The Big Picture isn’t everything

In “Arrows and Epigrams,” a section that belongs to Twilight of the Idols (1889), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an aphorism that I will never forget:

I distrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Granted, Nietzsche hyperbolizes like a hammered man in a German beer hall. Nevertheless, I glean wisdom here. The philosopher gives voice to my pent-up frustration with systematizers, especially the kind of theologians (think: Aquinas and Calvin*) and their zealous acolytes (think: Thomists and Calvinists**) who obsessively sort out and tidy up reality (read: God and Christian life), as if that reality, in its full-orbed complexity and mystery, would yield, without a protest, to their finite and fallible minds. Systematizers are tempted by power—the power to exhaust the truth and conclude all discourse with a decisive period. The will to a system lacks integrity because there is no acknowledgement of ignorance and uncertainty, let alone confession of pride and prejudice.

The question is not “Are you for or against systems?” Systems are unavoidable, as Nietzsche’s own philosophy demonstrates. Therefore, let us ask: “How can systematizers relax the will-to-power?” My answer: accommodate stories. Stories, as any reader of fiction knows, stubbornly refuse to be sorted out and tidied up. Even the denoument, which is supposed to tie loose ends together, leaves much unanswered. That unfinished quality—or ellipsis—respects the imagination, experience, and affections of the invested reader. No story pretends to say everything; it often begins in medias res and ends there, too. A system is only good as its capacity to hold stories, whether my own story or the story of God in salvation history.

In his First Things essay, “Uncertainty and the Christian,” Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner makes a similar point: the Big Picture is only as good as the Small Pictures that constitute it:

Uncertainty is at the center of the Christian vocation. Uncertainty may not comprehensively describe that vocation, but it defines it in an essential way. Many Christians will and do reject this claim, I realize. “We know with certainty all that is important to know!” they will say. God is in control; God is good; God rewards the faithful; Jesus is Lord, and in him death and sin are defeated; the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church, and heaven awaits us. These are indeed Big Picture certainties. But the Big Picture isn’t all there is to God’s reality or to the Christian’s life. Small pictures are the bits that make up the Big Picture’s mosaic. In these little corners of reality, dark holes of uncertainty await the unwary, and teeming abysses of confusion stand ready to swallow the complacent. In the Time of the Virus, church leaders seem to be focusing mostly on the Big Picture. They shouldn’t; it’s evangelically irresponsible.

Scriptural revelation is riddled with the deepest of uncertainties, often signaled by the question “who knows?” It is a question that both unveils our fundamental ignorance as creatures, and that, in that revelation, turns us to the dizzying grace of God in the place we actually live.


*  I admit this is an unfair broadside against Aquinas and Calvin; they are not guilty of being power-hungry, although their systems lends themselves to those who are.

**  Unfortunately, the acolytes of Aquinas and Calvin often give these theologians a black eye because they never relax the will-to-power as they brush aside counterfactuals and nuances that do not fit within the system.

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