A Different Trumpet Call
In some ways, this is a difficult post to write, because I feel the need to address a room-filling elephant in the American church. In surfing the web this week, I came across this chart on an atheist website. After a little hunting, I found the original source, a blog evaluating various aspects of data from a dating website. If you are interested in what it says, scroll down nearly halfway to where it tells you how to circumspectly find out if your date is religious, and you’ll be able to skip the parts about how preference for beer correlates to sex on the first date. Hardly a scholarly site.
So why am I giving it any credence at all? Simply because it is consistent with empirical evidence I have observed as well as that observed by folks with whom I shared the chart this week. So rather than being the authority on which this post is based, it was merely the spark that ignited my concern into action (or at least into the words of this post).
If the suspense hasn’t yet driven you to either of the links to see what the chart says, I applaud your fortitude. Basically, the chart indicates that the more religious you are, the less likely you are to be proficient in reading and writing. The chart compares different religious viewpoints and degree of self-reported devotion to one’s faith and their literacy grade level. If you are atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, or agnostic, you were the most literate. It goes downhill from there, in order: Hindu, Muslim, Catholic and finally Protestant.
Apparently, the ‘researcher’ compared the proficiency of spelling and grammar of all of the folks using the dating site and correlated it with stated faith and how seriously the person claimed to adhere to it. That’s about as much detail as was given in the article. I have no idea how they assessed grade level to the quality of writing, so don’t know the validity of the assessment. So why give it my attention?
Again, it is because it is consistent with my empirical observations. It grieves me to realize that the portions of our country that are associated most strongly with our faith strongly correlate with the worst educational statistics. When this country was founded by predominantly Protestant folks seeking religious freedom, one of the first and most important (in their view) things to do was to establish schools and universities so that their children could be educated in order to understand and advance their faith. Get that? Their faith was the goal of their education, not its enemy.
My friend, Dr. Robert Woodberry, a subject of a recent Scholar Redeemer post, is a sociologist who has found extraordinarily strong correlations between the work of Protestant missionaries around the world and a profound increase in the standard of living of the native population.
And yet, and yet, I see evidence all around me of folks who fear ‘secular education,’ and see faith as separate from and superior to anything the ‘world’ has to say on topics, and who see anyone who doesn’t hold to their interpretation of Scripture as deceived, wrong, evil, or of Satan, and therefore will not engage with them but retreat into holy huddles.
Bob’s the sociologist, not me. However, I think the Big Event that did the most to shatter the Protestant (and to a lesser extent, Catholic) confidence was Origin of Species. Basically, someone floated a plausible theory that casts doubt on the special Creation of humanity, and we crumbled. Why? One possible reason is that Christians had grown accustomed to their dominant role in American society and grew intellectually lazy, and thus their faith was more cultural than living and vibrant. They lifted their understanding of what the Bible says above other possible interpretations. They failed to read and appreciate the wealth of diverse interpretations of difficult passages by 1800 years of church thinkers, limiting themselves to rather simplistic interpretations. Thus, many were ill-equipped to intellectually engage evolutionary theory on a scientific, academic, or even logical basis, and surrendered the discussion with blind insistence on their interpretations. They had already ceded the intellectual rigor of the academy and hadn’t realized it, so perceived an attack rather than an attempt to fill the vacuum of quality scholarship.
What was the result? Christians as a rule began to advocate ‘blind faith’ (a term I despise), and that the truth of our faith trumps any evidence apparently against it. When this should have emboldened them to seek out data all the more strongly, instead they turned inward and suspicious, discouraging the brightest among them from pursuing those studies. Ignorance and fear multiplied, causing the church to stop trying to answer the difficult questions raised by science (and other academic fields) and insist on spiritual platitudes. The result was almost a Hindu like dualism—the physical world was deceptive illusion and the spiritual one the only reality. Yet, the Bible is the holy book that is one of the most grounded in the real world. The Jewish and Christian faiths are meant to be lived in the daily grind, not divorced from it.
When our young grew up in this environment, then went ahead and entered the secular educational system, the rationality God put into their brains received a shock like falling into an icy river and they realized they didn’t know how to swim, so they succumbed to the philosophy that their faith didn’t have the answers and was empty. They had been discouraged from asking questions in church, and in the academy, not only were they encouraged to ask, they were given answers that made sense of the information given, not knowing there was more out there to be discovered that would bolster their faith as reasonable. Their faith was revealed to be weak and powerless, and therefore God must be also, if He even existed after all. When word of this falling away reached home, folks just held on tighter in panic, their fear reinforced, and a vicious cycle began.
The church in effect agreed with the naturalist philosophy that faith was irrelevant and couldn’t be defended in the marketplace, so it exiled itself underground. Is this the picture of the church Christ painted to Peter of a force tearing down the gates of Hell? Are these the believers in whom perfect love casts out fear? Or is it the picture of those who hold to the form of religion but deny its power? Instead of the Church victorious, we have the Church anemic, afraid of getting bruised, afraid the atheists might actually be right that God does not exist and their faith is in vain.
I didn’t realize until seeing that chart how deeply I was aware of this phenomenon. Ever since high school, I was passionate about not wanting to study at a Christian college because I knew I needed my faith to be challenged in the world in which I would spend my career and life. I was passionate that I would send my kids to public school so they would be equipped to engage their culture from the beginning—I would train them in the faith at home and through church in such a way that they would be prepared for what they would face and they would get immediate practical application of it with their peers.
There are some truly wonderful Christian schools at all academic levels and some truly backwards ones. Within each category are faculty who are either wonderful or blind-faithers and everywhere in between. However, I wanted to be in the secular environment, fleeing the holy huddle, being a shelter for Christian students, and engaging the secular ones, providing an alternative. We still need folks to do that.
What I realized this week, is how badly we as Christian faculty, the exceptions to those in the graph, need to reach ‘in’ to the Body, to ease their fears, to enable them to stand, to open the eyes of their blind faith, showing them that faith is truly the assurance of things hoped for, because of what we have seen in God’s faithfulness. We do not need to be afraid for God’s power or reputation—He is the Lord All Mighty. Faith is supposed to give us the confidence to seek out the truth in the world and proclaim it in all of its forms, not cause us to run in fear in case it gets crushed.
Faith and fear are opposites. It is time for us as Christian scholars to lead our brothers and sisters out of fear and into faith. We need to help them to see their view of God is too small, a god of the gaps, not the Conqueror of Death and Author of Life. We need to restore a love of learning and study of Creation within the Church, to reignite the idea that scholarship is a holy calling, and reinforce the command that intellectual integrity is not only possible, but expected in a person of faith.