Monday, October 18, 2004

Reasonable, Educated People

The Preisthood The National Post's Elizabeth Nickson made up for her somewhat off last column this past Saturday. Her topic was a quietly resurgent Christianity; she claims that Christian books are enjoying a banner year in 2004, while sales of New Age books are flat. Sadly, some of these so called Christian books are merely New Age books is Christian drag: The Da Vinci Code, The Pagan Christ, etc. In discussing these trends, Nickson hits on something important:
What bothered me, frankly, was the assumption that Christianity presents "insurmountable problems for reasonably educated people today." Well, I am a reasonably educated person and I have no difficulties. I do have friends who have difficulties, but they are heathens [hung up on] Jung and Campbell.
I had a good chuckle over her description of her friends here, and I appreciated her point that there is nothing simplistic about Christianity if it is approached with maturity and honesty. One does not need to shut off one's brain on Sunday. She continues, questioning why critics of Christianity fail to recognize or to value Christianity's ability to "integrate a working faith among the educated and (this is important) uneducated alike." Here Nickson strikes at something that has impressed me in the short time that I have been calling myself Christian. Biblical verses - and this is especially so of the Gospels - have a simple layer that appeals very strongly to the simplest people, while retaining a depth that can be plumbed again and again by those with the time and the interest to do so. Original Sin is a concept that appears a lot on this blog. If you are of a more philosophical frame of mind, you can translate that as "lacking in epistemic and ontological depth." That begins a translation of the idea, and with some reading you can get more detail out of it, probably a lifetime's worth. Appealing to people of such different habits of mind - literate and non literate, educated and non educated, rural and industrialized, is no small thing, and to do so on subjects of such depth and complexity is quite remarkable. And then it really hits you- these verses have been appealing to people of such varying abilities for thousands and thousands of years. America was founded in 1776. The Gospels are 2,000 years old, and the Old Testament goes back to 6,000 B.C. Nickson ruins a good run at the end by adding that "the most dynamic quality of Christianity... is its persistent shedding of a priestly class that explicates 'mythos'." It is my experience as a Catholic that our priestly class, including all the way up to the Pope himself, exists partly to protect us from the kind of New Age or Gnostic readings Nickson is so rightly critical of. Think about it- theology is as complicated a subject as there could possibly be. Can we realistically expect the average educated person to do it justice? How about the uneducated? While working and raising a family? We don't expect doctors to train themselves, so why is theology supposed to be a self help subject? I had an interesting discussion with a very devout man who was a Seventh Day Adventist once. He told me that when we read the Bible, that we should always try to read it in the most "straightforward, literal sense, or else anyone can make anything of it." I don't know a lot about Adventists other than they are somewhat fundamentalist, and tend to be closed to allegorical readings. I could not agree with him, but neither could I explain myself. He didn't have the education in literature or philosophy and I suspect he would have thought I was trying to bamboozle him (he knew I was Catholic). I firmly believe that allegory adds a lot to our understanding of the Bible, and that we are protected from erroneous allegorical readings by our priestly class if it is functioning properly. Our RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) director, father Dion explained it: the church is charged with protecting the culture that produced the Bible. That culture is key to avoiding cultural and temporal misunderstandings. In other words, my Adventist friend (and I do consider him a friend) did not see that a "straightforward, literal sense" for him in 21st Century Canada could not be precisely the same as what it would be for someone in, say, modern Syria. Or in ancient Palestine for that matter. He did not recognize that some Biblical books are in the form of ancient poems and that understanding them requires some knowledge of that form and its conventions. I'm not arguing that all the books people use to explore faith ideas must come through the Church, but I am pointing out that in any field you care to name, we rely on experts to guide us when we become puzzled or encounter data that we can't account for. Our priests are there for us in matters of theology. They spend years in seminary learning about it and seeing as they are celibate, they do not have family issues to distract them. You don't have to know very many university students to know that family and dating matters are always on the brain and that this can severely impair their ability to study. Before anyone else says it, I will admit that priests can fail and have failed. They are, after all, just as human as anyone else. The solution to that problem is Tradition, which is another topic.

No comments: