Will Willomon: Don’t Think for Yourself

I ran across this piece from Professor Willimon from 30 years ago. It still reads pretty well and he certainly is prophetic in places. Check it out.

Don’t Think for Yourself

Undoubtedly you have seen the movie The Dead Poet’s Society. In the movie an energetic teacher at an exclusive prep school is depicted as opening up the minds of his hung-up, privileged, young students by urging them to think for themselves. “Don’t trust what your parents have told you. Don’t trust what you have heard. The important thing is to think for yourselves,” he says. In one scene he rips up a textbook telling them, “Don’t listen to the experts; think for yourselves.”

A friend of mine noted that despite the movie’s claim that this teacher was somehow liberating his students from social convention, it would be hard to think of a more conformist and socially conventional message in today’s context than to give young people the advice to think for themselves. If there ever were a day when such advice was deemed radical, that day has passed.

Here’s how the president of Yale University welcomed the freshman to Yale last year. He told them, “The faculty can guide you. We can take you to the frontiers of knowledge, but we cannot supply you with a philosophy of life. This must come from your own active learning, from your own choices, from your own decisions. Yale expects you to take yourself seriously. Think for yourself.”

In other words, the university has absolutely no clue what you’re supposed to be doing here. Oh, we’ve got this smorgasbord of courses and professors. We’ve got this  graduate, well that’s really up to you. The important thing is that you think for yourself.

And it appears we are thinking for ourselves. A few weeks ago I received a shakily written letter from a woman in her late seventies. In her letter she enclosed a clipping from the Raleigh newspaper. (I think the Durham newspaper protected the citizens of Durham from this particular story.) The article described how during the gulf war American troops had buried alive 700 to 800 Iraqi soldiers in their trenches. One of the Gls said, “By the time we got there, there was nothing but hands and arms sticking up out of the sand.”

In her letter, she said, “Why did we not hear about this? Have you mentioned this in one of your sermons? Have you mentioned this in one of your prayers? Where is the moral voice of the church?”

One possible reply is, “Look lady, it’s called war. The old rules just don’t apply. it’s always a nasty business. Besides, when it comes to burying people alive, you’ve got your opinions, I’ve got mine. The important thing is that each of us thinks for ourselves, right?” Ironically, when I got her letter, I had been reading this new book, The Day America Told the Truth. That book says that 91 percent of us admit we lie routinely. Thirty-one percent of us who are married admit to having an extramarital affair lasting over a year. Eighty-six percent of youth lie regularly to their parents, and 75 percent lie regularly to their best friends. One in five loses his or her virginity before the age of 13. 2,245 New Yorkers were murdered by their fellow citizens last year, an increase of 18 percent. Two-thirds of those asked about religion said it plays no role in shaping their opinions about sex. It’s a lie here, an extramarital affair there, and before long it’s hands and arms sticking up out of the sand. We are thinking for ourselves.

Now an alternative epistemology is asserted in today’s text from Jesus and from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 6:6-8: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you’re at home and when you are away….Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (NRSV).

These words in Deuteronomy refer to the words of the law of Israel; Torah. A better translation of torah than “law,” I suppose, is “teaching” — the teaching of Israel. Or more literally, the finger pointing in the direction: Torah is not so much the law that we’re not to break as it is the divine finger pointing us in the direction we ought to walk. Torah.

Interestingly enough in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked about life’s big questions, he simply refers them to Deuteronomy, to Torah. Good Jew that he was, Jesus simply said, “Look, you know the answer. We’re to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.” This is Torah, truth.

You may not know a lot about Jesus. You may not be clear on everything he said and did. But today’s text says if you know this about Jesus, it’s about all you need to know for now: love God with everything you’ve got to the very depths of your soul and your neighbor as yourself. Class dismissed.

People who follow Jesus, just like those in Israel before us, are people who do not bow down to other gods, be they called by the name Eros, January, Mars, IBM, Amway, or USA. We’re just real funny about who we’ll worship. We do not use labels like faggot, kink, nigger, or broad, preferring instead to refer to people as sister or brother. We have a very odd notion of who our next-door neighbors are.

Love God with everything you’ve got and then your neighbor as yourself. Take these words, advises Deuteronomy, and teach them to your kids. Paint them over the door to your dormitory room. Brand these on your forehead. Tattoo them on your biceps. Take these words and just drill them into yourself so that you won’t forget.

Here we come into a collision with an alternative way of knowing, a culturally disruptive epistemology. Alas, you have been the willing victims of a mode of education that has taught you always to locate the normative answer exclusively within your own experience, as though your experience, particularly your racial, gender, cultural experience could yield insight on the spot. Think for yourself.

