A nice quote for the day, from a 2005 New York Times Magazine essay by Mark Lilla about his stint with evangelicalism.
But the thirst for knowledge isn’t limited to those who attend the right schools. (Nor, I was to learn, is it universal among them.)
Pro tip: this, like so many interesting things I read online, comes via Alan Jacobs, who saves links to items using a bookmark service called Pinboard. Users there can mark the saved links as either public or private, and one’s public links are available through an RSS feed. So I subscribe to Jacobs’s account and am treated to a steady stream of excerpts from writing he finds online, usually without comment. I assume this is part of his research process, but I don’t know for sure.
The essay itself is a nice addition to my collection of thought-provoking writings about thinking (no surprise, since Jacobs literally wrote the book, or at least one of them). The above quote is immediately followed by this:
The caricature of American evangelicals as incurious and indifferent to learning is false. Visit any Christian bookstore and you will see that they are gluttons for learning – of a certain kind. They belong to Bible-study groups; they buy works of scriptural interpretation; they sit through tedious courses on cassette, CD or DVD; they take notes during sermons and highlight passages in their Bibles. If anything, it is their thirst for knowledge that undoes them. Like so many Americans, they know little about history, science, secular literature or, unless they are immigrants, foreign cultures. Yet their thirst for answers to the most urgent moral and existential questions is overwhelming. So they grab for the only glass in the room: God’s revealed Word.
Undoes them? Yes, I guess I’d agree with that, and it’s a shame. If only a fraction the energy evangelicals spend diving deep into their favored topics were spent thinking, by which I mean carefully examining the assumptions that underpin the knowledge they gorge themselves on and assessing it fairly against competing claims, I think we’d have a calmer and more respectable community.
The thirst for knowledge was always there, but there also used to be guardrails:
A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers – ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.
I heartily agree with this. But I also understand the inclination to be served unthinkingly by pastors, teachers, and writers—not just out of laziness, but to avoid risking one’s membership in the group.