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Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not. -Protagoras
If one has to choose between different authorities, not they but one-self is ultimate authority for oneself, and this means: there is no authority for him. -Paul Tillich, '"By What Authority?'"
Jumping out of Your Skin
In any journey, including especially one's life journey, it matters as much where you begin as where you end up, or hope to end up. In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren is rightly adamant on this point. Yet he is wrong, in my humble opinion, as to what the proper starting point is. He assumes, and he wants you to assume, the least likely standpoint for a mortal human being, namely, a God's-eye view. Weary of human speculations about the meaning and purpose of life, Reverend Warren urges us to jump out of our mortal skins and join the Almighty Creator, from whose side we may look down from Mt. Sinai or Olympus or Asgard and see what we could not see from a position tooclose to the ground: the reason we have been placed here and the goals we ought to pursue. He tells a shaggy dog story eventuating in the well-known quip, "You can't get there from here." You see, Reverend Warren had once gotten lost on a mountain climb and finally found someone from whom to ask directions. The man told him just how lost he was: his destination was on the other side of the range, and he would have to begin on the other side if he hoped to arrive at his destination. Presumably, like J. R. R. Tolkien's Gandalf finding his way through the Mountains of Moria, Warren did find his way to the other side. But he doesn't seem to catch the implications of the humorous cliché he quotes: what if you can't get there from here? What if you can't reach the Olympian vantage point of a god?
Warren seems to think it a simple matter for mere mortals to know the will of an invisible divinity. He is like a despairing parent on Christmas Eve, facing down a pile of parts for a complex toy for his child. He can make no sense of the mess, and so he redoubles his quest for a sheet of assembly instructions. There must be one in there somewhere! And, by golly, there is. Let's just hope whoever wrote it had a good command of the English language. And for Warren, who despairs at making any sense of life and its purpose using his own wisdom, there must be an instruction manual for that, too, one provided by the manufacturer: the Bible. Now maybe we can stop wasting time and get with God's program for us.
But not so fast. Warren seems hell-bent on discovering a definitive and infallible set of instructions, and this ought to give us pause for at least three reasons. First, Warren makes a colossal, and colossally dubious, assumption that there needs to be a single, uniform purpose or goal for all individual human lives. The variety of gifts and abilities and interests that characterizes the gloriously diverse human race may be a clue that different individuals have different life-purposes. Personally, I doubt very much whether one can say Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, and Elvis Presley all had the exact same purpose in life. Granted, all of them lived to express their creativity and acted to enrich human experience. But even then, we're talking about wide generalities, not about specific trajectories for individual persons. And then again, there is nothing to say it is incumbent on each person to be creative or to enrich human life. There is presumably a place for passive enjoyers and consumers. Nothing wrong with that, is there?
Warren speaks dismissively of self-help books. I suspect one reason is that there are so many of them, all taking different approaches, and he will be satisfied with nothing less than a single, universal Purpose. He wants to play a tune to which all may march in lockstep. I do not much care for the implicitly totalitarian echoes I hear in The Purpose-Driven Life and the old-time fundamentalism it recycles. Why not let a hundred flowers bloom?
"I Took Jesus as My Savior-You Take Him, Too!"
My guess is that The Purpose-Driven Life appeals to readers who are afraid of taking responsibility for the direction of their lives and would therefore prefer to take someone else's orders. They have no confidence in their own ability to look at their lives and to decide what to do with them. They look to self-help tapes or seminars for direction, but these "surefire" programs may not work for them. They look at another book or course, and that is disappointing, too. They can see some people are shaped up by Anthony Robbins or by Thomas Harris's I'm Okay, You're Okay, some by something else. But they are tired of looking, and they want results now. And here comes a dogmatic preacher or writer who offers a magic alternative that will work for everybody, and they know it will because it represents no mere human guesswork but the very revelation of God.
Have you ever told a pushy evangelist that his faith is fine for him, but that you prefer another way? Why do you have to go his way? The answer, the real, psychological answer, is, "It has to be the way for everybody without exception. If it's only for some people, I won't know if I am one of the ones it will work for!" Sometimes, like Paul who claimed to have been the chief of sinners, an evangelist will say, "If it worked for me, it can work for anybody." But what this really means is, "Since it will work for everybody, then I can be sure, deductively, that it will work for me." The revival chorus celebrates "All sufficient grace for even me." I must have certainty! So for me to be sure the gospel will redeem me, I have to believe that you need it, too. Hence I cannot be satisfied thinking you might not need it. If I admit that something else might do the trick for you, I have to suspect that something else might work better for me, too. And since the much-vaunted claims that "Christ changed my life" are usually more statements of faith than accurate descriptions of experience, this suspicion would be fatal. I might then have to recognize that Christ is not living up to the advertising rhetoric and get back on the road looking for another panacea. And I'm sick of that.
