Monday, June 23, 2008

Formulas v Formulaic

“Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12

I want to note a difference between formulas and a formulaic approach to life. The Bible is full of formulas. Proverbs chapters 10-29, for a start. And the verse from the 10 Commandments, above. A formula is a concise way of way of conveying truth. But a formulaic approach – a mechanistic application of a formula – is a way of mis-interpreting that truth.

A formulaic approach to Exodus 20:12 might run, “If I honour my father and my mother, I will live a long life.” But we know that this is not always true. In fact, we see the very opposite happening. We see children who do not honour their father and mother fatally stabbing children that do. Or, at least, we see children we assume do not honour their father and mother (and perhaps we are right, but it is nonetheless an assumption) fatally stabbing children who we are told (by grieving parents, who naturally and rightly choose to focus on the things about our children that make us proud to be their parents and not the things that drive us mad: we’d be shocked if at the press conference they came out with “He was a little **** and he had it coming.”) honoured their father and mother.

And so the formulaic approach is proved false; but that does not negate the truth conveyed in the formula. If I mix all the ingredients together correctly (factors I need to take responsibility for), but the heat is not distributed evenly by the oven (a factor which is out of my control), the cake will fail to rise, or will burn too quickly; but if I want a certain type of cake I need to follow the recipe.

When I try to think theologically by using a triangle to consider any aspect of life in terms of relationship with God, with my community, and with other communities living alongside me; or when I think in terms of indirect effort; I am seeking and advocating formulas, not a formulaic approach to life.

I do not want to be simplistic: life is too complex for such an approach. But I do want to be simple: life is complicated enough as it is, without my adding to that.

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