Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

The more I research subjects and learn, live in community and observe people, experience life and grow old, the more I have become aware of the frightening complexity of everything. And, more disturbingly, the more I have become aware of how profoundly dangerous attempts to simplify and reduce complexity can be to ideas, peoples, and nations. Yet, one of the strongest rhetorical movements in our world is towards absolute simplicity, reducing issues down to their smallest parts. And why shouldn’t it be? Simplicity is safe, comprehendible, scientific (and therefore, potentially more “neutral”), and functional. It’s a lot easier to describe global conflicts using terms like “bad guys” and “good guys” than it is to acknowledge that, for example, the Libyan rebels (good guys?) ended a horrible dictatorship (bad guys), but some unknown number of the rebels are most likely radical Muslims with ties to terrorist organizations (bad).

In fact, none of us could live in our world without some kind of generalizing and simplifying (“The traffic usually isn’t too bad on Saturdays”; “Most dogs don’t eat people”; etc). But there is unquestionably a point at which the reduction of an idea is so great that we are no longer thinking about the original thing. Once that absurdly elusive line has been crossed, we begin making decisions based on misrepresentations of reality, decisions that can have serious consequences. This 9/11, I was struck more than ever by the tremendous need for Christians to actively and humbly seek to resist simplification and choose to remain open to complexity and correction.

Many Christians have unapologetically adopted the world’s simplistic, 30-second-sound-bite/talking-point/bumper-sticker/TV-news-debate/Facebook-status vision of the world. But we need to be able to say many things at once to represent reality and people faithfully:

We should be able to say that American foreign policy directly motivated the 9/11 attackers without removing any culpability from their actions.

We need to say that homosexuality is a sin and same-sex attraction probably has a biological basis.

We need to say that most Muslims in America are peaceful, law-abiding citizens and some are violent jihadists.

We can respect and honor the president and passionately oppose his policies.

We must boldly proclaim that Islam is a false religion while defending Muslims’ rights to build mosques in the U.S.

We must admit that atheists are often very intelligent, loving, honest, and pleasant people and know that they are spiritual fools.

We must admit that our troops have committed human rights abuses and they have averted human rights abuses through intervention.

The list could go on forever. And each of these points really should be qualified and nuanced further (but Richard Clark gets on me for my word count). Whether or not you agree with any one of these particular examples is irrelevant; I’m not trying to argue that these are the “correct” ways to think about these particular issues. Nor is this a call to be “moderate.” Rather, I want to encourage us to adopt the shape of these examples: admitting that most issues are very complex. This allows us to better represent issues, love neighbors, make decisions, and understand different perspectives. It also requires humility and an openness to correction. By accepting that the world is complex we acknowledge our own finitude before it, our inability to completely understand issues, and the possibility that we are wrong.



  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I love, love, love this train of thought. Having subtlety in the way we think about such complex issues is seriously missing in many parts of our culture. Or wait, was that generalizing too much?

  2. Since you put it that way, as an agnostic I too can say,

    We must admit that christians are often very intelligent, loving, honest, and pleasant people and know that they believe in fairy tales.

  3. Gabe,

    I agree. And I don’t think that our positions need to be interpreted as condescending or arrogant either. Now, I would also say that I would desire to help you move beyond seeing me as someone who believes in fairy-tales, as (I suspect) you might want to see me move beyond seeing atheism as spiritual foolishness.

    But what we both agree on is that people are complex. It is no more justified for a Christian to call atheists idiots than it is for atheists to call Christians idiots, although both parties genuinely disagree with each other.

    On a different note, I wanted to mention that this column directly relates to my Worldview series where I am arguing that we need to have a much more nuanced understanding of “worldview criticism.”

  4. Thank you for writing this. Absolutes are comforting. I often wish I totally bought into absolutes. But something in me pushes against that. I also think there’s got to be more to this than I am seeing.

    It’s good to know that I can be wrong some of the time. A lot of time, probably! =D And it’s good to know that God holds onto me and by grace I am saved. Otherwise, the overwhelming wave of my own inadequacies, uncertainties, anxieties and yes, even doubts, would be crushing.

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