Those who know me, know that I am an easy target for a good laugh. There is a certain part of my brain that I am convinced has never functioned. It is that part which has to do with remembering, among other things, names and faces. I remember when I watched Grease as a kid. I liked the movie, but I could not understand why “Danny” (John Travolta) ended up with a new girl other than “Sandy” (Olivia Newton John) at the end of the movie. I came to realize many years later that it was not a new girl, just Sandy with a different hairdo! Then, the movie made much more sense.
The other morning, I came into the Credo House and made my way back to my office. I mingled with all the people at different tables and finally sat down at my desk. I opened my computer to find an email that had just come in from a guy who wanted to say how nice it was to see me again (the first time since our time at seminary together) and, how happy he was that I started the Credo House. I did not quite remember who he was, but I was determined to express cordial words in a way that would not undermine our renewed “friendship” that must have been forged recently. Immediately, I wrote him back (why couldn’t I have waited for just a couple of hours?), “It was great to see you again too. You should stop by the Credo House sometime.” His reply came back two minutes later, “I am here right now.” My face turned red. I got up and peeked outside my office door, looking at all the people with whom I had just mingled, wondering which one he was. Finally, I just shut the door and sighed, wondering once again why this part of my brain does not work. I have dozens of other stories just like that.
This begs the question: Who do I think I am teaching eternal truths, when I can’t even remember the most basic, everyday, temporal happenings? If I don’t really trust my memory, can I trust my theological “scholarship”? So much of what I believe and teach is built upon stories, information, and “facts” that I don’t even really know are true, since I can’t, for the most part, remember exactly from where they came. I have just said some things, told some stories, and relayed some information so many times that I don’t think about it anymore. For example, in class session 4 of The Theology Program, I talk about the rise of Modernism through the story of Rene Descartes (the “father of modernism”). I tell about his “Dutch oven” epiphany. I tell about how he would not come out of this oven until he found a legitimate (indeed, indubitable) source for his knowledge. Ironically, I don’t know where I first heard this story about the Dutch oven. I am not sure about the legitimacy (much less indubitability) of my source! I am fairly certain I did not make it up out of thin air, but the fact remains that I don’t really remember from where it came. But even if I could remember it came, for instance, from a book, encyclopedia, or biography, this fact would not guarantee that the person from whom I originally received this information was accurately remembering or representing his sources. Even if it was an autobiography, I have no guarantee that Descartes, himself, remembered things correctly.
But don’t get too haughty. I know that I may have a personal memory “condition” (which I am calling prosopagnosia, for now!), but I don’t really trust your “scholarship” that much either. You have a memory condition. After all, you are not perfect. You have bias, age, lifestyles, hopes, legacy, commitments, and pride (not to mention the glue you sniffed when you were a kid) which affect your memory. Furthermore, even if you had a perfect memory, that does not mean you have the ability to process information with impunity. You are selective in what you choose to know, focus on, and evangelize. Some things you will choose to forget. Others will become part of the story you tell people. However, you really don’t have an objective basis to know which things deserve to be timeless and which can be discarded. You have plenty of Rene Descartes’ Dutch oven stories too. These are all the things, personal or academic, which you have repeated so many times that, by virtue of their mere repetition, have become fact in your mind. Continue Reading →