by Pastor Doug Kings

A few years ago I visited a couple interested in joining a church I pastored. The husband was a recently retired high school history teacher and we talked about his activities in retirement. I asked what he liked to read, and I was stunned when he replied, “Oh, I don’t read much.” A history teacher who didn’t read? Perhaps unfairly, I suddenly had a rather dismal view of his classes, of the stereotype teacher droning on, repeating the same information year-after-year to hopelessly bored students.

The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by Jonathan Malesic, a writing teacher at the University of Texas, titled “The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned.” That simple key? It’s wanting to learn. After describing a student he had at a previous school, Malesic says,

I saw Ms. Zurek Small’s education up close, in two theology classes I taught during my 11 years as a professor at the college she attended. She was a good student, but what struck me more than her ability was the fact that she cared. Being in class, asking questions and exploring ideas meant something to her.

The school was a small Catholic college, and he taught the theology class required of all students. Many students assumed they already knew the subject and sometimes were angry they had to take the class.

Every semester during my years teaching theology, students would tell me on the first day of class that they knew they would get an A, because they’d already had 12 years of Catholic school. But often enough, they’d get a C. Their assumptions about the subject matter kept them from learning the more critical approach to the subject I was trying to teach.

This obstacle has been called “knowingness”, the assumption that knowledge is once-and-for-all. It’s “check the box” learning which assumes the goal is gathering facts and information which are true for all time. The world is viewed as essentially static and unchanging, and we learn what is “useful” for making that world work for us. Once we learn enough, we think, we’re done.

A different obstacle prevents many students from even getting to this stage, and that is fear. This attitude assumes the world is basically beyond their comprehension and school is a constant reinforcement of their ignorance, in public. There is often little encouragement for curiosity, which necessarily assumes that one is ignorant, that there are things the student doesn’t know. Malesic writes,

Adults need to show K-12 students that it’s OK not to know something yet. School isn’t a quiz show; the first person to say the right answer doesn’t deserve the greatest reward. Rather, school should cultivate students’ curiosity and let them feel the thrill of finding something out.

“The thrill of finding something out” was at the heart of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and is the source of all the great discoveries today. Finding something out is what creates new possibilities. It is often perceived as a threat, however, by those invested in keeping things the way they are: those emotionally upset by change, those who profit from the status quo, and those whose power comes from the established system.

Over the centuries, prophets, mystics, and reformers of all stripes have encountered such opposition within establishment religion. Many lost their lives when religious authorities perceived their ideas as threats. When the church lost the power to inflict such punishment, it resorted to organizational censure and ostracism.

Beginning in the Enlightenment, many theologians and biblical scholars felt the urge “to find something out” by examining the Christian tradition in new ways and trying to fit that tradition in with the new discoveries of science and other fields. Over the next 400 years they did discover lots of new and exciting things. Unfortunately, most of their efforts were met in the church with a cold silence or outright opposition.

The truth is that the church has never embraced the Enlightenment values of curiosity, questioning, investigation, and discovery. It has never developed a genuine “desire to learn.” Why not? Because, despite being in the modern world, the church still believes that, where it really counts, it already has The Truth, unchangeable for all eternity.

Gradually, events in the world and widespread acceptance of modern ways of thinking have forced the church to incorporate some of these new ideas. The Civil War finally forced southern churches to acknowledge that slavery was incompatible with the gospel. Yet racial discrimination and segregation were only finally disavowed by US and South African churches in my lifetime. It’s hard to imagine yet true that, less than a century ago, German Lutherans and Catholics, including clergy and bishops, could enthusiastically embrace fascism. Again, it took a devastating war for a fascism’s horror to be acknowledged.

Despite these genuine social advances, the church still struggles with the challenges to its “old time religion” from both modern secular knowledge and the discoveries of its own theologians and biblical scholars. When I was in seminary (and things haven’t changed), the work of modern critical church scholars was studied and often embraced. Yet as pastors-in-training, we were cautioned to keep most of this under our hats so as to not upset the folks in the pews. It’s no surprise that few of these ideas have had any real impact on church life.

The book some of us are about to read and discuss, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned by Brian McLaren, is a sincere effort to spill the beans on the centuries long disconnect between the church and the modern world. What is important is that McLaren has the courage to ask the important questions. I don’t agree with all of his answers, usually because I think he doesn’t go far enough. What he demonstrates, however, is that Christians don’t need to feel threatened by asking questions and, often, getting unexpected answers.

As McLaren is well aware, the church has to change if it is to have any meaningful future. And the first step is to recognize that the world is not a threat. Centuries ago the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said the world is the first book of scripture. God’s challenge to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” is not just about numerical expansion but about discovering, exploring and celebrating the creation in which they lived.

Today humanity has never been more alienated from its planetary home. We desperately need to rediscover it as God’s greatest gift to us. We need to become professor Malesic’s ideal of a “good student” who shows they care by “asking questions and exploring ideas.” If God isn’t threatened by this, since it’s God’s universe we’re discovering, why should we be? As Jesus says in John, it’s knowing the truth that sets us free.

Blessings in your life and ministry.