Q. Why didn’t the monad cross the road?
A. Because it lacks spatial location.
I confess that I am a student of theology and not of comedy. Nevertheless, it is one of my pet projects to resurrect divine simplicity from the dustbin of overlooked doctrine. I would, if I could, exhume the graves of Platonists and rip the doctrine from their dry hands. Alas, I do not live in the ancient Mediterranean, so I will settle for picketing from the comfort of my futon. “Divine Simplicity is a joyful Christian teaching!” To the end of proving this protest, I propose to bring the doctrine into conversation with that most mirthful of human phenomena: laughter.
This may seem an abnormal combination, but it is one I think will prove fruitful. Consider G.K. Chesterton’s comment at the end of Orthodoxy: “There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” For many philosophers and theologians, simplicity is exactly what is too great to be shown, where God most clearly breaks our words. Like trying to explain a joke, theological discussions of simplicity complexify and fall short. Technicalities scatter like ants trying to capture what cannot be contained. We are, quite frankly, speaking what is best kept in awe.
So Karl Barth quipped about philosophical doctrines of simplicity, “the absolutized idea of simplicity itself belongs to the complexity from which man must be delivered.” Speaking of divine simplicity is a constant tacking between trying to say what cannot be said, and speaking what must be said in the praise of God. This is a kind of joke theologians are always playing on themselves. We attempt to say what cannot be said and find ourselves guffawing when God exceeds our explanations.
So, what is divine simplicity? The answer, dear friends, is never simple. Unlike the name suggests, the common denominator of all doctrines of divine simplicity turns out not to be a positive statement about God. The reason for this is straightforward enough; metaphysics is hard, resulting in many ideas of what “simplicity” might mean for God. Thankfully, various versions of the doctrine do agree on what it means to be a creature. Philosophers and theologians donned their detective caps and came to the startling conclusion that creatures have parts. This can include temporal parts (this year, last year, my teenage years), body parts (hands, foreskin, forehead), or metaphysical parts (attributes, essences, “vibes”). To be a creature is to have a lot of parts.
Perhaps such an observation does not seem profound. In many ways, it is a glorified version of the simple truth every chef soon discovers: we creatures can be sliced, diced, and pulled to bits. This insight is everywhere in the Christian tradition. Jesus famously recommended going without a hand or two (Matt 5:30). Saint Augustine was more ethereal, lamenting that his soul was cut up and divided, spread like too-thin butter on the toast of time. The basic point remains, though. Every creature can be broken into smaller bits.
What’s more, because our parts can be separated, they can also be put back together — and not necessarily in the way they were before. This can be as simple as a platelet separating from my blood to form a clot, or even as my hand moving from my knee to my cheek. My different parts will be separated, shifted, and re-positioned in about a trillion different ways just to get through a day.
The earliest Platonic expositors of divine simplicity thought this was a raw deal. They did not like that creatures could be broken and rearranged like Legos. I don’t suppose I can blame them; I hate change almost as much as they did. Nevertheless, we Christians have to regard all of this as good. God created us this way.
But, in a shocking turn of events, God cannot be cut into bits. The divine part of divine simplicity says this: when talking about God, don’t talk about separable parts. God does not have body parts, temporal parts, nor even metaphysical parts. It is the attempt to explain this last claim — that God does not have metaphysical parts — that makes theologians spring for their Latin and Greek lexicons. Fortunately, that goes beyond our purposes here. We need only say this: Creatures have parts and can be cut up, God does not and cannot. Why is this important?
If we squint hard enough, denying that God has separable parts can help us explain other doctrines. Trinity: The three Divine persons cannot be semi-divine “parts” of the one God, because God cannot be parted. Christology: Jesus cannot be “partially” God, because God cannot be parted. God’s covenant faithfulness: when God makes promises, God is not acting on “part” of his character rather than another, such that his commitment could change. God is always faithful to God’s full character because God cannot be parted. To summarize: the whole of God is wholly God. The phrases “part of God” and “partially God” are wholly anathema.
