The Problem with “Principles”

A long time ago, I learned the art of drawing principles from Scripture. And since I have learned that art, I have taught it to many, many students. But in recent years, I, like certain others, have grown a little suspicious of the notion of principlizing. To distill from a story or a poem—or even a work of expository discourse—a kernel concept which we then take to be the idea that the author is trying to convey is both a sober and a difficult task. And I often wonder whether the very endeavor does not violate something sacred in the art of the text itself.

Once again, Frederick Buechner provides some insight:

If we think the purpose of Jesus’ stories is essentially to make a point as extractable as the moral at the end of a fable, then the inevitable conclusion is that once you get the point, you can throw the story itself away like the rind of an orange when you have squeezed out the juice. Is that true?… Can we extract the point in each case and frame it on the living room wall for our perpetual edification?
Or is the story itself the point and truth of the story? Is the point of Jesus’ stories that they point to the truth about you and me and our stories? We are the ones who have been mugged, and we are also the ones who pass by pretending we don’t notice. Hard as it is to believe, maybe every once in a while we are even the ones who pay and arm and a leg to help. The truth of the story is not a motto suitable for framing. It is a truth that one way or another, God help us, we live out every day of our lives. It is a truth as complicated and sad as you and I ourselves are complicated and sad, and as joyous and simple as we are too. The stories that Jesus tells are about us. Once upon a time is OUR time, in other words.

This has implications beyond even the reading of Scripture (as if that weren’t important enough). Many people fancy themselves as being morally upstanding, because they live by “principles.” But principles have a way of standing independent of narrative context, and can thereby trick us into thinking that ethics (i.e., right living) is a simpler matter than it really is. Life is not a matter of reducible and boxable truths which we apply to situations like the right tool for the job. It is much more complicated than that.

This is yet another idea that I find myself chewing on these days.

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