I’m taking a PhD class on the Enlightenment with the master historian John Woodbridge. He’s a genuine gem of a Christian scholar, as he combines humble piety with an academic pedigree including a PhD on the Enlightenment era from the University of Paris, a teaching stint at Northwestern University, and multiple monographs, including the hugely influential The History of Biblical Authority (Zondervan 1982).
In the course of this class, we’ve covered many of the “philosophes”, hugely influential 18th century thinkers who combined brilliant but irreligious writing with lifestyles awash in decadence. One of the best-known philosophes is the social and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There’s much one could say about Rousseau (on the state of nature, social compact theory, etc.), but I will focus here on a little-known aspect of the Frenchman’s life: he left all of his children to the state. That’s right–the man who literally wrote the book on how to raise children, the classic work Emile, cast off his children in pursuit of pleasure and unimpeded contemplation. Rousseau, you see, was no mere high-minded thinker; he was actually a despicable person, despite how he might be viewed by certain sectors of society.
This got me thinking about theology. We are all like Rousseau. By this I mean that we all live out our beliefs. Though Rousseau portrayed himself as an expert on the family, he was the farthest thing from it. Thus, the way he embodied, or lived out, his ideology shows that he didn’t really embody it at all. It may be easy for us to scorn Rousseau (or whomever) for his utter failure to live out his teaching, but how well do we embody our own theology? Having been rescued by grace, do others find grace in us? Having been saved by the mercy and kindness of God, do others see such mercy and kindness in us? Believing that every human being is an imprint in some sense of the very form of Deity, do we treat people of all types and beliefs with respect and compassion? In short, then, do we live out our theology? Does our life embody our doctrine?
This question must be asked of Christians of all stripes. In my own life, though, I identify most with the reformed tradition. So I pose this question to myself and other reformed types. Does how we live match up with what we believe? Do we represent graciously the truths we hold fast? While clearly and unapologetically standing for what we believe, are we kind to those who differ from? In engaging the culture, do we shout at it, or do we reach out to it? We all must acknowledge that we stumble in many ways. We do better at this in some seasons than others. But I wonder if we in the reformed movement, broadly speaking, might do a far better job than we have of embodying our theology.
One of the main ways that people end up subscribing to a doctrinal system is by seeing it lived out. This is of course not the only way, or perhaps even the primary way, that people’s minds and hearts are changed, but it is nonetheless a key factor. How good it would be if we of the reformed stamp were not merely polite, but nice. How much more might we see others warm to the biblical truths we hold so firmly? Most of us don’t struggle at all with being bold and defensive in our theologies. But many of us struggle with living out the theology we believe in a kind, compassionate, accessible way. This is not in any way to call for weakness or holding hands or pretending differences don’t exist. We need not fly to ignorance to flee from folly. But it is to say that, for perhaps many of us, we do little to represent reformed theology well to those who, for whatever reason, are already closed to it.
This is by no means a very developed little piece on this subject. It’s merely a musing on a matter that came up in a class far removed from the issue at hand. But I do think that there is something potent to be said about the way one practices one’s faith. Rousseau, after all, ends up looking like a fool. It’s hard–though not impossible–to take his Emile fully seriously after knowing his history. Despite what some might say in the current day (or any day), it is not possible to divorce one’s philosophy from one’s life. If the two do not necessarily rise or fall together (after all, we all have feet of clay, and thus all fall prey to hypocrisy at some point), then we may still they are closely connected. One is moved to take care, then, by Rousseau’s example, lest one–like Rousseau–end up embodying a theology that is in practice the opposite of what it is on paper.