But for my part, I am rather more interested in how the doctrine can be used to describe salvation. This will require a bit of explanation.
The claim that God is one and “simple” can be transformed in the same way theologians (that alchemical bunch) transformed the claim that God is good. It is not that we can take something good — say, an ice-cream cone —multiply its goodness by infinity, and then claim that God is like that: an impossibly good ice-cream cone. Nor can we set up a tier list, place God in S-tier, and rank all creatures somewhere below. No, when we claim that God is good, we mean something different than when we claim someone is at the top of a tier list. God’s goodness is (at the very least) the source of all goodness that we see — the One who created the creaminess of ice-cream, who writes the rules for ranking the tier-list. Our goodness is good, God’s goodness makes good.
In a similar way, to claim that God is simple is also to say that God creates the unity of our world. For Pseudo-Dionysius, God is “the principle of simplicity for those turning toward simplicity, point of unity for those made one.” Simplicity here cannot mean a lack of parts, as though our bodies slowly morphed into a perfect, monadic orb in the presence of God (alas, if only). God created the parts. God likes them. Rather, creaturely “simplicity” occurs when parts form a rich whole, a harmony. These musical metaphors are especially helpful here. Two notes can be as simple as a single note, if they come into a full-bodied harmony. In the same way, a full 100-person orchestra can be simpler than Brad Paisley with an acoustic guitar, so long as the orchestra isn’t tone-deaf. Simplicity is seen in the skill that draws deep complexity together, not in lacking depth to begin with. So, for John of Damascus, God’s simplicity “gathers and converts the divided into its own simplicity.” This is accomplished first and foremost through Christ. Jesus is something like a great musician; he is orchestrating the whole of creation into a harmony. Just as a musician’s skill is most on display when working at a complex and difficult piece, God’s simplicity is most on display when Jesus “breaks down the dividing wall of hostility” and reconciles two (or more) very different peoples, retaining their differences like musical notes retain their distinct frequencies.
The Platonists would not be happy with this conclusion. For many of them, creaturely “simplicity” really is having the fewest and most homogenous parts. For example, many of them really liked air, since they thought it was one massive block of the same stuff (I would put forward a wheel of pecorino cheese as a more plausible example). This was, they claimed, because these “simpler” creations were more “like” God — they imaged God’s simplicity best by being less complex. Unfortunately, this makes God’s simplicity a model for the dull and the boring.
Christians, who more firmly believe that the creature need not be “like” the Creator in any direct sense, are free to say something different. Our role is not primarily to resemble God’s part-less simplicity — it is hard to say what that would mean! Rather, we are supposed to witness to it. In short, simplicity is an attribute of peace. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one” (Eph 2:14a). “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity…. For there the Lord bestows his blessing” (Ps. 133:1; 3) As a blessing that makes one, simplicity is at its clearest when two created realities that are least like each other are somehow made to enrich each other. The example I like to use is the sweet and sour of sweet and sour chicken, but we can also talk about the body and the soul, the cream and the cookie of an Oreo, the fertile interplay of organic and inorganic matter in loam, or the diverse gifts of the body of Christ. Again, God’s simplicity is evident not in a world that is homogenous and dull, but by making it rich, diverse, and therefore one. What we want is not sameness, but skillful and deep harmony.
I am now in a position to say what laughter has to do with divine simplicity. The comparison is, at last, simple. Laughter is also a power that lets unlike things belong together. If divine simplicity leads us to value not only oneness, but unity rich in diverse and unlike parts, laughter’s ability to embrace the unlike (and the unlikeable) is immediately of interest.
