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“This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My rifle is my best friend. It is my life...”
The Rifleman’s Creed is an important part of the culture of the US Marine Corps — or so I’m told. I only know this creed from the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.
This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
In Full Metal Jacket, the Marines’ general issue rifles are identical. But each soldier is encouraged to foster a relationship with his rifle. Not because it’s special, but because it’s his.
I’ve felt tortured, lately, trying to grasp the importance of Truth. Am I attached to the Truth because it’s true? Or am I, like the soldier and his rifle, attached to a truth simply because it’s mine?
I was a curious child. “Mom, does Grandpa think Catholics are going to hell?” I asked.
“Oh, Danny,” Mom said, “Your poor Grandpa is even worried about the Methodists.”
The first tenet of TULIP’s five-point Calvinism acknowledges our Total Depravity, apparently professing faith in the misery of humanity before discussing the majesty of God. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with questions about me and my comfort and my life and my death. My comfort and I are things of this world — we are seen. We are temporary. I wish Ursinus had begun by asking “What is true? And how should I live?” or “What really matters?” But he didn’t.
Nonetheless, Calvinists are not humbled by the totality of their depravity. While confessing individual worthlessness, Calvinists also profess with certainty that an Absolute Truth exists. And often it appears that we alone understand it.
I wonder whether it really matters that I fully understand the Truth. I think about seekers of all traditions. I think about Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims. I think about Jews and Christians and Protestants and evangelicals and Reformed Christians. I think about the differences between the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. I couldn’t name the differences, but at some point they were so significant as to merit the dismemberment of the Body of Christ.
As a child, I thought my beliefs would function like a key. I believed that faith was a precision-cut instrument that had to fit perfectly within the highly machined lock of God’s favor. I believed that I had to believe certain things in a certain way to be saved. Infant baptism? Yes. More than two sacraments? No. Christ, my only intercessor? Yes. A holy catholic church? Yes. The Roman Catholic church? No way.
I believed that if I programmed my mind to accept the right beliefs and reject the wrong ones, the key of my faith would fit the lock of God’s approval. Magically, I’d unlock everlasting glory and eternal pardon from the deserved consequences of my wretched sins.
Now, in middle-age, I think about my faith, belief, and religion. I realize that none of these is the truth.
I have faith in the Truth. I have beliefs about the Truth. I have a religion — a set of practices and beliefs — that guides me toward the Truth. These are in and about and toward the Truth. They are not equal to the Truth. The Truth is beyond my belief. And beyond the Truth is God.
I think of God, but I know that the full comprehension of God is beyond the power of my dim mind.
Since truth is inapprehensible, we fix our minds on a proximate reality. To the Catholic, a rosary. To the Hindu, a mala. To the Muslim, a tasbih. To the Marine, a rifle, and its creed. We Protestants think we avoid idolatry. Our hands remain empty. Our eyes stare at the naked walls of a rectangular sanctuary.
As Reformed Christians, we inform our interpretation by our creeds and confessions. We guide our understanding by our Catechism and its questions and answers. These devices become false idols when we forget that they’re means and not ends. The prayer beads are not divine. The rifle is not the war. Theology is not God.
In Full Metal Jacket, the Rifleman’s Creed focuses the Marines’ attention to the relationship between a man and his gun. When asked ‘What makes the grass grow?’ the soldiers know the answer. “Blood, blood, blood.” The repetition of this mantra focuses the soldiers’ attention on their proximate goal: killing the enemy. Thus they avoid the existential and necessary question of whether the war itself makes sense.
We’d be wrong to care more about the rifle than the war, more about the theology than the God, more about the practice than the One the practice is meant to draw us nearer to. We’d be wrong to care more about any Catechism than the God-who-is-Love that our creeds are meant to guide us toward.
My theology is my rifle. This one is mine. The others, which are like it, could do the job too.