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Don't Think for Yourself


Undoubtedly you have seen the movie The Dead Poet's Society. In that 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 yourself." Don't trust what your parents have told you. Don't trust what you've always heard. The important thing is to think for yourselves.

In one scene he rips up a textbook telling them, "No, don't listen to the experts. Think for yourself." 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 "Think for yourself." If there ever were a day when such advice was deemed radical, that day has passed.

In fact, here's how the president of Yale University welcomed the freshmen 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 education any more than we can supply you with a philosophy of life. This has got to come from your own active learning, from your own choices, 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 curriculum. But whether it all adds up to something called wisdom by the time you graduate, well that's really up to you. The important thing is that you think for yourself.

And it appears that we are thinking for ourselves. A few weeks ago I received a letter from a woman written in the shaky handwriting. She's in her late seventies. She wrote me, and in her letter she enclosed a clipping from an article that appeared in the Raleigh newspaper. (I think the Durham newspaper protected the citizens from Durham from this particular story.) It was a newspaper article describing how during the Gulf War, American troops had buried alive 700-800 hundred Iraqi soldiers in their trenches. One of the GIs said, "Well, 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 not we 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 our churches?"

Well, 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 think 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 that 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 you lie regularly to their parents. Seventy-five percent lie regularly to their best friends. One in five American loses his or her virginity before the age of thirteen. Two thousand, two hundred forty-five New Yorkers were murdered by their fellow citizens last year, an increase of 18 percent. By the way, when asked, religion plays no role in shaping the opinions of two-thirds of those who are asked their opinions about sex.

Well, it's a lie here, an extramarital affair there, and before long it's hands and arms sticking up out of the sand. We really are thinking for ourselves.

Torah is a countercultural epistemology

Now an alternative epistemology is asserted in today's text from Jesus and from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, "Keep these words that I'm commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you're at home and when you're away. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

And the word, these words of Deuteronomy is referring to, are the words of the Law of Israel, Torah. 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, the Law that we're not to break, but it is the divine finger pointing us in the direction we ought to walk. Torah.

Now, interestingly enough in Mark's Gospel, when Jesus is asked about life's big question, 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.

So you may not know a lot about Jesus. You may not be clear on everything that he said and did and taught. But today's text says if you know this about Jesus, that's all you need to know for now. Love God with everything that 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, or Mars, IBM, Amway, or USA. We're just real funny about who we'll worship. We do not use labels like faggot, kink, nigger, broad, preferring instead to refer to people as sister, brother. We have a very odd notion of who are next door neighbors are. Love God with everything you've got and then your neighbor as yourself. Take these words, advises Deuteronomy, 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 have 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 to always locate the normative answer exclusively within your own experience, as though your own 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. And so I begin my sermons, you know, always groping around for some point of contact with what you already know.

But Torah, on the other hand, 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.

Torah is intergenerational

Thinking in Israel, thinking with Jesus begins as an auditory act. You notice those 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 19 years old is just way too tough without having to make up the world as you go.

The stance that you're going to shortly assume here at the Lord's Table, you know 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, the Torah-type wisdom.

Alas, 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.

When your daughter asks, as in Joshua 4:6, "What mean these stones?" you are not to reply, "Well, they may mean that the Lord might have brought us out of slavery and chosen us to be obedient to his way, and then it might not." No, in this Torah curriculum there is only nervy, pushy assertion, a 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 can give anybody is be yourself." Don't think for yourself. As Walter Brueggemann says, "Torah is not just for children. Enemy is not just a danger for the young. It may surface is 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." Brueggemann 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 bow 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. Having 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 only driven by competing savage self interest. Even the people under our own roof 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 childlike request he received an hour of ramblings, a confession about how his old man had had affair with his secretary when he had been 13 and about how he hated his job and he'd love to chuck it all and just move out to 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?" Well, you see now he's reduced to thinking for himself.

Torah is historical

Torah asserts a countercultural way of wisdom, which is intergenerational, public, countercultural, and 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, but I think especially today on All Saints, a host of predecessors leans down out of the windows and tries to speak to you, if we'll dare to listen. They stare down at us from the windows begging to show us the way.

Saints are people who managed to love God more than life itself, managed to love neighbor more than the self, and thereby found true life. Saints are people who just push their way into our modest presence and make the God question and the neighbor question the only interesting intellectual question. Christians are those who have 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're 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.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Torah is a countercultural epistemology

II. Torah is intergenerational

III. Torah is historical