Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Knowledge is Good"

I've said before that Protestantism took much of its form (and authority) from the culture; that it not only was shaped by the culture, but took its form from the culture. Now there is a study that shows it. Exhibit A:

Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.
Ah, you will say, but those are Catholics, not Protestants. But, I respond, they clearly might as well be. Growing up in a predominately Protestant culture, they have conformed their thinking to what the culture prescribes. And the culture prescribes the Reformed tradition teaching on the elements of the Eucharist.

I really like this formulation, from the NYT article on the study:

Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about the essentials of their own faith will no doubt be appalled by some of these findings:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

¶ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.
First, I suppose we can divide clergy into those who are concerned about their congregants knowledge about their churches doctrines (not "faith," that's a different concept altogether), and those who simply don't care how ignorant their congregants are. Well, come to think of it, maybe we can; but pursuing that line would be churlish. However, I'd say most clergy wouldn't be appalled by those numbers; rather, they'd say "I told you so."

I don't know the history of religious education in other faiths, and my knowledge of it in Protestantism is rather sketchy, but anyone reading this who is also familiar with the term "Sunday school" probably presumes the church always had an active hand in teaching the doctrines of the church. No, actually.

"Sunday school" is a concept and institution that is just over 200 years old, which means it came along some 300 years after the Protestant Reformation. And it didn't begin as a church school to indoctrinate the children of the faithful. Such an idea would have been anathema. Protestant families considered religious instruction to be a family matter, and would have deeply resented any attempt to intrude on that duty by any institution, including the Church. Sunday school, in fact, was started by a Presbyterian pastor in Scotland, who was appalled that the poor children of his parish worked 6 days a week and received no education at all. On their one day off, he decided to teach them to read and write, and thus "Sunday school" was born. Only later did it become the Sunday morning baby-sitter and/or educational center of the Protestant churches.

Today, even Sunday school has withered away, under an onslaught of parents as teachers who themselves don't know basic church doctrines or religious tenets, and the pressure of a work week that spills over into ever day of the week. It may not be work to attend a child's soccer game, but somebody is working that game (the coaches, the referees, etc.), and athletic events of all stripes claim all the time not set aside from school activities. There is also just a general lack of interest in matters religious in the culture. At the turn of the 20th century, correspondence courses in koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, were a booming business. Who reads the New Testament at all, anymore, save for clergy and atheists? The churches I've been involved with have tried to catch the youth with "confirmation" classes, cramming into a year or (more commonly) less all the instruction they didn't receive in the years before. It's a bit like trying to give an uneducated 18 year old a college education; there's almost nothing there to build on, and the kids, predictably, aren't really interested in the doctrine of transubstantiation or the distinction between the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines on the elements of communion.

Of course, that assumes anyone ever really was. I question surveys like this, even as I point to them to confirm my worst suspicions. Does it really matter to anyone that we know today that Maimonides was Jewish? It's useful to scholars and to certain arguments and discussions, but as a matter of general knowledge? How important to one's faith is it to know who Martin Luther was, and what he did? Atheists trumpet such ignorance as proof of their superiority:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”*
Atheism is an affect of knowledge, I will agree with that. But it is not an affect of superior knowledge, better knowledge, or "truer" knowledge. I know who Maimonides was (and what he wrote), I know who Martin Luther was (and what he wrote, especially about the Jews and laborers; it's not pretty), and yet this knowledge does not make me superior to religious people I have known, some of them family members. Indeed, I think in their faith and lives, they were far superior to me. I can also say that about a former neighbor of mine, who was a committed atheist. In his life and actions, his charity and generosity and kindness, he was a far better Christian than I've ever been.

What does it matter if I know the tenets of Calvin's Institutes? Am I less a believer if i don't know Zwingli gave Protestant worship the "pastoral prayer"? The issue of the status of the eucharistic elements divided Lutheran and Reformed tradition churches for nearly 500 years. It was only resolved in the 19th century in Prussia by the forced "marriage" of the two churches into the Evangelical church (later the German Evangelical Church in America). The rift was formally healed between the two Protestant traditions just a few years ago. In either case, did anybody really notice? Did anybody, aside from clergy, really care?

These things have always mattered to clergy, but we can't forget that, especially prior to the Protestant Reformation (which rested on rising literacy rates in Europe), the clergy were the literate members of society. They kept the records and formulated the arguments. It was important because they said so, and because they passed on their ideas and arguments in writing to later generations. Was the layperson in the cathedral at Koln or in Calvin's Geneva really that concerned with what the elements were when taken in the worship service? Probably not. Certainly not the way the priests were.

