Among his many other qualities, Martin Luther had a gift for making a point with a memorable verbal image. Thus it was that he once commented on the inadequacy of human reason as the basis for belief:
“Human reason is like a drunken man on horseback: set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other.”
Though most of us will (hopefully) not have had first-hand experience with this situation, any of us who have been exposed to old Western movies are familiar with the scene: the inebriated fellow who flops precariously from one side to the other as he attempts to remain in the saddle. The problem is over-correction: in his befuddled state, when he senses that he is losing his balance to one side, he then errs excessively in the opposite direction.
The physical problem of avoiding “over correction” (or “too much amplification in the negative feedback loop” as an engineer might say) is one that challenges a child learning to ride a bicycle or an adult learning to use a computer mouse. But, as Luther so sagely observed, it is intellectual over-correction that gives us the most problems: when we observe a danger looming, we too often then set an opposite course which then leads us into new danger. Thus our society seems to veer crazily at times between excesses of “the left and the right” and has a great deal of difficulty locating a sensible course between the two extremes.
Luther, of course, was referring to the problem of using human reason as the basis for establishing theological truth. Roman Catholic doctrine was strongly influenced by academic philosophy, which attempted to establish ultimate truth by exercises of logic. (Galileo’s famous dispute with the church was rooted more in his contradiction of Aristotle’s teaching than on conflicts with the Bible). Long before Luther attacked the church’s position on indulgences, he had been an active critic of the reliance on classical philosophy in theology and the very large role that it played in rationalizing the teachings and practices of the Medieval church. Later, in his famous debates with Papal representatives, such as Johann Eck, Luther refused to get drawn into philosophical arguments, but insisted instead on returning to the testimony of scripture, rather than human reason.
But as the Protestant Reformation took hold, Luther soon found himself battling against the over-correction of those going to the other extremes in their zeal to ‘reform’ Catholic practices: denying the very idea of God’s grace acting through the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, removing religious art from worship, and in some cases vandalizing churches and attacking clergy. But for Luther, who found himself in the middle of attacks from both sides, intellectual arguments and opinions must always be subservient to God’s revealed Word. Unlike human wisdom, which evolves and changes, the slogan of Luther’s Reformation became: Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum (The Word of the Lord Endures Forever).
Luther’s warning of the danger in trusting in human reason remains as timely as ever – in fact, perhaps more so. We live in a society that prizes novelty and change and idolizes “correct thinking.” Our world believes implicitly that human wisdom is capable of solving any problem if we just act decisively to implement it. Then, like the tipsy horseman, we struggle to maintain ‘balance’ as our theories too often are discovered to have unintended consequences and we then veer off in yet another direction.
We in the Church are also exposed to the challenges of trying to maintain equilibrium while responding to the shifting priorities of our world. Certainly, we must be prepared to respond to the changing needs of those we are called to serve, but our foundation does not change. As we make adjustments to our practices to better serve, it is our firm grounding in the Word of God and His gentle guidance in prayer and worship that allows us to remain secure in our salvation and effective in His service.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)