And that’s why most of my sermons begin with your experience, because I have a hunch that’s the only thing you really trust. So I begin my sermons always groping around for some point of contact with what you already know.

But Torah always begins with what you could not know unless somebody had told it to you: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Don’t think for yourself.

Thinking in Israel and with Jesus begins as an auditory act. Notice these verbs: hear, listen, speak, tell. Unlike Yale or many of my sermons, Israel did not expect her young to devise insight via personal conjuring. You don’t have to be the author of your own faith, for here is a massive faith that lies way outside the limited confines of your individual psyche.

Israel’s sons and daughters don’t have to invent the secrets to life. Their parents loved them enough to tell them the secrets. And it is no coincidence that in today’s text, wisdom is depicted as an exchange between an elder and someone of the younger generation as the giving of an intergenerational gift. Being 21 years old is just way too tough without having to make up the world as you go.

Think of the stance you’re going to assume here at the Lord’s table, with hands outstretched, open, empty, eager, ready to receive the gift of bread and wine. That is the primary biblical posture for how you get wise, for Torah-like wisdom.

Parenting and education in our day have become little more than the management of conflicting truth claims — a process of cool consideration of diverse alternatives, some of which may be true. But not here. Not in the middle of Deuteronomy. Not at the feet of Torah.

Joshua told Israel, “In the future, when your daughter asks you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ you are not to reply, ‘Well, they may mean that the Lord might have brought us out of slavery and chose us to be obedient to his way. And then they might not.’” No, in this Torah curriculum there is only the nervy, pushy, passionate assertion of truth that is reliable and coherent and confident in the face of chaos, narcissistic subjectivity, hands and feet sticking up out of the sand.

I agree with that great theologian Oscar Wilde who said, “About the worst advice you could give anybody is ‘be yourself.’” Don’t think for yourself.

As Walter Bruggemann says, “Torah is not just for children.” (Enemy is not just a danger for the young.) It may surface in what is now conventionally called the crisis of midlife (listen up alumni) or anywhere else. All persons of whatever age face the threat of darkness. Bruggemann says everybody needs some time of homecoming, when you can return to those sureties that do not need to be defended nor doubted. That’s what Torah is; it’s homecoming.

A Torah-less world in which there are many gods and no neighbors is a world just full of idols and enemies. Maybe that’s why we’re so fatigued as we rush breathlessly from one worship service to another. Before long, after you’ve bowed down at enough altars, the only posture you know is that of bowing. So accustomed have we become to submitting to so many different gods – the nation, the corporation, my own ego — all the while rattling our chains and pitifully asserting how free we are.

Since we’ve learned to bend ourselves before so many altars, there is almost nothing to which we will not stoop. It’s a lie here, a deceit there, until we are quite able to walk past the hands and arms sticking up out of the sand without even a twitch of conscience.

The Durham city council has become us all over. With no Torah-induced neighbors, the world is driven only by competing, savage self-interest. Even the people under our own roofs become our enemies. The office becomes a battleground for the war between the sexes. Cultural chaos leads to ethical immobility. We don’t make many big moves — having nowhere to stand, we can’t make big moves. A recent Duke graduate asked his old man late one night when he went back home, “Look, I’m getting ready to go out into life. Tell me what you know. Go ahead, tell me if you know something.”

For this touchingly child-like request, he received an hour of ramblings, a confession about how his old man had an affair with his secretary and how he hated his job, and he’d love to chuck it all and move out into a cabin in the woods, and he really despised his marriage, and he couldn’t trust any of his friends.

“Man, you are messed up,” said the son. “I’m supposed to be asking you for advice?” Now he’s reduced to thinking for himself.

Torah asserts a countercultural way of wisdom that is intergenerational, public, counter-cultural, historical. The beautiful thing is you don’t bear the burden of having to think for yourself. Every time you walk in this building, the chapel, and especially today on All Saints, a host of predecessors leans down out of the windows and tries to speak to us, if we’ll dare to listen. They stare down at us from the windows begging to show us the way — saints.

Saints are people who manage to love God more than life itself. They manage to love neighbor more than self and thereby find true life. Saints are people who just push their way into our modest present and make the God-question and the neighbor-question the only interesting intellectual questions. Christians are those who’ve learned to think with the saints, and thereby we think much more creatively than we could if we’d been left to our own devices.

St. Francis, Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta, Gideon, Mary — they help us to think beyond ourselves. They help us to think despite ourselves and thereby in this act of holy remembering and saintly thinking, new options are envisioned. We are encouraged; a new world not of our own devising is offered to us. We get some big ideas. Torah and the saintly lives thereby produced is a kind of intelligence by proxy.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “I stand in awe of two things: the starry heavens above and the individual law of morality within.”

I’m still awed by the starry heavens.

©1992 William Willimon

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