There is certainly knowledge worth saving, worth preserving and passing on. For the people of the Book (Jews, Muslims, Christians), that knowledge starts with scripture. But the rest is tradition, and, as the German E&R church once prayed:

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
Even the archaic English of that prayer, echoing the King James translation in words ("thy Church") and syntax is a tradition from which we have ultimately to be delivered. Certainly we can argue about the importance, even the validity, of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but more and more we are arguing among a shrinking circle, sounding more and more like the medieval scholastics caricatured by the Renaissance as arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. This is simply an argument that has no life for the congregants, and insists on a metaphysics, a usage, which has lost its spirit. If it is of no matter to those in the pews, perhaps it has become an institution which no longer gives life and power to this generation.

What does, then? Joel Osteen, among others, insists the words of the Bible mean God wants you to be rich and happy always. Fundamentalists and evangelicals insist the Bible means you must accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or suffer the torments of the damned for all eternity. I preach the gospel as a teaching of the Risen Lord who taught us and gave us the power to care for each other, to become more like my atheist neighbor, a person too few of us can become on our own. Which of us teaches the essential information of Christianity? And what does it matter, in those teachings, what the elements of the Eucharist mean? How is my message affected by my audiences knowledge of who Mother Teresa was? Or Maimonides? Or the leader of the Exodus from Egypt?

How does any of the knowledge tested in that study help in answering the question: "What good does it do a person to acquire the whole world and lose...oneself?" At some point, in this context, that becomes the question of the story of Faustus. After all, the Bible tells us that when God appeared to Elijah there was a whirlwind and an earthquake and a fire, but God was not in any one of them. Is God in the doctrines of the Church, or the knowledge of the believer?

The title for this post is taken from the inscription on the statue of the founder of Faber College in Animal House. (I couldn't find that image; I had to make do with the gimme cap). Knowledge certainly is good, but good for what? Good for whom? I've no wish to preach to a congregation ignorant of the most basic ideas of Christianity (I'm no missionary, although perhaps I should reconcile myself to being one, in my own backyard), but neither do I need them to be current on a 500 year old controversy that only ever mattered to the professional clergy and theologians. Knowledge is good, but we have to use it for something, we have to have a use for it in people's lives, or it isn't much good at all.

*actually, I suspect what you make is a confused child. Unless you subscribe to a fundamentalist view that the Bible is magical text which explains itself to each and every person who reads it, you need a community to interpret and explain the meaning of the stories in those books. For much the same reason we teach literature in school, and do it for at least 14 years; longer, if you major in the subject.


  1. Anonymous11:16 AM

    Atheism is an affect of knowledge,

    Having recently had the experience of arguing with a number of atheists, some of whom were quite intelligent and more who believed themselves to be, I don't believe that to be accurate.

    I doubt that atheists who believe they are rationalists arguing out of evidence would prove, if put to the test, to be much more informed about their own ideological holdings, even as they profess them.

    But I don't much care what they think, I care what people do and I'm finding that, as manifested on the blogs, atheism is a shallow, bigoted intellectual fad which is and will be a blight on liberal politics until it stops being fashionable.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. I agree with you, Anthony. Atheism is an ideology as hollow as any religious belief sustained solely by theological doctrines.

    I was constantly warned in seminary, by my professors and my friends, not to let my religious beliefs come to depend solely on my intellectual understandings and predilections. I would not go so far as to say an ignorant religious belief ("blind faith" is the usual, albeit problematical, term) is preferable to a sterile intellectual assent to theological propositions, but true religious practice (let's set aside the misunderstood issue of "faith") is a rich blend of practice and profession.

    The shallow, bigoted intellectualism of atheism is as much a blight as shallow emotional religious fervor.

  3. Anonymous11:28 AM

    As I quit the blog we both frequent, Moonbootica posted this link she thought I'd find useful, and I did.



  4. Let me add to what I said that atheism is an affect of knowledge; but that's all it is. It is a great deal less, in other words, than it purports to be. And it is, ironically, mostly an affect of knowledge about the Bible and religion (especially and specifically Christianity. I seldom hear atheists railing against Judaism, even when some version of Judaism is roiling Israel and the Palestinians).

    Which makes it a very dessicated and artificial thing indeed, as determined in its present iteration to impose its will on the general public as some evangelicals and fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, do.

  5. Anonymous11:52 AM

    It was very curious how, when I wrote on blogs to discourage participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, citing the potential for people to get killed, that I and what I said was slammed by many of the people who in August and September were all against Islamophobia in the form of Koran burning and Mosque banning. Somehow I don't think that has much to do with seeing the light.

