Concluding one series and announcing another.
by Everett Wilson
December 9, 2006
Once I learned what Ockham's Razor was, I realized that I had been living by it, or trying to, most of my adult life. A wordy rendition of it is, "Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity," but I prefer a more terse definition, in keeping with the term's intent: "Keep it simple, Stupid."
Ockham's Razor, skillfully applied, cuts away the extraneous but recognizes the necessary. It neither simplifies the properly complex, nor complicates the purely simple.
William of Ockham was an English theologian at the turn of the fourteenth century, so he wielded the razor for the same reasons that I do. Of all who walk the earth, theologians seek to express "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." When they are using Ockham's Razor they try to exclude not only untruth, but also the unnecessary; equally, to include all that is necessary.
In theology, but likely also in those areas where you have a vital interest, mistakes in understanding or execution happen when you err by making things too complicated on the one hand, or too simple on the other. Theology has errors on both sides. If the errors have the effect of doing permanent damage if continued, they are called heresy. They may be heresies of fact or heresies of relevance, but either way they are not incidental.
Some of my readers may tune out when they hear the word "heresy." They think it pejorative and never in order, certainly in bad taste. Such use of language violates an unwritten but firm code. Instead of K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, Stupid) they prefer K.I.N.D. (Keep it nice, Dude.) They remind me of this wonderful exchange from Born Yesterday, which goes like this, as I recall it:
A Senator--upon hearing the young reporter use the word "Bribery" in connection with a deal the Senator was involved in--says indignantly, "Be careful when you use the word "bribery" around me, young man!" Whereupon Billie Dawn, the simple heroine who was "born yesterday" in contrast to all of those who say they aren't, says to the Senator, "Eighty thousand dollars you got. What word do you want him to use?"
It is itself heresy to call anything heresy that is not, or to call people heretics when they are no more than people who disagree with you. But you are not "calling names" when actual heresy exists. You are simply using an historic word appropriately.
In. everyday life, here are some examples of what happens when we forget to use Ockham's Razor, and real harm to truth is the consequence.
1. Almost any euphemism.
2, Almost any oxymoron, such as "fat-free half and half."
3. "As good as" applied to substitutes, especially in edibles.
4. Scatological speech that substitutes insult for information.
Examples of Number Four are not offered because they are unprintable.
This column ends the series titled "Favorite Things." At least it will join Barnabas in hiatus, if not full retirement. Beginning next time I will write about Simple Things, with the subtitle "Making the Rough Places Plain." I will be wielding Ockham's razor more openly, sometimes to trim away the unnecessary, and sometimes surgically reconstructing some precious truths that have lapsed because their custodians traded simplicity for simple-mindedness. I hope you will join me, and invite your friends along.
About the Author:
Everett Wilson is pastor of Prairie Lake Evangelical Covenant Church, the fifth church he has served since seminary graduation in 1962.
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