Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
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Thoreau (as we observed in an earlier installment) went to the woods because he wished “to front only the essential facts of life.” Such has been the goal of many famous “simplifiers,” past and present – everyone from Jean Jacques Rousseau to the editors and readers of Real Simple magazine.
Simplicity, in the minds of many, is primarily a matter of doing or not doing: dropping out of the rat-race, clearing away the clutter, getting rid of useless “stuff,” making life easier by stripping it of unnecessary distractions. This is all well and good so far as it goes; in fact, it is the very lesson Christ was trying to teach when He told the busy Martha that “only a few things are necessary, really only one.” But for all that, there’s a sense in which the Pilgrim’s notion of simplicity runs in a different – or perhaps a deeper – vein.
Old theologians and ancient Church Fathers had much to say about the simplicity of God Himself. There’s something important to be gleaned from this apparently antiquated concept. According to Systematics professor Louis Berkhof, God’s simplicity – or, as it used to be called, the unitas simplicitatis – is “expressive of the inner and qualitative unity of the Divine Being:”
When we speak of the simplicity of God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness. It means that God is not composite and is not susceptible of division in any sense of the word.[i]
God’s simplicity, then, is not centered in doing but in being. As the Latin term unitas simplicitatis (“the unity of simplicity”) suggests, its focal point is located in His oneness. “Hear, O Israel,” declares the Shema, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” – by which is meant not merely that He is the “One and Only God,” but also that He is One in and of Himself. As Berkhof explains, God is not “composed” of “parts.” Instead, He is single and the same from top to bottom, from start to finish, from outside to inside and back again. Like a square of real Van Briggle tile, He is completely, thoroughly, and genuinely Himself through and through – no veneer on the surface, nothing hidden underneath.
As a Reflector of the Divine Image, the Pilgrim sets his sights on this same kind of oneness or simplicity. To put it another way, he places a high value on integrity. In mathematics we employ the term integer to refer to a whole number. In life we use the word integrity to describe the unmixed, undivided, unadulterated wholeness or oneness of the person who is the same on the inside as on the outside – with whom there is no seam, no crack, no line of demarcation between seeming and being.
Soren Kierkegaard rightly discerned that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Such unity of purpose is the Pilgrim’s watchword as he sets out on “the road that points toward the chosen Vale.”[ii] In a world of “multi-ness” his heart is set upon singleness. Reaching for the only true prize, he bundles all his energies and powers into an overriding desire to become one by uniting with the One. The result is simplicity in the profoundest sense of the word: plainness, unaffectedness, and an inward consistency that remains intact even in the face of kosmic complexity.
[i] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1939), 62,
[ii] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book First.