December 2023
Reductionism: The Disease That Breeds Conflict

Reductionism runs rampant in our culture. It's the flattening of all complexity for the sake of control and comfort. And it's killing our conversations.

I hate conflict. And it's not just a hatred that festers into frustration; it has bodily symptoms: a tightening throat, shortness of breath, increasing heart rate. I'm sure it's related to my anxiety, but it appears to run deeper than that. It's a Matthew 5:9 reaction, a visceral response to discord, a response that seems mysteriously rooted in the heart of God. I don't know how else to explain it.

But this can make it tough to live in our world, since we have so very much conflict these days, over COVID and climate change, politics and personal freedom, meaning and morals. But beneath all that conflict, there's a disease. It's what we might call a mental disease: reductionism.

What's Reductionism?

So, what is reductionism? It sounds like one of those academic terms that's too abstract to be of any use. But that's part of its danger. It's quite simple to break down, but to do that, I need to tell you where it came from. Are you ready?

Satan. There. I said it. I'll give you a minute.

Reductionism is the stepchild of our desire for mastery (complete control), which emerged from the ancient evil of autonomy, and autonomy comes from the heart of the father of lies (John 8), Satan. I realize I'm making things harder for myself by continuing to introduce terms that may not be widely understood. I'll pause. Autonomy is "the idea that you are a law unto yourself." In other words, it's the idea that you're completely and utterly independent. Here's how John Frame puts it:

Sinners at heart do not want to live in God's world, though they have no choice about it. They recognize the truth to some extent, because they need to get along and to make a living. But they would very much like the world to be different, and often they either try to make it different or pretend that it is. In the unbelieving fantasy world, the Lord of the Bible does not exist, and man is free to live by his own standards of truth and right. In a word, the unbeliever lives as if he were autonomous, subject only to his own law. Nobody can be really autonomous, because we are all subject to God's control, authority, and presence. But we pretend that we are autonomous; we act as though we were autonomous, in the unbelieving fantasy world (John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 22).

Satan, you'll remember, wanted to be completely independent, like God. He wanted to be autonomous. And he convinced Adam and Eve that this was worth a shot in the dark. In fact, it ended up sending them into the dark. It sent them into a lie, because no one can be autonomous except God himself.

Now, if you're trying to be God (despite the laughable futility of that), what do you want to do? You want to master your life. You want full control. The thing is, you can't have that . . . you know, because you're not God. You're limited by nature. That's how you and I were made. But we're so stubborn that we don't accept limitation. We refuse to think we can't master our own lives. So, within what Frame calls the fantasy world of autonomy, we chase after mastery, and when we can't get it (again, we never will get it), then we pretend to have it with . . . reductionism.

I promise we're getting closer to the definition of reductionism now. If we can't master our lives, then we can simplify them and make it seem as if we're in full control. We can reduce the complexity of our own lives, the people in them, and the problems that surround us. We can take, in other words, an issue or person with a thousand dimensions and pretend that there's only one dimension. That's reductionism. Put differently by my friend and teacher, reductionism happens when people "reduce the world to one dimension of the whole. . . . But reductionism is poverty-stricken, not only in its threadbare endpoint consisting of only one dimension, but also in its explanatory power" (Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy, p. 111).

Reductionism, in short, is when people make something a lot simpler than it is. They do this for the sake of convenience, or egoism, or to build their own self-righteousness. There's no shortage of motives, but I can't think of any that are wholesome. And note what Poythress ended with: it lacks explanatory power. Read: it doesn't actually explain much.

So, there you have it. Satan introduced autonomy, which led us to desire mastery (which we can't have), and in our frustration we reduce people, problems, and situations to manageable bits (ignoring swaths of information) in order to convince ourselves of our own mastery. You can start to predict why this is so destructive.

Why Is Reductionism "Killing" Us?

Why is reductionism such a threat? Why is it "killing" us in terms of our communication with each other amidst a conflicted world? An example would help. Consider someone who's receiving welfare benefits in the US. A reductionist would say something as callous as, "He should just work like the rest of us; there are jobs out there. He's just being lazy, and we're paying for it!" Notice the focus on only one dimension of life: someone who appears to have the ability to work is not working. Therefore, that person must be lazy. (Warning: If that reasoning sounds good to you, then you're probably practicing reductionism all the time.)

But what about all the other dimensions of that person's life? What about his mental and physical health? What about his skillset in relation to current market demands? What about his family dynamics? Does his spouse have an addiction or a handicap of some sort? Does his child have special needs that require extra support and attention amidst a difficult job market? Dimensions. Dimensions. Dimensions.

Reductionism hurts people because it flattens them. It takes a human life (or a situation, political topic, etc.) and crushes it down to a single dimension, ignoring all of the others. That not only fails to align with reality (reality is always more complicated than we could ever dream; picture a bird's nest the size of Saturn); it insults people by making judgments based on that single dimension.

Reductionism hurts people because it flattens them. It takes a human life (or a situation, political topic, etc.) and crushes it down to a single dimension, ignoring all of the others.

Whether or not we know it, every time we choose reductionism, we choose an ancient, evil path. It's a path that goes back to mastery, then to autonomy, and ends at the feet of the worst being in existence, Satan himself. Satan loves our reductionism, because he knows how much destruction comes from short-sightedness. And Satan is a destroyer. He wants dissension, conflict, false judgment. He wants to burn the cities of humanity and smile at the smoke.    

Instead of Reductionism . . .

Reductionism is killing us because it's killing our conversations. It's killing open, receptive dialogue. It's polarizing the nation, even the world. For our part, we have to start identifying and assaulting reductionism whenever it crops up in our conversations.

But what are we supposed to do instead? We can't reduce things for the sake of feigned mastery, because we're limited. And we'll never be autonomous. We need God and other people to understand not just the world, but even ourselves truly. We need two things: humility and a withholding of assumptions.  

Humility is our ability to stand before a person or situation and say, "God, you know so much more than I do. I am small. I can't see much. I need your help to be wise, gracious, and loving." Humility puts us at the feet of others, not above their shoulders. And that's where Jesus sat with his own disciples (John 13). He wiped the mud and water off the lowest part of their body. Why? To teach us how we're supposed to engage with each other. Remember what he said after washing their feet? " I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you" (John 13:15). In conversations with other human beings, we're supposed to be lower than them. We're supposed to be at their feet, serving them through the painful and lowly act of listening.  

Humility puts us at the feet of others, not above their shoulders.

And this naturally helps us to withhold our assumptions. There's not enough room in the human soul to listen and judge at the same time. And if we're humble, internally confessing how few of the dimensions of a person's life or situation we're able to see, then assumptions should fade. Assumptions come with confidence; wisdom comes with circumspection, with carefulness, with recognizing our smallness amidst the greatness of God and his Lordship over every dimension of a person's life.

In short, we have to choose reductionism or Christ-like humility and service in understanding others. And these positions are opposites. You can't be a "reductionist Christian." That's a conflict of terms. The more reductionism reigns in our lives and in the broader culture, the less like Jesus we will look, and the more conflict will steal, break, and destroy our relationships.

God, help us to find joy and wisdom in our smallness. And help us to be foot-washers in every conversation.  

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