The thirst for knowledge

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.

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5 thoughts on “The thirst for knowledge

  1. It depends a lot on the age of the person in question. I used to get these students who had done years of Bible study. Boy, could they read the heck out of a text — Bible study is a really great preparation for close reading. And if you could get them to look at or even consider frameworks for examining the Scriptures, they became adept thinkers. But most of those students really felt not only that the Bible was the only glass in the room, but the only glass in existence. I found this attitude strangest in evangelical students in the sciences; it was like they built a compartment in their brain for everything they had to know to pass their pre-med classes but never considered any of the implications of any of it. From time to time, I’d get in these bizarre discussions where I’d point out that if you believe in the Christian G-d you believe that G-d created the human body and so that there must be some connection between these knowledges and the student would simply deny it. Like the Bible is true with a capital T but something like anatomy and physiology is only a sort of contingent “technical manual.” They wanted to fix the car, but they’d never consider why the car is built the way it is.

    The idea that reason and revelation should coincide has been a Roman Catholic mainstay since the early 13th century, and Catholic students had much more ease with that notion — but on the whole they had never been taught to read carefully. Still, when that inevitable moment came where all the knowledge collided, they were better equipped to deal with it than evangelicals. By refusing even to contemplate the outside structure of knowledge, evangelical leaders are really harming their own future communities — because they create an all or nothing situation where, when the young person sees it’s not all, they decide it’s nothing. It’s hugely destructive to individual personalities as well and I have seen it happen many times.

  2. By refusing even to contemplate the outside structure of knowledge, evangelical leaders are really harming their own future communities — because they create an all or nothing situation where, when the young person sees it’s not all, they decide it’s nothing.

    Evangelicalism is dying much faster than I expected—according to the latest Pew Center report white protestants are no longer holding steady, but have lost 25% of their number in the past ten years. The social pressure to stay has completely evaporated, and starting in 2000 or so the public attitude toward Christians shifted slowly from neutral to negative, making it easy to dismiss without any investigation.

    But the fatal mistake, I think, was that those in power decided to turn lemons into lemonade (in their own minds, anyway) by claiming that this was just the natural and expected blowback to their truth-telling. The only activity I see anymore regarding cultural engagement is to invite their secular opponents to a battle—one they would be ill-equipped to fight if the enemy bothered to show up. A good recent example is the Nashville Statement, a line in the sand that the world won’t even take notice of, while the belligerence behind it gives those still in the fold one more reason to be uneasy with their leadership.

  3. At the very least they should have delayed the release of the statement. A death in a counterprotest to neo-Nazis and all the hurricane destruction: this is a point at which the public face of Christianity should try to be as pastoral as possible — not drawing a line in the sand. This is a longer term problem with the evangelical movement: there is no one to admire. Even non-Christians have found common ground with Pope Francis, for instance. Billy Graham was the respected evangelical figure of generations past, someone who preached love and forgiveness along with repentance. Where is that person among evangelicals now?

    I’ve always thought CBMW is out of touch, and this is just one more example of that. Calling homosexuality and/or transgenderism sinful is a boat that sailed at least a generation ago in the mainline churches and probably even longer than that in the US at large. They can draw their line in the sand but most people know where they are on that issue now, especially if they are younger, so the line in the sand just becomes one more identity element in the development of enmities. Where groups like that could really do some good would be in speaking up firmly and kindly against promiscuity. Again, where is the pastoral voice as opposed to the screaming screed?

    One component of this is the movement’s unholy alliance with the media, which always finds the unkindest part and magnifies it to the nth degree. I am not a Christian and even when I was, I was not sympathetic with evangelicalism, but as a scholar I can certainly recognize that evangelicalism as it is has little in common with the general picture of it we tend to see. I have a former student, raised Baptist, now Episcopalian, who says, “individually Baptists are kind, generous, wonderful people, but in groups they are the most narrowminded and cruel and bigoted people I’ve met.” Laying aside whether that’s true, it’s certainly the picture of them that we have and they contribute to that.

  4. I have a former student, raised Baptist, now Episcopalian, who says, “individually Baptists are kind, generous, wonderful people, but in groups they are the most narrowminded and cruel and bigoted people I’ve met.” Laying aside whether that’s true, it’s certainly the picture of them that we have and they contribute to that.

    Servetus,

    I think it’s almost accurate. Closer to the bone would be to say that people join churches so as to embrace by proxy attitudes they can’t bring themselves to live out as individuals. It’s an effective way to enjoy the thrill of righteous indignation without needing to be pugnacious in everyday life. Pastors and teachers catered to this weakness when it built a following, but now that it backfiring they find themselves painted into a corner.

    But really, I think that in the future Christianity as a way of life will simply disappear from society’s radar screen. More will drift away, few will replace them, and the stalwarts will turn insular in much the way that fundamentalists did after the Scopes trial, but in much smaller numbers. Christian persecution will never become a live issue, anymore than it has become in secular Europe.

    That isn’t to say I think Christianity as a way of life will actually disappear, only its institutional manifestations. The way of life will always be available to individuals, who will be able to join together however and whenever they find it profitable. Most likely we won’t be able to count them at that point, since they won’t announce themselves in any quantifiable way.

  5. re: embracing proxy attitudes — you’d think they could join a church in order to do the same thing for the virtues (i.e., this community openly practices lovingkindness and I would like to learn that). But I agree that the institutional structures of Christianity are not especially useful to many people in the current economic / social atmosphere.

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