No Escape from Choosing
Let me explain the two other factors I mentioned that cast severe doubt on Warren's approach. My second ground for hesitation is that one can by no means take for granted that any particular book, much less the Protestant Bible, is a set of truths revealed by God. Few will deny (certainly I will not) that the Bible is a repository of ageless wisdom. But that is a very different thing from making the Bible as a whole and in every part a communication of propositions from God. While it's not within the scope of this book to enter into biblical debate, I will simply stress that there is, and always has been, a very wide debate on the divine inspiration of the Bible. There are many more or less probable arguments on behalf of biblical inspiration and infallibility set forth by scholars like B. B. Warfield, René Pache, John Warwick Montgomery, Josh McDowell, and others. But there are also many other Christian understandings of the Bible that do not see it as a divinely inspired answer book. Some think the Bible's function is to teach the good life but not to deal with matters of scientific or historical fact. Others say the Bible need only treat basic matters of salvation but otherwise need not be doctrinally uniform. Still others esteem the Bible as the product of wise Jewish and Christian writers, but not the product of special inspiration at all. Other, non-Christian views reject the authority of the Bible, period.
My point is this: every one of the fascinating theories that still circulate among serious Bible students is fully as much a product of human speculation as are the life-purpose theories that Rick Warren dismisses piteously as fallible and speculative and thus unworthy of his readers' time. There is no way to simply jump over to the other side of the mountain, as if you had the equivalent of a Star Trek transporter. We cannot transcend human theories about things, even the issue of whether there is a word from God. You see, Warren is telling you, in effect, "Let's escape the bewildering puzzle of which psychological approach to take, by taking refuge with the Bible!" But he's only pushing the problem back a step, because now you have all the bewildering options for understanding the Bible to sift through and choose from. You still have to listen to all the candidates and then take your best shot. You're only human. You have no right just to close your ears to possibilities you don't like and then pretend you know which one is right automatically, as if you were God. Paul Tillich nailed you: "unable to stand the loneliness of deciding for ourselves, we suppress the fact that there is a split authority. We subject ourselves to a definite authority and close our eyes against all other claims." And Walter Kauffman mapped out where you are:
Those who pit commitment against reason and advise us to blind and destroy our reason before making the most crucial choice of our life are apologists for one specific set of doctrines which, to use Paul's word, are "foolishness" to those who have not taken leave of reason. They say their doctrine is infallible and true, but ignore the fact that there is no dearth whatsoever of pretenders to infallibility and truth. They may think they chose their doctrine because it is offered to us as infallible and true; but this is plainly no sufficient reason: scores of other doctrines, scriptures and apostles, sects and parties, cranks and sages make the same claim. Those who claim to know which of the lot is justified in making such a bold claim, those who tell us that this faith or that is really infallible and true, are presupposing, in effect, whether they realize this or not, that they themselves happen to be infallible. Those who have no such exalted notion of themselves have no way of deciding between dozens of pretenders if reason is proscribed. Those who are asking us to spurn reason are in effect counseling us to trust to luck. But luck in such cases is unusual.
My third qualm is similar to the second. Let's assume for the moment that we do have a divinely inspired book in our hands. Reverend Warren, like all fundamentalists, plainly imagines that it is clear to all just what the Bible text means. Here please remember my analogy with the complex device Dad or Mom is desperate to assemble before Christmas morning: suppose the instructions are not clear. Maybe the factory worker who wrote them up in Hong Kong did not have the best grasp of English-you know you've been in that situation. Even with the instructions in hand, you may be far from out of the woods! And it is the same with the Bible. Why do you think there are thousands of Christian denominations? Sooner or later it all boils down to the ambiguity of scripture. Bible readers cannot agree on what the Bible says on many, many important points. An inspired and infallible passage whose meaning you cannot be sure of is not much more useful than an uninspired, fallible passage. In fact, I cannot see what the allegedly precious worth of such inspiration is supposed to be. I assume you know that it isn't just a question of widely differing sects in view here, say, Plymouth Brethren versus Greek Orthodox, groups that might be expected to divide on bigger, cultural grounds. No, even born-again Christians have taken to debating among themselves over whether a true believer must accept Jesus Christ simply as "Savior" or as "Lord and Savior" in order to be saved. The text of the Bible is just not clear enough on the point. And if it is not clear enough on that one, I'm not sure one can risk citing it, like a cop citing the traffic code, to determine anyone's direction in life.
