Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sermon: "Religious Literacy" (Delivered 9-2-07)

Opening Words
One of the recurring features on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno is a segment called “Jaywalking” in which Leno takes to the streets and asks easy questions to the people he encounters, who, in turn, offer up answers that are pathetically wrong. Asked to name the first President of the United States, someone might answer “George Bush.” Asked to name the Secretary of State, another person might answer, “Osama bin Laden.” (Letterman is better than Leno, by the way… just a personal opinion.) But, the humor in Leno’s segment is supposed to derive from our feeling that the wild ignorance of the person on the street is funny, and that we the people watching at home are smarter and more sophisticated.

Every couple of months, you can count on some newspaper or internet story decrying the lack of knowledge of some wide segment of the American populace. One story, detailing our geographic ignorance, tells us one out of five American adults can’t locate the United States on a world map. (You can watch the Youtube video of Miss South Carolina offering her thoughts on this.) Another article says that one out of four American adults did not read even a single book in 2006. I’ve heard of a middle school in at least one city whose teachers offer evening math classes for parents because the school district realized so many of the parents could not understand the homework assignments their twelve year-olds were bringing home. These stories can tend to make some of us feel smart and superior, but they are also saddening and depressing. The health of our nation is and has forever been intimately bound to education.

As Unitarian Universalists, we see nothing wrong with eating from the tree of knowledge. We are also aware that knowing about religion and practicing religion are two different things. And so this morning, as we consider a book about what we actually know and don’t know about religion, we will also be asking deeper questions about how our lives can live up to our minds.

The reading this morning comes from the newest book by Stephen Prothero called “Religious Literacy: What Every American should know about religion – and doesn’t.” Here is how Prothero’s book begins:
“A few years ago I was standing around the photocopier at BU when a visiting professor from Austria offered a passing observation about American undergraduates. They are very religious, he told me, but they know next to nothing about religion. In Austria, compulsory religious education begins in elementary school and European students can name the twelve apostles and the seven deadly sins, even though most of them wouldn’t be caught dead going to church or the synagogue. Amercian students are just the opposite. Here faith without understanding is the standard; here religious ignorance is bliss.

"Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the first five books of Moses. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates….

"According to recent polls, most American adults cannot name one of the four Gospels, and many high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A few years ago, no one in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show audience could name any of Jesus’ twelve apostles…

"One might imagine that ignorance of Christianity and the Bible is restricted to non-Christians or at least to non-Evangelicals. But born-again Christians do only moderately better than other Americans on surveys of religious literacy.

"[And], when it comes to religions other than Christianity, Americans fare far worse. One might hope that US citizens would know the most basic formulas of the world’s religions: the five pillars of Islam, for example, or Buddhism’s four noble truths. But most Americans have difficulty even naming these religions. In a recent survey of American teenagers, barely half were able to name Buddhism and less than half Judaism when asked to list the world’s five major religions. Far fewer could name Islam or Hinduism.” [p. 1-6]

I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist in a small town in Massachusetts. In sixth grade our religious education curriculum covered Eastern religious traditions. We saw slide shows of Muslim minarets and mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines, statues of the Buddha, Shiva, and Kali. We also learned about Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto traditions. I have no doubt that as a result of my UU religious education I was more informed about religious diversity than the children of any other religion in my town. I was also better informed about religious diversity than the children of no religious tradition in town.

Here, in our congregation, we offer on alternating years the Neighboring Faiths curriculum in which our middle schoolers learn about, are exposed to, and visit the faith communities of our neighboring faiths. I have no doubt that as a result of our UU religious education program our children are more informed about religious diversity than the children of any other religion in Johnson County. Our children are also better informed about religious diversity than the children of no religious tradition.

I am going to try hard not to make this a book report sermon, but I want to introduce you to Stephen Prothero’s book, which is a lot richer than just a ranting lament about how few Americans know any of the four noble truths of Buddhism (very, very few it turns out) or know that the two clauses in first amendment to the United States Constitution that concern religion are the establishment clause and the exercise clause. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those are the first words of the Bill of Rights, by the way.

Far from a rant, Prothero writes of what we once knew about religion, how we forgot it, and how we might grow in religious literacy once again. I do not know of Prothero’s personal religious beliefs, but I am certain that he is not trying to promote any specific religious agenda.