    I do think that the article Moon recommended does say a lot of it, as did Marilyn Robinson in her essays in The Death of Adam. I don't know if you've been following the arguments I've been having at Sean Carroll's blog, which I've written about too much at Echidne's blog. I started out merely being opposed to the bigotry of the new atheism out of political inexpediency but over the past four years have come to see it goes much deeper than that. It was also many of the same people who didn't like it when I criticized Nietzsche, which, frankly, having read him, I was shocked to have to do on the left. I think that there is a deeply nihilistic strain to a would be leftist atheism. I take that as much from looking at the history of the left and what they've approved or overlooked as I do from what is said on the blogs these days. It doesn't surprise me one bit that New Labour would go that way, just as it doesn't surprise me that any other alleged party of the left would abandon the only thing that separates the left from the right when the term "morality" becomes unfashionable. I'm tired of pretending I don't see and hear what I see and hear, I'm tired of the bigotry and the counterproductive division. If the atheists on the left insist on me making a choice, I'll go with liberal Christians and liberals of other faiths. Not only are they more dependable, there are far more of them.


  6. Thanks for the link above. I'm going to come back to that.

  7. that atheism is an affect of knowledge; but that's all it is. It is a great deal less, in other words, than it purports to be.

    and what would that be, my friend? what do you think i'm purporting? just wondering.

    Calvin: ick. Zwgli: much more fun. both of them: not really thinking too much about me, heh.

    come on you guys. i know it's hard. but really, let's try to unpack this data in a useful way. which is simply: willful ignorance of their own creed, on the part of believers. actually reading the whole Bible could lead to doubt, contradiction, and dispute. it's why the RCC tried so hard to put it down in Luther's day, and why priesthoods of every kind cling viciously to the notion that "only properly trained tradents can tell the little people what the holy text really means." believers thinking for themselves = less money for temple con artists. you don't have to make much more complicated than that.

  8. If the atheists on the left insist on me making a choice,

    what does this even mean? it's sort of silly, from my atheist perspective. i'm not "insisting" you do... anything. i might point out that it should be you, and not gay atheists, presenting a strong front whenever fred phelps shows up to a funeral of a dead gay vet with signs that read "this guy isn't a friend of Christ" but i'm not trying to tell you how to act or think. that's what believers do, not atheists. we mostly say "i don't believe, i think religious texts are silly, and superstitious is no way to go thru life, son." but most of us feel and "believe" you are free to do what you want, almost always.

  9. Anonymous12:49 PM

    chicago dyke, the Bible isn't a single, monolithic production out of one point of view or one experience, that method of reading the bible is superficial, ahistorical, and one that is entirely foreign to many Christians and even formal churches within Christianity. How do you think so many divisions and sects came about if that isn't the case? And many liberal traditions explicitly tell people that they have to consult their own understanding and conscience about what they read there. If it is read as if it's history and science it's not only useless as science and history, it's not awfully useful for thinking about religion either.

    I'm not a Christian or a Jew or a Moslem, frankly, I'd rather be ruled over by a government that consisted of United Church of Christ members and Presbyterians than I would the anti-religious left, they'd be a lot more likely to avoid bad results and would probably produce better results. The new atheists would spend all their time trying to kick out people. I've never encountered the kind of bigotry among liberal Christians that I see very day on blogs of the left, and not just anti-Christian bigotry but also misogyny, racism and ethnic bigotry. I'm tired of it and will avoid it from now on.

    Anthony McCarthy

  10. As an active congregant with a medioce religion education growing up (the family was active in the church but the education part was sporadic and disjointed)I am sympathetic to both sides of the arguement. I still find surprising holes in my knowledge of the bible, for example this week was Luke 16:19-31. I must have somewhere heard the story of Lazarus (the poor one, not the one raised from the dead), but how could I not remember such a powerful story? Maybe it was that this time the pastor didn't shy from the story. He pointed out that by world standards everyone in the congregation is rich and we have obligations to the poor at the gate. He didn't mind delivering an uncomfortable message. (I must also add my continuing awareness of how much of our common discourse comes from the Bible. This week is was realizing that Psalm 146 is the source for "perish the thought".) That all said, the more important question is around how much do I need to know for a meaningful connection to god and to express the faith in my actions. Probably less than I think.