This point can be made sharper by a brief apology for the Platonists. I must admit that I have been altogether too harsh on my Athenian friends. The truth is that the desire for a “simpler” world — in the sense of a world with fewer moving parts — is entirely understandable. We give similar advice to artists all the time. Less ambitious works are often more coherent. As it stands, our world seems like the definition of “too much going on.” It is full of a bewildering variety of beings, and it is not at all clear that these realities really belong in the same container. What, after all, does a mayfly have to do with the accretion disk of a black hole? What do Oreo cookies have to do with suffering? Mozart with go-carts? Jerusalem with Athens? We call this world a uni-verse, betraying an instinctual trust that the many parts of this world do belong together as one reality. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to say what actually unifies it. There is too much diversity and too many forms of difference for us to comprehend; any artwork that contained so many unlike subjects would be accused of incoherence. It is easier on the mind to call all this variety second-rate, regrettable, absurd. It is easier on the heart to seek escape into a “simpler” realm of fewer parts. It is a tremendous exercise in hope to continue treating this universe as more than a loose collection of fragments, to treat it as a whole gift from one God.
Of course, the world is a single, if sprawling, gift. Some of its seeming non-sequiturs — like the co-existence of mayflies with black holes — are part of the original design. Others, like the struggle between sorrow and joy, are not. Yet, even the un-intended tensions cannot pose a final obstacle to God’s reconciling work. We may not be able to make sense of these tensions ourselves, but they will be resolved. We can trust that this world will be whole because the Lord’s simplicity remains a power that shines through these tensions. The God who can bring good out of evil can also make one out of the many, can forge peace in the midst of the opposition of all-against-all.
Now is time for the critical observation. These same complexities, absurdities, and tensions that throw into question the world’s coherence; they are also laughter’s proper home. Laughter thrives with the unexpected, the absurd, the painful. It flourishes with odd combinations of topics which could otherwise bewilder. Chickens and traffic laws, concrete canoes and ice-cream cones, Priests, Rabbis, and bars — we cannot always say how and why these belong together in the same universe, but a belly laugh goes a long way toward trusting that they do. Even the worst realities are made a little less disintegrating with laughter. Mark Twain tells a great half-truth when he says “The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” As artists, comedians bridge gaps. They display their skill by entering into the bitterest lacunae of our world and bringing out of them jokes belonging to a coherent comedic style.
Like God’s simplicity, then, laughter can take two unrelated or opposed realities and bring out of them not confusion, but unity. It can do so without destroying or homogenizing the differences between the realities. Indeed, for a joke to be funny it must play with a real tension, the more extreme the better. When we laugh, we affirm both that Priests, Rabbis, and ministers are very different, and that there is at least one context in which they belong together: a joke.
The connection a joke draws between different realities may be paper-thin. This has often led people to dismiss laughter as frivolous. In the case of puns, the links are as superficial as an accident of language! But even spinning these spider-silk connections is a work of hope. To laugh at the absurd is to hold out the possibility of a hidden logic, one that might truly hold both sides of a contradiction together. To laugh in the midst of suffering is to suggest that even these painful times may yet be folded into a joyful life. True, a joke may not itself be enough to resolve a contradiction or fold sorrow into joy, but it does not need to be enough. A good laugh is at last a prayer, a trust in God’s ability to draw the scattering threads of creation together, deeper than what our jokes ever could.
Perhaps it seems I have praised laughter too much. Very well, I have. It is not always true that laughter unifies, and the occasional suspicion comedy receives is justified. Laughter can be cruel. Laughter can exclude. Laughter can cut down, ridicule, mock, and distract. There is a dark side to laugher’s ability to draw together. Unified groups in our world are usually unified at someone’s expense. Jokes are famously the property of the “in” group. The obvious example is racist humor. A thin and false conviviality of skin-color is built by denying the joy of real community. How then shall we discern the good laughter and the bad?
Comparing divine simplicity to humor gives us the ability to name why certain forms of laughter are wicked. Jokes that build unity only by thrusting away other good parts of reality are a kind of dualism, not an image of the unity of God. More than that, we can sniff the specter of Platonic “simplicity” lurking behind bad humor. If the result of the joke is that there are fewer people accepted in a group, and that those people are less and less willing to dissent from the group, then we have a counterfeit simplicity. Homogeneity and paucity of parts—these are the properties of a Platonist creation drawing close to a dull and drab god. Simplicity that is bland, either by erasing the outside world, or by reducing it into a generic universalism, is a false harmony.
