Thursday, September 2, 2010

De Doctrina: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean Buridan, (and Devo)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at the Harvard School of Divinity in 1838,

he delivered an address that should be required reading for evangelicals. Basically, Emerson exhorted these young clergymen to turn their backs on doctrine to explore unfettered the limits of the human soul. The phrase that is commonly attributed to Emerson is that doctrine is a set of bandages that blinds our vision. Anyone who knows what happened to the Harvard School of Divinity (and Unitarianism) in the subsequent decades knows that they did just that: placed doctrine on the sidelines, calling it quaint and narrow.

Unfortunately, I hear the same thing from too many young evangelicals, who say that they are tired of doctrine and would rather “be” the church. History, in their view, wastes our time and doctrine distracts our attention from the more substantial issue of changing our culture. I don’t wish to veer into politics, but some people, including Russ Moore, see this point as one of the concerns about current ascendancy of conservative cultural concerns that eschew doctrinal specificity.

For too many Christians, the faith is viewed as a living example of Buridan’s Donkey.

In the parable associated with Buridan (or more accurately to criticism of Buridan), a hungry donkey is chained between two tasty bales of hay that are equidistant from its nose and mouth. The donkey ends up starving to death because of its indecision over which bale to eat.

80’s music fans will recognize this from Devo’s classic “Freedom of Choice,” which substitutes a dog / bone for the donkey / hay).

Christians should not view their choice as one between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Pursuing either to the exclusion of the other is not the true faith; this is the message of Christ in Matthew 22:34-40: we are to love God (orthodoxy) AND love others (orthopraxy). Rightly understood, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are one and the same bale of hay, which must be taken in by the faithful believer. To invert Devo, freedom from choice is what you’ve got; freedom of choice is what you want. There is no decision to be made where orthodoxy / orthopraxy are concerned.

Instead of removing the bandages of doctrine from our eyes, I wish more people would place on their noses the spectacles of doctrine that help us to see the world aright. Perhaps it would help us to effect God’s will in our lives and in our culture.

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