    To tie back to the continuing theme of shrinking congregations I want to make this observation. We have a relatively small congregation (about 140 between 2 services on an average Sunday) but a relatively large Sunday school. For example we have 36 active middle and high schoolers this year (active meaning attending at least 50% of the time)along with Sunday school down to pre-K. An active Sunday school, a Lutheran Youth Organization, sunday school for both middle and high school age kids, and a 2 year confirmation class have turned out to be attractive features when families are "church shopping". The confirmation class is a kind of boot camp for all the things I never learned, Old Testament one year, New Testament the next and they keep alternating so if you come two years it is all covered. Add in a requirement for a week of away summer confirmation camp and at the kids leave with at least the basics. We are a very middle of the road ELCA church so it isn't a fundamentalist message that is bringing the families in. My conclusion is that while there arguments for making church easier and more approachable, which always seems to be taking things away, there is an alternate path that says maybe it is about offering more. Asking more, challenging more, offering more. Amen.

  11. and what would that be, my friend? what do you think i'm purporting? just wondering.

    Atheism depends entirely upon religious belief in order to exist as a concept, or an ideology. It is not an answer to anything, it is simply a rejection of something. Atheism is so identified with religious belief (most specifically Christianity, at least in Western culture; as I say, I seldom hear atheists complain about Judaism, or Buddhism, etc.) that, as the articles point out, atheists tend to know more about religion than the religious do.

    Why this obsession, if you don't "believe" in it? Atheism isn't a positive, it's simply a negative. One can certainly reject religion without being an atheist; but one can't be (it seems) an atheist, without rejecting religion. Over and over and over again.

  12. A good part of that ignorance, seems to me, arises out of a dismissal of history. If you surveyed knowledge folk have about most anything more than a decade in the past, you'd come up with something similar.

    I'm often puzzled to find myself defending even the possibility that liberal religion can exist, much less that it has, and does. Not where an agnostic physics/math person thought he'd be. But I don't see any less bigotry, ignorance, intolerance, dogmatism or cruelty arising out of a non-believer's demand that humanity be divided between virtuous Self and fallen Other than I do out of more frankly religious contexts. Nor can I understand the intolerant atheist's claim that the superfluousness of God to his apprehension, however flawed and incomplete, of the universe constitutes a proof of God's absence that all but the superstitious and deluded must embrace.

  13. A good part of that ignorance, seems to me, arises out of a dismissal of history. If you surveyed knowledge folk have about most anything more than a decade in the past, you'd come up with something similar.

    I keep thinking about this as I hear more and more about the survey. The percentage of "atheists" who knew the correct answers to whether Ramadan is Muslim religious observance, or that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist (Tibetan Buddhist, actually; there is a difference) was only slightly higher than among Protestants (the next highest group), and all of them were pretty low numbers. Which speaks of a much wider ignorance than a dearth of knowledge only among certain groups.

    In general, Americans are ignorant of things that aren't part of their daily lives. I don't know that Europeans, or Asians, or Africans, are much better, though. The more I think on this survey, the more I wonder what it proves. Aside from the questions I asked in the post, is it essential to Protestant Christianity to know about Ramadan? Or the Dalai Lama?

  14. Anonymous2:22 PM

    The teachings of Jesus have been especially unpopular with the elite, I think that has more than a little to do with the attacks on Christianity by people who would like to believe they are in favor of Justice but who, when it comes right down to it, tend towards elitism. Sometimes it reminds me of Catherine the Great and her admiration for the enlightenment, so long as it didn't change the feudal system in her empire.

    I think the point that was made in that
    Australian Broadcasting Corporation link, that the Vatican, despite all of its awful policies and practices, is the most prominent institution carrying on a serious critique of economic injustice. Even under Ratzinger.

    I've been reading more about Bowen's personalism because it's influenced Martin Luther King and the Catholic Worker movement but its European version through Mounier, is influential even within the right wing of the Catholic Church. I figure its words might fork lightening in the real world, or at least it's worth looking at more closely. It has really opened my eyes to the role of human thought in the world as nothing else has. I thought the very short passage about the inability of materialism to contain even the concept of evil was interesting considering the emphasis that popular materialism puts on questions of evil that their ideology can't even define.

    I'm not going to pretend that materialism, as an ideology, can do what it can't, since the materialists want others to do what it can't either. At least religious faith can account for the existence of good and evil, which is a considerable step up from materialism which can't consistently even allow for their existence. Though, as with Christians, they can elect to not address those on a level of logical consistency or to challenge others in that way, which earns those people some kind of privilege to not have it brought up in their faces.

    It was interesting to see how the anti-religious faction seemed to be quite ignorant of Darwin's explicit citation of Malthus as his spark of insight. I think, in the context, that's a pretty big lapse of new atheist erudition.

    Anthony McCarthy

  15. Anonymous5:56 PM

    "Am I less a believer if i don't know Zwingli gave Protestant worship the 'pastoral prayer'?"

    Is one less a believer if one doesn't know what one believes?