Good laughter defies this bland simplicity because good laughter is a type of grace. Augustine (not normally known for his humor) brings this out in his Confessions when he says to God “Let me speak before your mercy… and not before man, my mocker… Perhaps you too laugh at me, but you will turn and be my mercy.” Good laughter is merciful, and mercy, like divine simplicity, has the ability to heal and unify what is divided. Good laughter is, indeed, a force for reconciliation. Jokes can make friends, jokes ease tensions between friends, and, if G.K. Chesterton is any evidence, joviality can even form a few “friends of God.”
If laughter can be a mercy that makes friends of God, we should round-off this section with one last connection between humor, simplicity, and salvation. My youth pastor once argued that the Gospel is intrinsically funny. I remain convinced that he was right. When a comedian is good, waiting for their punchline is like a training in messianic time. The one line which can draw the joke to a conclusion is coming—indeed, is already hidden in the preamble, but it remains unexpected, almost absurd. We might imagine a long, story-based joke: There is a buildup where the comedian begins telling the story. For the longest time the audience is held in suspense. They do not know where the joke is going, why the comedian is reaching in so many directions. Though the answer is hidden in the text, those who think they know it are almost certainly wrong. All of a sudden the end arrives like a thief in the night. There it is, the punchline, “the one we were waiting for.” The audience explodes. An unremarked comment at the beginning — the “cornerstone which the builders rejected” — has become the lynchpin of the whole joke. Looking back, it feels obvious that this is the way it had to be. Everything, even the timing, was right. Trusting the skill of the comedian to land a joke is not far from trusting the ability of God to unify this life. To laugh may yet be a foretaste of the One who is to come.
You have as much laughter as you have faith, Luther said. That is true, but I am trying to go further. To laugh well is one of the best glimpses of God’s simplicity that we have. God’s simplicity is seen in the mysterious harmonies that pock-mark this creation. It is God’s simplicity that makes even bananas and sushi belong in the same culinary form (though hopefully not the same meal). It is simplicity that makes a sunrise gild both blue skies and yellow leaves, that gives us a world where Mozart and go-cart almost rhyme; it is simplicity that makes strange facts like this seem delightful and significant. Though we cannot always know how or why all these diverse realities are at home together in the arms of the One who makes them, laughter suggests strange logics by which even the oddest combinations can be, in fact, combinations and not cacophonies. Nor is it a mistake that laughter comes to its own in the midst of struggle, suffering, or evil. Salvation, simplicity, and humor are intertwined. I will insist on this: laughter is a foretaste of reconciliation, an intimation of unity, and a type of atonement. The God whose power is evident in bringing good out of evil makes his simplicity known bringing harmony out of difference and division. There is no making at-one without God’s simple unity, and while laughter renders the odd at one, Jesus renders the at-odds at one.
There are, of course, other realities that should be connected to simplicity. Promises, for example, are a chief gift of God’s grace. Marriage vows draw a relationship into a life-long whole, a unity that is certainly much deeper than any built purely on humor. In the same way, God’s promises to Israel weave together the two testaments into the seamless garment of salvation. Indeed, Karl Barth claims that God’s simplicity just is God’s trustworthiness and self-fidelity, the bedrock of promise. But for all this consistency, fidelity, and trustworthiness, God has a strange and novel way of fulfilling promises. Joseph had to be thrown into a well to rule his brothers. God elected one nation so that “all nations shall be blessed” (Gen 22:18). And Jesus declares that God would raise children up from rocks to stay true to Abraham (Matt 3:9). This just is how God fulfills God’s promises, the unexpected and the strange. It should not be surprising, then, that the first child of promise was named Isaac — that wonderful onomatopoeia for laughter. It should be said again. The twin children of promise are Isaac and Jesus, or, as a translation would have it, “Laughter” and “God Saves.”
