It is startling how often desert (or deserted) islands come into play in questions of theology and ethics. How many times have you heard the desert island scenario proclaimed as a possible counter-example against some doctrine or practice?
There are two significant issues with the desert island trope. First, it tries to establish normal practice by means of an exceptional one. None of us live on desert islands. We live on continents with millions of other people. We have resources of family, friends, church, healthcare, education, and much more. It may be an interesting thought experiment to consider some situation in light of a desert island scenario, but we should be careful drawing any sweeping conclusions from such.
The second, and more distressing, issue with desert islands is that they reveal who we are and what we value as westerners, particularly Americans.
When we place ourselves on a desert island for the sake of argument, we are revealing that not only are we supremely interested in ourselves, but that we also see ourselves as the ultimate authority in our lives as we alone make our own decisions. These scenarios reveal how we really think. They strip away the distractions and isolates what we see as the crucial variables in the discussion.
A problem this can cause, however, is that the desert island can serve as a distraction. By eliminating so much from the discussion, we can cut out inconvenient (to our cause) factors. Consider a classic example: “If you were alone on a desert island with only a Bible, is it possible to be saved?” For much of the Protestant world, the foregone answer would be, “Of course.” And therefore, we see church as an aid, not as an essential. But there is a serious problem with this line of reasoning.
We are not alone on desert islands. We are on continents, and those continents have churches — even Antarctica. We must factor the church into our questions on faith because it is a significant variable which exists in our set of things to consider.
A more accurate phrasing of the question above would be, “Can we ignore the church and be saved by our own efforts?” I daresay we may garner a different answer if we posed that query to a selection of theologians.
Some would still affirm that yes, we can. Some would not. The Church Fathers would certainly look askance at such a stance. Cyprian of Carthage argued this point by writing, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
A desert island is no place to seek to dwell. It is to be alone and left solely to our own devices. We should seek to live in community with our fellow man and in submission to the authorities which God has established. To seek to be our own supreme ruler is to place ourselves in bad company. Lucifer was cast out of heaven for such action.