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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.
Daniel, That was an excellent address. I too wonder about the attachment with an instrument of the destruction of God’s creation. I cannot imagine that.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism more or less begins the way you wish Ursinus had. It’s brilliant, powerful, and worth memorizing, but I prefer Ursinus and Olevianus.
I think often of Jesus’ words about Herod’s big stones—they will all be thrown down. And, of course, they were. Prophecy, we declare. And it would seem so. But there is another edge to these words of Jesus, I think. Anything made by humans will one day fall. That anything includes systems of theology, ideologies, and “anything” deemed to be ultimate. The pursuit of truth avoids locking oneself into any one thing no matter what that one thing might be. There are multiple resources that will head us in the direction of truth, but even with all these at our disposal, we will only be pursuing truth. We will never fully find it. Acknowledging that might be the beginning of wisdom.
Amen Marlin. Right on!
Speaking for myself, I can’t think of anything that is more true or matters more than “That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ . . .”
Daniel, I really appreciate this! The question you raise and the way you frame it here are both brilliant. Thank You. I reflected much about your statement, ” Calvinists are not humbled by the totality of their depravity.” I think it is true but how can this be? My suggestion is that, ironically, there is a perverse psychological reaction at work. If we are so totally, impossibly worthless and blind, the TRUTH we hang onto must be absolute. This pushes us toward idolatry ( our truth), not to mention the exercise of institutional authority. But our interpretations and traditions are not “the way, the truth, and the life.” Perhaps the sin Jesus warned most about was the sin of certainty and the ironic blindness it instituted. I would love to hear some more thoughts on what total depravity does and does not mean. Orthodoxy yes, but not without humility.
Thanks for a thought provoking morning reading. The only part missing for me is the person Jesus, because I think he changes everything. At the same time, your reminders and reflections are well received.
Thank you for this article. Your nuanced approach to seeking elusive truths is much more healthy than defaulting to the lure of decobstruction, which has become so popular lately.
I really appreciate your provocative and searching way of addressing our “seeing through a glass darkly” while we are prone to think that we know “the truth.”
Your article would be excellent for small discussion groups.
“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.” The Belgic Confession recognizes this: “To speak more accurately, however, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is but a means by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (Article 22).
Interesting analogy. Take another look at the Rifleman’s Creed. Its purpose is to instill in a warrior’s mind the importance of caring for and employing his or her weapon. Although the language of the creed seems at first blush to make an idol of the rifle, the creed is only stating an obvious truth to a young Marine: sloppy maintenance and poor marksman are perilous to you and your mission. Marine, take ownership! Take another look at your analogy. How do we maintain and employ our theology? Do we just take what’s handed to us from out of the armory and ignore it? Or do we learn how to adjust the sights to ourselves to make our theology more effective for us and our times? It’s a paradox: we, like simple infantrymen, are humble to the greater war effort, yet, fiercely proud to fight our small part in it. I, as a Marine, was attached to my rifle not because it was special but because my attachment to it made it special. Your attachment to our God is special, your theology will be your own, and that’s okay so long as you stay a mix of humble and proud.
This is so important, a necessary read. Thanks for letting us in.