January 23, 2012
Sometimes You Have to be Impractical
I hope I’m not one of those ivory tower guys who loves to play around with ideas that never touch down on the tarmac of life. In fact the entire reason I am interested in ideas is for the power they have to transform my experience.
Still, I feel like people these days might be a little too obsessive about their insistence on practicality. Like, unless sermons, books or teaching (“mind activities”) have an immediate payoff, they are disdainfully dismissed as “irrelevant for life.” So allow me for a moment to speak, somewhat unsystematically, in behalf of impracticality.
One of my former pastors was fond of telling this story as way of cautioning people about being too intellectual: He once met another pastor who had fallen from grace through sexual sin and was in the middle of loosing his family. But rather than deal with his situation, all the the fallen pastor wanted to do was to “talk about the deity of Jesus Christ.” This is what happens, the lesson went, when we take an unhealthy interest in intellectual matters. And beware that doctrines and theological arguments or complicated textual questions do not become an escape from real life. Though this oft repeated anecdote did not make me feel very supported in my own intellectual quest (it was the oftenness of the telling, really), I basically agreed with it: intellectual escapism is no better than any other sort of escapism.
But I ruminated on this over the years and a while back I kind of changed my mind. I thought: is it really so bad retreat into theology when your personal life crumbles? What is wrong with turning ones mind to the big questions when nothing else works? Should we begrudge this fallen pastor his impractical interest? What if it gives him meaning where nothing else does? Why should that be seen as inappropriate or imbalanced? If he had turned to model making, or working on his car, or reading books on physics in order to cope we would arguably have approved.
Why does the life of the mind always have to bear the burden of proof?
Back in the day I worked in the trades – painting and carpentry mostly. Even though I wanted to be in Christian ministry I figured it was a good experience for me because it prepared me to identify with the work a day experience of most Christians. My leadership would thus be “more practical” once I got around to it. I remember a friend who disagreed with me on this point, though. He said that it wasn’t actually so bad for a pastor to lack practical experience. I helped him be more objective about what the Christian life required; it could keep him from caving in to common excuses for avoiding serious discipleship.
Sometimes it’s more practical to not be practical?
Help from those who don’t care
Those of you who have plumbed the depths academic exegesis know what it’s like to read Bible commentators who treat Scripture as a mere ancient artifact: it’s not the Word of God; it’s just a collections of old manuscripts which are nevertheless very interesting from a historical point of view. It can be irritating and intimidating; like watching some very intelligent “swine” rolling in the mud with our precious pearls (with apologies for the implications of the analogy).
And yet, I have often been surprised at the clarity which non-believing exegetes can bring to the text. I remember quite vividly an exposition of Hebrews 6 that I felt cut through all the confusion our theologies have created about the question of ”losing our salvation.” Yes, the author of Hebrews does envision the possibility of falling away from Christ. This is as “historical fact” we might say.
Those who have little invested in the meaning of the Bible are sometimes more objective about its meaning than those who depend on it for life and doctrine. They aren’t thinking with every question: “What does this mean for me? How does it affect my life? Where is God in this? Will I be condemned as a heretic if I interpret it like this?”
Disinterestedness can achieve a certain clarity.
Beware of theological nerds
People debate and obsess about ideas because they think they are important. Usually it is because they attach a great deal of significance to the implications of those ideas: what they imply about God, about what it means to be human, about the nature of the reality, about the meaning of goodness, and very often (after all is said and done) about how we ought to live. Not to sound elitist or anything, but people often yawn at ideas because they don’t get where it is all going. If they did get it, they might find themselves suddenly alert. Not all pedantic discussion are so tame as they seem. Remember how the nerds took over the world with computers? Well, theological nerds can also do that while the rest of us are trying to stay awake. Many a revolution began between the carrels of a theological library.
So, while there are indeed some tedious, eye-rolling, and irrelevant debates between intellectuals, there are probably less of these than is commonly thought, and more of them are more important than is mostly realized. Take for example the famous debate about “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” It turns out that this is not a reall debate anyone ever had, but a manufactured exaggeration to illustrate the perceived irrelevance of medieval scholastic conflicts. But where they that irrelevant? If you are an evangelical Christian there is a very good chance you believe some of the ideas that were forged during that period.
Might irrelevance be in the eye of the beholder?
Unscientific impractical postscript
We can be so heavy-handed with ideas. If they don’t perform immediate wonders we throw them out on the street. We are like abusive parents, overbearing, ungracious, always ready to disprove at the slightest sign of irrelevance. I suggest we treat ideas more like cats. Take them in, speak to them in soft kitty language, feed them and pet them. Soon they will begin to purr.
Sometimes ideas have to be impractical before they are practical.