Prothero begins by going back to the origins of our country and points out that ours was the first country in human history to insist on universal literacy for every man, woman, and child. The reason for this insistence was religious, based on a particular theological idea that we were called to understand the scriptures for ourselves, rather than leave their interpretation to priests and Popes. The purpose of literacy was to be able to read and understand the Bible and most of the earliest books for children were overtly religious. “A is for Adam” began the New England Primer, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” While Prothero insists these early Americans knew their Bible forwards and backwards, I think we would hesitate to call this world paradise.

The author then chronicles the causes of religious illiteracy in our nation. He points out that Evangelicals like to point to a Supreme Court case from the early nineteen-sixties banning school prayer and to the secularism of the sixties and seventies as the reason for our religious illiteracy today. But, according to Prothero, the cause goes back more than a century earlier. The First and Second Great Awakenings of the mid-1700’s and early-1800’s – the first evangelical movements in America – were the heart’s answer to the heady piety that had pre-existed it. Those revivalists stressed not reading the Bible but feeling the spirit. They stressed devotion over doctrine. As Prothero puts it, “Ironically, the United States became a nation of forgetters at the same time it became a nation of evangelicals.”

But, in Prothero’s telling of history, liberals share the blame as well. In pushing for universal public education, Unitarian Horace Mann advanced a non-sectarian solution to education. Mann’s vision for public education included teaching piety and virtues, but thought the only doctrines that should be taught were the ones on which all denominations could agree. (Or, not that many.) You might imagine a religious melting pot that would first include all the Protestants, then the Catholics, then the Jews, and now, most recently, the Muslims as well as we talk of the religions of Abraham. What this does is blur distinction and difference for the sake of unity, but at the expense of literacy.

This continues even today, by the way. Today’s largest mega-churches are truly post-denominational. Whether we are talking about Joel Osteen’s 50,000 member Lakeland mega-church in Houston or Rick Warren’s 35,000 member Saddleback church in Orange County, what these churches have in common is that they have abandoned denominational identity entirely. Consider the titles of the bestselling books by the ministers of these churches, titles like: “Your Best Life Now”, “Become a Better You”, “The Purpose Driven Life.” These are not the type of books that make you more knowledgeable about your religious tradition. No wonder many Evangelicals (and the rest of us) are stumped when asked to name the four gospels. No wonder, according to Prothero's book, ten percent of Americans think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

As a solution to the problem of religious illiteracy, Prothero makes an impassioned plea for teaching religion in public high schools, colleges, and universities. He imagines religion becoming the fourth “R” – alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the college level, he insists that all students should, at minimum, take a course in Bible 101 and World Religions 101. He also favors making courses on religion normative at the high school level. This suggestion I find to be anxiety producing for those on the religious and secular left and those on the religious right. On the left, there would need to be vigilance that the course material and presentation is absolutely objective and academic and does not devolve into sectarian proselytizing from the teacher. However, the religious right would feel anxiety as well. It is easy to imagine their objections to teachings that would open the minds of their children and undermine the teachings they receive at church. For example, if their church believes that being a Christian is the only way to heaven and that all other religions are the works of Satan, how would they respond to their child taking a survey course on those world religions in which those other beliefs and practices are presented as no more and no less valid than Christian beliefs and practices?

Stephen Prothero is more optimistic than I am. I imagine a conflagration of lawsuits from secular parents claiming their children are being indoctrinated as well as protests and lawsuits from the right claiming that their own faith’s teachings are being denigrated and undermined by classroom instruction. It is worth recalling the words of Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, cited in Prothero's book, who said, “The task of separating the secular from the religious in education is one of magnitude, intricacy, and delicacy.” It sure is.

It is worth remembering that in the UU church that I grew up in, just as in this church, the teaching that we provide about world’s religions is not objective, nor is it value neutral. We teach that those who practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, neo-paganism, and Native American spiritualities deserve to have their faith respected. We teach that diversity in religion is good for our community and world. We teach that we have something to learn from them. We teach that their existence, by virtue of its existence, enriches our lives. This sounds benign, almost obvious to us. But these are all ideas that come out of our values. And so I find myself wanting public school students to learn about the world’s religions the way I learned about them in church. That isn’t exactly neutrality though.

