I am in the middle of my nineteenth year of school. Education is my passion. I graduated as valedictorian from my high school and summa cum laude from my undergraduate college. I am devoted, to say the least. I am also devoted to a rich, spiritual life. Unfortunately, I have found my two passions often in conflict with one another.
If I return to my family’s home and discuss things I have learned in view of current, Christian ideals, my mother tells me the fault lies with “that liberal college you went to.” If I talk spirituality with my peers, the conversation often becomes awkward. I am blessed to currently be attending a Masters of Fine Arts Poetry program. In poetry, if nowhere else, spirituality has yet to be diminished. Even those who do not consider themselves spiritual find sustenance. In class one day, a fellow student spoke of the moment when a poem comes to him. He said: “I am agnostic, but I cannot describe that as anything but divine.”
These little moments are the sweet, succulent, little medicines I have to find to remain sane in a culture that finds that spirituality diminishes education, and vice versa. A friend once let me borrow her iPod to listen to a Rob Bell podcast. Though I cannot recall the precise words, I remember that he spoke of education as an opportunity to enrich spirituality. I thought: “Someone gets it, at least.”
The conflict arises in many ways. Those who view the Bible metaphorically often butt heads with those who see it literally. Yet, somewhere in the middle is a value that is essentially the same. I have had the hardest battle when it comes to science, history and cultural studies. For some reason, the Bible is the only document we refuse to see in light of these terms. If I know the culture at the time the Bible was written, I can come to certain conclusions about what it says. The same goes for history—a discussion of the events occurring during the Council of Nicea only leads to disaster. Science too has often found itself in conflict with Christians. Therefore: become educated, lose your religion
The problem, of course, is that this is entirely unnecessary. An understanding of culture, history and science should not be a threat to faith. We have re-interpreted and placed several other historical documents within time and place. These have not lost their value. I once heard a man say: “If science threatens your faith, it is not a very strong faith.” If knowing the New Testament was written several years after Jesus’ death and by human beings threatens your faith, it is not a very strong faith.
There are always those who discuss those nasty “college years” when people tend to leave their religion, re-evaluate it and often return to it. But now, people are not returning. At least, they are not returning to church. I have met more people who believe in God that refuse to go to church than the opposite. Part of it is ancient rhetoric coming up against current knowledge.
After Rome fell, the Academy all but disappeared. Rome was a pagan society so Academies were seen as pagan institutions. There was a long period of time when the majority of society was uneducated and illiterate. Some historians refer to this time as “The Dark Ages.” The rhetoric of the time was the sermon. In fact, the small group of people who could read was filled primarily with priests. Since the congregation had no education and no ability to read the Bible themselves, the word of the priests could not be questioned. We are still using medieval rhetoric, but the congregation has changed. Now, we have questions. Now, we have knowledge. Now, we want answers that consist of more than: “You just have to believe it,” or “That is part of faith,” or “That is what I have interpreted the Bible to say, so you cannot question it.”
Instead of being welcomed in their struggle for understanding, scholars who question are often told quite simply that they are not Christians. So they form their own personal spirituality and never return to a community of believers. I have yet to return to church for this very reason.
The same problem caused by rhetoric may be solved by rhetoric. Many famous rhetoricians believed that a healthy debate could lead to a shared conclusion of “truth.” That’s all these scholars ask for: a healthy debate, room for questions. A verse may mean this, but it can also mean something else. This must be permissible. A passage in the Bible may say this, but in terms of history, we can understand it differently. This must be permissible. This is my favorite quote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Without the permission to question, there is an entire group of people being shut out of the Church. This should not be so.