Friday, August 3, 2007

Popular and Professional Religion

As those of you who have been slogging along with me know, I have lately been attempting a dialogue with the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. A scientist friend of mine who has read the book tells me that there is not too much real science in that book and that may be true. My problem is that I do not know enough about science to evaluate that for myself. Dawkins has me at a distinct disadvantage because he is a professional scientist while I cannot claim even amateur status. He has inspired me to try to learn more about it, though, and that’s a good thing.

Dawkins also knows a good bit about religion although frankly he may know just enough to be dangerous. That he has such knowledge is not surprising. Everybody knows a lot about religion—or so they think. Indeed, religion is ubiquitous in human culture, so every human being is exposed to religion in one form or another.

Those of us who are adherents of a particular religion usually think that we know all about it. We also figure that we have a pretty decent understanding of all of the other religions about which we have heard. The truth is, though, that everyone’s understanding is incomplete. We Christians are mainly familiar with the particular brand of Christianity that we practice but the practice of Christianity varies from region to region, culture to culture, and tradition to tradition. There is great diversity of belief and practice in the Baptist faith that I practice, for example. It should go without saying that our understanding of other people’s religion is even more incomplete than is our understanding of our own. Too often we only “know” what we have heard or what we have read. We are all too prone to make sweeping generalizations when it comes to other people’s religions. As a Christian, I know better than to begin a sentence with “All Christians…” but I am not always as careful to avoid saying “All Muslims…” or “All Scientologists…” or “All atheists….”

As a professional religious person, the more I have come to know, the more I know how little I actually know. And I give most of my time to trying to understand.

As a professional religious person, I am always dealing with popular religion, by which I mean that kind of religion that is practiced by the person in the pew or that is talked about by the person on the street. I have been a Baptist for my entire life and a Christian for most of it. I have three degrees in Religion. I have been a pastor for twenty years and have taught Religion on the college level on either a full or part-time basis for much of that time. I read and write about the Bible and Christianity and Church and religious issues every day. Yet I am confronted every day by ordinary people who don’t have the training that I do and the experience that I do yet who think that they understand the Lord and the Bible and the Church and the world as well as or better than I do.

And of course, the truth is that often they do. The reasons for that are many. For one thing, when you get right down to it, what matters the most in religion is simple child-like faith, just like Jesus said. For another thing, when one sits down with one’s Bible with the intent to learn and with a spirit of submission and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, one can learn amazing things. For another thing, non-professionals are not encumbered with some of the layers of scholarly tradition and with some of the consciously or unconsciously felt obligations to the academy that professionals feel.

Still, even well-meaning adherents of popular religion can be and are wrong about some things. The same is true of the professionals. All of us need to take a regular large tablespoon of humility for our spiritual health.

No matter how hard I try, my understanding of science will likely never rise above the popular level. I have also come to understand that, as a professional in the field of religion, my faith needs to be the kind that keeps its feet solidly on the ground where real life happens and where real people live. I also have to understand the privilege I have of studying what I study and the obligation I have to share the best of what I know with all of God’s people who are willing to learn with me. After all, we’re all in this together and there is so much that we can learn from one another.

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