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- This is less true in Christian accounts of divine simplicity than in pagan philosophy. Plotinus, for example, comes close to saying the term is nonsensical. The divine One is so simple that even the conceptual distinctions implied by our words distort simplicity in the telling. Maximus the Confessor echoes this, yet, insofar as Christians think God has revealed simplicity to us, we are free to talk about it under the tutelage of scripture. It is nonetheless telling that simplicity/unicity often is compared with God’s intrinsic hiddenness. ↑
- CD II/1, 450. See Keith L. Johnson, “Karl Barth and the Purification of Divine Simplicity” in Modern Theology 35.3 (2019) for an account of Barth’s doctrine of simplicity. ↑
- Conf. 11.29. This is, of course, a paraphrase. Augustine would not have had a toaster. ↑
- Except, of course, in Christ. ↑
- The strongest version of this claim says that all of God’s attributes or perfections are identical with God’s essence. I would recommend that version, but we need not split hairs over its meaning for the purposes of this essay. There are Church Fathers, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa most notably, who dissent from this identity thesis, but I nevertheless think they got the core of divine simplicity right. ↑
- This is another way of saying that God’s commitment is eternal. Because our lives take place in episodes or eras, we can sometimes reasonably say “that was then, this is now” to dismiss some of our outmoded promises. God’s life, however, cannot be divided into eras, as though God’s commitments or promises could expire. ↑
- This particular point is probably where my account of Divine Simplicity is at its most idiosyncratic, at least among modern theologians. This is not necessarily because theologians would disagree, but because theologians are normally debating the metaphysical claims of the doctrine about God a se. The ethical and creaturely implications of the doctrine go under the radar. ↑
- Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colin Luibheid ( New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 51. See a similar point in John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 1.12 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 9 (1899; repr. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), p. 13. ↑
- These musical images come from John Behr’s account of Irenaeus’s doctrine. See John Behr, Synchronic and Diachronic Harmony: St Irenaeus on Divine Simplicity in Modern Theology 35.3 (2019): 428-441. ↑
- John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 1.14, p. 17. ↑
- I am engaging in a bit of homogenizing myself here, insofar as Platonist doctrines were as diverse and nuanced as their Christian counterparts. They would mostly be agreed on this point, however. ↑
- A trinitarian account of divine simplicity would, of course, have to include rich, asymmetric relations within that account. Whatever its creaturely analog actually is (if there is one), divine simplicity cannot be conceived as sameness, or even “oneness” in an unproblematically numerical sense. To the extent that divine simplicity has served to promote homogeneity in Christian tradition, I think it is an inadequately trinitarian understanding of “oneness” that is the ultimate culprit, allowing us to uncritically accept the platonic moral recommendations that went along with the doctrine. ↑
- Only half because he goes on to say there will be no laughter in Heaven. Laughter may display its power in the midst of sorrow, but it is not dependent on it! ↑
- This is similar to Augustine’s critique of his own laughter when stealing the infamous pear. Such a laughter is merciless, at the expense of others. Conf. 2.9.17. ↑
- This is not meant to rule out friendly roasts. My objection is less about the content of jokes (though that does matter), and more about their context, intentions, and effects. Moreover, the issue is not that jokes have to aim at some audiences and not others. Limitation is part of what it means to be a creature. Rather, the issue is that the limitation is insular, benefiting those inside at the expense of those without. In contrast, God’s limiting election is always aimed at benefiting the whole; Israel is elected for the sake of the Gentiles. The result is that even God’s excluding election becomes a differentiating principle resulting in even further unity. ↑
- Conf. 1.6.7. See Justin Shaun Coyle, “Taking Laughter Seriously in Augustine’s Confessions” in Augustinian Studies 49.1 (2018): 65-86. ↑
- CD II/1, 458-59. ↑