matter probably will want to go both ways: the rider catches a glimpse of the stars, which moves him to blow out his lanterns, and the dousing of the lanterns serves to enhance his view of the stars. This is what it means to be dialectical.
The "Complex" Vs. the "Complicated"
But that the doctrine of the simple life is by nature dialectical means only that the concept is complex rather than simple (in the technical meaning of those terms); it is not to say that either the understanding or the practice of it must be complicated. That is true; the complicating aspect comes in the fact that the understanding and practice have to be accomplished by human beings. And because of their profound comprehension of and stalwart adherence to the Sin Principle, the first thing that has to be said about human beings is that, if they possibly can find a way of working things to their own advantage, they will do it.
- So someone will say: "O.K. You say that the essence of the simple life is an inner relationship. I'll buy that. I've got the relationship; I love God like nobody's business. And it is nobody's business but mine! You can't say that I don't love God. You've already admitted that there are no outward signs that can prove whether or not one has a view of the stars--and I'm telling you that I see them. So get off my back about my standard of living. I don't own anything but what I need, and I'm just as good a Christian as anyone else. And by the way, what kind of car is it that you drive?" The dialectic of the simple life leaves itself wide open for misuse by those who want credit for living it but who are in no way inclined to change their style of life.
- But the misuse can go the other way just as easily: "All right! The simple life involves a particular manner and level of living. Very good. You just define that way of life for me; put it down in a 1-2-3 order, and I will set about conforming to those standards. Of course, once I have done it I will expect you to recognize the achievement and credit me as the righteous Christian I am. After all, what would be the sense of making all these sacrifices unless I get something in return?" So the dialectic of the simple life also leaves itself wide open for misuse by the sort of legalism and works-righteousness that would earn credit for living it without even realizing what it means to have a view of the stars.
complaint is always possible: "It's got to be one way or the other. You say which, and we'll be happy to go along. But you've got to make up your mind. If the simple life is an inner attitude, we'll play it that way. If it is a visible and concrete mode of life, we'll operate accordingly. But come on, you've got to say which!"
It is the universal human ingenuity at taking advantage of a situation--including the double-endedness of a dialectic--that makes the simple life so complicated. In the same way it makes complicated the writing of this book. When I rush over to shut off the escape hatch at one end of the dialectic, that inevitably leaves unguarded the hatch at the other end; but to run back to that end necessarily is to desert this end. If we come down too strongly on the simple life as inner relationship, we say something false. But if we emphasize it as being an outward mode of living, we also say something false. This subject isn't going to easy, so I beg my readers to be as helpful as they can.
Our purpose is not simply to help us think dialectically or to comprehend a dialectical thesis; it is to help us (you, the reader, and me, the writer) feel, act, and be like a dancing ping-pong ball regarding our own manner of life. This means that we need to become suspicious of ourselves--particularly when we feel complacent about the style in which we are living or to which we aspire. Most of all, we need to suspect ourselves whenever there arises an urge to escape the tension and flee to either one pole or the other as a means of justifying ourselves and our chosen way of life. I will confess that the writing of this book makes me uncomfortable; I hope that you are willing to share the dialectical discomfort with me.
Finally, a word should be said to the effect that this leaving of itself wide open for misuse is not a defect nor is it anything unique to the doctrine of the simple life; it is a hallmark of the gospel itself. After all, that gospel centers upon a Savior who was absurdly easy to crucify; it has to do with the free grace of God that, as Bonhoffer pointed out, so easily can be misused as cheap grace. Yet this is the way the gospel was meant to be; this leaving of himself vulnerable to misuse is a mark of God's great love toward us. And the goal of that love is that, through it, we--each and all of us--someday will come to desert the ways of misuse and learn instead to live out of the view, the prospect, the view of the stars.
Copyright (c) 1971