To underscore my point, let me remind you that Rick Warren is happy to quote from no less than fifteen different translations or paraphrases of the Bible. You know what that means, don't you? They are so different that he has a lot of shopping to do before finding one that will make the Bible appear to say what he wants it to teach. One of his favorites is an extremely loose paraphrase called The Message that makes Kenneth Taylor's Living Bible look like the King James version by comparison.
And now we begin to discern what is really going on when a mortal like ourselves appeals authoritatively to a book, written by mortals, translated variously by mortals, and interpreted by a mortal, namely, the one quoting it to us. That mortal, in this case the well-meaning Rick Warren, is himself assuming the mantle of a divine oracle. It is his voice that is magnified through the medium of special effects, like the Great and Powerful Oz. It is Pastor Warren who, hardly realizing it, is Jacob wearing the Esau mask of "biblical authority" to persuade his old, blind father. What an irony! Fundamentalists, who denounce humanism and scorn the pathetic subjectivity of mere human opinions, have no other stock to trade in, and so they make the Bible into a ventriloquist dummy to speak with their own voice.
And thus we must ask, just whose purpose does Rick Warren want to be driving your life? God's purpose, as best as Warren can distill it from the Bible as he reads it. It is no less a miserable human speculation than yours or mine or anyone else's. So why not go with yours? Nothing else will be authentic.
Tell Me Who I Am
The great danger of Warren's approach, and that of the fundamentalist Christianity he represents, is an alien imposition of a self-concept and life agenda from without, no different in principle than the discredited Communist attempt to mint a new species of "Soviet Man." What is "human nature"? What is your nature? Who can ultimately decide but you? Even if there is a creator God who engineered your life, how else can he expect you to discern what you are here for-except by a long, hard, and continuing look at your own life? You, like many readers of The Purpose-Driven Life, may be tired of looking and looking, but that is no excuse for choosing the next thing you find and deciding you believe in it. What if the only way to find your purpose is to study yourself, as you live your life? I daresay that you will never be satisfied with a "canned," ready-made "purpose" handed you by another, no matter how many glowing endorsements it comes packaged with.
It's just like Billy Graham and his fellow evangelists always say: "God has no grandchildren." You can't ride the coattails of another's faith. Or, as John the Baptist told the self-complacent crowds, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!" (Matthew 3:9, RSV). No, you must choose your own faith, it cannot be secondhand faith, or it will not be your faith. All right, sure: the wisdom of that is plain. Why isn't it equally obvious that you have to discover your purpose for yourself? You cannot possibly rely on someone else to do it for you, not even God, and that is because of the kind of thing a purpose is. As long as you let someone else sell you a bill of goods about how some book can tell you your purpose, you will be the puppet of that person, even if, like Rick Warren, he means only to help you. As Socrates said (Jesus, too, according to the Gospel of Thomas), "Know yourself." There is no substitute, because otherwise you will be taking someone else's word for who you are. According to Harvey Cox's fascinating essay, "On Not Leaving It to the Snake," that was the original sin: Adam and Eve wimping out and letting someone else tell them who they were and what they ought to be about.
If you have been associated with fundamentalist, evangelical, born-again Christianity for long, you will have noticed what a turnover rate there is. Not only is there a constant stream of new converts coming in, there is also a steady stream going out. You are led to believe these poor souls have just "backslid." Just got tired of the straight and narrow life of Christian discipline. It might be so. But I suggest you try to follow up with some of them. You may find that many of us jumped ship because in the end we could no longer act out some script someone else pushed in front of us. We decided to discover for ourselves our purpose, or purposes. We decided it might be a better idea after all to start looking where we are, not where we aren't.
Point to Ponder: It is about me.
Quote to Remember: "If you will not know yourselves, you are in poverty; indeed, you are poverty." (The Gospel according to Thomas, saying 3)
Question to Consider: Why can't I get it through my head that a religious self-help program, even one that quotes some Bible verses, is just as subjective and debatable as a secular one?
Excerpted from The Reason Driven Life by Robert M. Price Copyright © 2006 by Robert M. Price. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 4, 2009
No text was provided for this review.