January 18, 2005

A Nation of Religious Illiterates

This is a soap-box issue for me, as an educator and a Christian. And there are no easy answers, and no really nice way to say it, so I'll just be blunt:

Americans -- both Christians and nonChristians -- are woefully ignorant of the Bible.

Non-Christians at least have an excuse -- it's not their holy book, after all. It's like asking Christians about something in the Koran or the Talmud. With the impact that religion has on our society, though, I think it would be a good idea for everyone to know what each religion teaches, and a little bit of the basics of each. Non-believers don't have that, and it causes a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings between people.

And the Supreme Court agrees with me.

In a majority opinion in a 1963 church-state case (Abington v. Schempp), Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion ... and its relationship to the advance of civilization." If so, the education of nearly every public school student in the nation is woefully inadequate.
from the Tallahasee Democrat
In public education, the emphasis should be on comparing religions, and examining the contributions of each faith to American society. How many people are aware of the role that American Baptists played in the establishing of freedom of religion? They played a huge role, because in colonial America the Baptists were the ones being thrown in jail for their beliefs (including accusations of child abuse, for refusing to baptize infants). Not many know even the most basic facts of the influence of religion on our nation (both good AND bad), and we should not ignore these contributions because of a fear of lawsuits. Facts are facts, and should be taught.

I think, though, that before we can expect the average man on the street to learn the basics of our faith, we need to learn them. I've quoted Barna surveys before, detailing how many Americans consider themselves Christians and how many of them believe things that are contrary to the Bible. Ask a group of high school students in your church if the book of Hezekiah is in the Old or New Testament (hint -- it's in neither. The "books" of Hosanna and Jubilations are also good ones to use). Discipleship is seriously lacking in many of our churches -- and yet we expect the world, and the mainstream media in particular, to get facts right about matters of religion and faith.

What is the answer? I think that, to start with, we need to return to teaching and preaching the Bible, rather than offering motivational speaches and calling them sermons. Many churches are doing this already, but many many more are not. Bible study used to be something that was enjoyed and encouraged -- now it's a duty that we "have to do" if we expect God to do anything for us. Read some of the writings of the early Puritans, and think about this: they were written to average people, with average educations. The difference is that these people studied the Bible, and discussed it daily, like we discuss sports or TV programs.

I think we'd be amazed at the change in our churches, and in our society, if we returned to sincere, devoted study of Scripture, both in church and at home.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 02:45 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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January 04, 2005

Faith and Reason addendum

I wanted to make sure everyone saw this, so I created a new post rather than editing the one below.

If you are interested in this subject, you HAVE to read this at The Evangelical Outpost. Do it now. Outstanding post that I wish I had written.

That's all.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 07:11 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Faith and Reason 3: Augustine

In Part 2, we talked about Tertullian, and his contention that faith and philosophy don't mix. This is a position that has been used and abused by Christians down through the ages, and we looked at what Tertullian might have meant.

Now, I want to take a look at another early theologian and philosopher, Augustine. Augustine wanted a faith that was consistant with reason, and he went in a LOT of directions to try and find one. He started off in Manicheanism, an early dualistic belief that taught two conflicting gods -- one good and one evil. In the ancient world, this religion held quite a bit of prestige, and Augustine was reluctant to abandon it completely. Finally, he realized that he couldn't ignore his doubts about this belief system, and embraced skepticism. He quickly saw some of the problems with this system, especially after reading neo-Platonist writings, and so he became a neo-Platonist for a time. Finally, through the influence fo Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, Augustine embraced Christianity. (The Catholic Encyclopedia has a good, short biography of Augustine here).

Augustine didn't see any conflict between faith and reason. Faith and trust are synonynmous to Augustine, and it's clear that there is a LOT of knoweldge that we have based on our trust of some other source. I know that the capital of England is London, and I know that London Bridge is there, but I've never been to Enlgand. I have to have faith in my sources of information on England to have any idea what England is like. Augustine defined faith, then, as knowledge that is gained without our own personal experience.

Reason, then, is knowledge that is gained through our experience. If I know that something is hot because I touch it, or because I see the steam from it, that is reason. If I know something is hot because I see someone else burn themselves on it, it's faith.

Faith and reason are like the two blades on a pair of scissors. Our knowledge comes from the interaction of both faith and reason, just as scissors cut something by using both blades. Faith is not something that only involves religious belief -- it is integral to any system of knowledge. Augustine expressed it this way: Credo ut intelligam -- I believe that I may understand.

I tend to be Augustinian. I don't think that faith means setting reason aside -- I think that faith and reason must be paired together to gain any real understanding of the world around us. We exercise faith all the time; religious faith is simply one aspect of the faith that we all have in facts that we have not experienced. We cannot experience everything that we know -- history is a perfect example of this -- so we have to exercise faith that our sources are correct.

But how can we be sure that even our reason is reliable? People are imperfect, after all. How can we rely on our reason to be accurate? How can we be sure that the reason of those we trust is accurate? Augustine had an answer for that, as well, which has been called his illumination theorywhich I'll discuss in the next installment of this series.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 02:59 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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