I said I wouldn’t give you a book report this morning. And so, I bracket Prothero’s commentary on religious literacy and illiteracy for a moment. As a life-long Unitarian Universalist I tend to be fairly opinionated in matters of religion. As the child of two parents with over 55 years combined of public high school teaching experience, I tend to be fairly opinionated about public education as well. And, if we were looking for the so-called “fourth R”, besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, I am not sure that religion is the top choice. I can tell you that the current fourth “R” is preparing for standardized tests. (Perhaps, it is more fair to say that preparing students for standardized tests is now the first “R.”) But what should be the next top priority? I can imagine several. I can see someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn Spanish. I can see someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn Chinese. Considering the woes that many in our nation face, I can imagine someone making the point that every student should be expected to learn personal finance – then we might have less financial ruin, less bankruptcy, less people signing papers for sub-prime mortgages, less pay-day loan shops. I can imagine any of you who work in the health field saying that schools should teach better health habits, exercise, nutrition, sexual health, especially in light of our nation’s health woes. And I can imagine some of you advocating for other areas.

Is religious literacy more important than financial literacy? Is religious literacy more important than health literacy? Is religious literacy for important than language fluency in a world where we who live in this country may need to be functionally bi-lingual in Spanish in order to live from day to day and any of us who aspire to careers in business will be required to know Chinese?

But, it wasn’t my goal this morning to present a book report. And, it wasn’t my goal to offer an impassioned discourse on the present and future of public education. I want to return for a few moments to the religious side of religious literacy and say a few words about its importance.

First of all, religious literacy allows us to actually be conversant within our own culture. And, I’m not just talking about being able to understand pieces of art at the Nelson-Atkins museum. It has been frequently pointed out that a lot of political speech is coded theology designed to speak to conservative Evangelicals. Consider one of the questions from the quiz you’ve been given. The question asks what story George Bush was referencing in his first inaugural address when he spoke of the Jericho Road. Be honest, how many of you knew he was referring to the story of the good Samaritan?

Allow me to quote the passage from the President’s address that contains that reference: “Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can listen to those who do. And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side. America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.”

Whoa! Hold on a second here. If you are religiously literate… if you are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan… if you understand the context of that story from the Gospel of Luke – then you can actually enter into this discussion. The question I would ask is this: is the story of the Good Samaritan a story about personal responsibility? Is this story being interpreted correctly, or is it being mis-used? Is his use of the Good Samaritan story valid?

We are called to be discerning people. We are called to ask – is this newspaper’s use of statistics valid? Is that scientific research valid? And, as well, is that biblical interpretation valid? Is that depiction of religion valid? The first reason to become religiously literate is that knowledge equals power.

A second compelling reason to be religiously literate is that it actually has the potential to change the depth and quality of your own faith. Let me explain what I mean by that.

For the last four years I have met intermittently with a support group for young clergy here in Kansas City. The group is composed mostly of mainline Christians: UCC and Disciples, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. There is a widely accepted truth that Mainline Christian clergy tend to be more liberal than the congregations they serve. The reason for this is that the seminary experience for these clergy tends to be mind-opening. At a place like St. Paul’s or Brite or Vanderbilt or the Pacific School of Religion they are exposed to those of different faiths and traditions – those who interpret the Bible differently, pray differently, emphasize the sacraments differently. They learn that there isn’t just one way. (By the way, this liberalizing experience does not hold true at the Bible institutes that tend to train the more evangelical Christians.) And then, after seminary, Mainline pastors tend to seek out ecumenical if not interfaith groups to be a part of… for fellowship, for sanity, for creativity. Such reinforced exposure to difference has a naturally liberalizing influence.

Such an influence can also be found by learning about different faith traditions. Diana Eck, one of the foremost thinkers on religious diversity, has a saying that she is fond of. “If you know one religion, you know no religion. If you know more than one religion, you know your own religion.”

In the end, that might be the most compelling reason for religious literacy. The more you know about faiths other than your own, the more you know, implicitly about your own. Religious literacy is much more than being able to answer trivia questions. It is about understanding – a worthy goal for the seeking.