I don’t teach business principles. I don’t teach biblical principles. When friends ask why, I tell them principles are freeze-dried food.
Freeze-drying food has its origins in the 15th century. The Incas used a rudimentary form in storing their crops on mountain heights. The cold temperatures froze food stores as the water inside slowly vaporized under the low air pressure of the high altitudes.
Modern freeze-drying was developed for shipping blood in World War II. Commercial applications followed, including food. Freeze-drying became widely popular when NASA created freeze-dried ice cream. Astronauts loved it, even though freeze-drying causes food to lose some of its nutritional value.
God’s words have rich nutritional value. In Hebrews 4:12-16, they’re described as living and dynamic, penetrating deeply into our physical body (“joint and marrow”). We gain embodied knowledge, laying us naked before God. Embodied knowledge makes us unable to escape God and do our own thing. We feel God’s presence.
Embodied knowledge began to disappear 500 years ago. Enlightenment thinkers felt that individuals could assess their spiritual health better than God. “I think, therefore I am.” Knowledge became individualized, disembodied, conceptualized. Two Enlightenment terms capture this: principles and concepts.
In the 1650s, principles, originally meaning origin, or first cause, began to denote abstract moral absolutes. Principles are high-level abstractions describing reality. But we don’t see at that high a level. We see through a glass dimly (I Cor.13:12), perceiving patterns.
Concept is from the French conceit. It’s the conceit of assuming you have knowledge of something that hasn’t touched you in the deepest part of your body.
Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment man (“Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day”). He was, in principle, opposed to slavery. But he didn’t wrestle with God over this issue, so he capitulated, feeling it was impossible to operate a large estate without slaves. Jefferson died owning over 100 slaves. He felt the same about debt. Jefferson was, in principle, opposed to it. But he died deeply in debt because, well, you know, it’s impossible to operate a large estate without going deeply into debt.
The Enlightenment made principles and concepts part of the common vernacular of the West. We hear these words in our churches. For example, we teach “biblical principles of giving.” Yet, according to a recent study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans give about three percent of our income to charity. This includes most Christians. The percentage has not budged significantly for decades. In fact, since the recent Great Recession, it has declined for those making more than $100,000 annually because, well, you know, it’s impossible to indulge our pleasures and be generous. We’ll give more when we’re making more money. God has a word for that: adultery (James 4:4).
Of course, you’d have to encounter God to feel you’re an adulterer. Few do because we teach “discipleship principles.” How many of us are Jesus’ disciples? Here’s his pattern: You cannot be my disciples unless you give up all your possessions (Lk.14:33). How are we doing? Before the Enlightenment, we’d discover the answer through encountering God under the guidance of spiritual directors. It’d go something like this.
“Hello, Mike. Walk with me as we roam through your life. Is this your spouse, Kathy?” (Yes.) “Is she mine? Is that your family? Mine now. Your home? Nope, mine. Your business? Mine. Show me your finances. All mine now. You possess nothing.”
Ever experienced this? If you haven’t, it’s not your fault. Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The churches of America have come to a comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.” I’ve cohabited (lived) with my wife Kathy for almost four decades. I hardly ever notice her Kentucky accent. In like manner, we rarely notice the lack of nutritional value in principles and concepts. John Paul II did. In the late 1970s, he reminded us of how the gospel is best told in our physical bodies, not in principles. His talks were “a response to the Enlightenment… and all the disembodied anthropologies infecting the modern world.”
“Principles are what people have instead of God,” writes Frederick Buechner. Religious “nones” report they “miss God.” They seek to be touched by the transcendent, and “the transcendent world is not a disembodied world.” Principles and concepts barely touch anyone, including nones. They freeze-dry God’s words, making it difficult for us to promote human flourishing. That’s why I don’t teach principles or concepts.
 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995), 33.
 Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (Image Book, 2012), 68.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (HarperOne 1993), 73.
 Allan M. Savage & Peter Stuart, The Catholic Faith and the Social Construction of Religion (WestBow Press, 2011), 14.