XIII. THE DOCTORS.
The sacred academy above
Of Doctors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught
Both books of life to us—for love
To know Thy scriptures tells us, we are wrote
In Thy other book—pray for us there,
That what they have misdone
Or missaid, we to that may not adhere.
Their zeal may be our sin. Lord, let us run
Mean ways, and call them stars, but not the sun.
This is a section from a work by John Donne, The Litany.
Donne was a 17th Century Anglican clergyman, as well as a rather important writer. Two phrases which he coined are ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’ (Metallica fans are especially fond of the latter). I would by no means endorse all he wrote, but, my goodness, sometimes he expresses the beauty and power of the Christian faith with depth I have seldom heard outside of Scripture. His words can be genuinely breath-taking. I first came across Donne through the sublime poem ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, one of the most wonderfully real and beautiful reflections on the personal significance of atonement I have ever experienced. Later I encountered ‘Death Be Not Proud’, a piece I think I would like read at my funeral.
The Litany, which is where I started this post, is an extended poetic reflection on various beings – from Father, Son, Spirit, Trinity, to different groups and orders of people. As with his wider work, I don’t think everything in it is awesome, and I would have to disagree fairly strongly at a number of points.
But section 13, quoted above, struck me as full of wisdom for many of us today who regularly engage with scholarship about Christ and Scripture – whether we do that in preparation for preaching or teaching, for general reading and interest, or for other reasons. If I understand what he is saying rightly (which I may not!), he helps us in two excellent ways:
Firstly, Donne would warn us against the kind of dependence on, and even worship of, scholarship which makes us ‘the sun’ (and in which we can let it eclipse the Son). In this way we might think and speak as if scholarship was always done from a neutral or completely transparent perspective, or treat it as almost canonical. We uncritically defer to scholarly opinion as it currently stands (or that of our favourite scholar or scholars), and this may indeed be a way of not having to do the hard work and thinking (and training and learning) ourselves. I know that temptation in myself.
Donne rather seeks that we be saved from what ‘they have misdone, or [m]issaid’, so that ‘…their zeal may not be our sin’.
This is well said, and even better if heeded.
But on the other hand…
Secondly, he would also encourage us to actually listen to, and make use of, scholarship. He speaks of scholars as ‘[d]octors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught, [b]oth books of life to us—for love’.
Some of us are at times in danger of what I think is a silly scorning of scholarship, where we have a fundamentally sceptical attitude, often arising from self-defensiveness. In my opinion (as one who is tempted to it at times!), this attitude lacks a basic Christian principle of knowledge: humility. If we won’t genuinely listen and consider what those who have spent a good deal of time learning have to say, we are very unlikely to ever discover areas where we are wrong – because we already think we have all the answers!
Now of course we will definitely have to disagree with scholarship at times – Paul did say the cross would be foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1), and no doubt that includes many scholars. Besides which, scholarship itself disagrees with itself very often. But to dismiss the opinions of those who have worked hard at learning, rather than humbly, if critically, listen – well that is to sow arrogance and to impoverish our riches for understanding the depths of God’s word as it has been given to us.
‘Stars, but not the sun’. There is a bit of wisdom from an old poet for all of us who stand on the shoulders of giants.