(A theological liberal approach. Rowland).
March 25, 2007
By Harry T. Cook
As a parish minister, I have as part of my job description the responsibility to oversee the religious formation of the congregation’s children and youths. They come to me – or are sent to me – when they are 14 and in middle school. The normal plan is that they spend the next two years of their lives, off and on, absorbing an adolescent dose of theology and getting ready to move into the big time through the rite of confirmation.
Plenty of programs have been crafted for the sole purpose of making that time and task bearable for catechist and catechumen alike. I’ve scanned dozens of them and found them wanting. Everyone of them envisions the process as one that produces young adults who believe what they are supposed to believe and perform as they are supposed to perform, receiving in the end the equivalent of Eagle Scout status in Episcopalian Christianity.
Preferring to have my church be known as a laboratory rather than a stamping plant, I have resisted such a process. I have wanted to expose the youths in my so-called confirmation classes to the kind of approach to things religious, which one hopes they experience in their study of history, literature and science.
Thus do I begin, proceed, and end with questions. I am engaging the current crop of 14-year-olds in a seminar called “Look B4U Leap,” which was designed to invite them into considering for themselves whether or not they wish to have anything to do with 1) organized religion, 2) Christianity and 3) the particular brand of Christianity in which their births or parents’ preference have landed them.
My readers will not be surprised to know that this method is not universally popular. It has been suggested to me that I ought to be in the business of convincing kids that our way is the right way, rather than essentially giving them permission to choose otherwise. My favorite response to that objection is to say, tongue slightly in cheek, that I want them to grow up to be heretics just like me – the word heretic, of course, meaning “one who chooses for himself or herself what to believe.”
What I’m really trying to do is raise a crop of agnostics. That term is likewise in need of definition. “Oh, so you’re trying to make atheists out of our kids,” went one j’accuse. Well, yes in a way. “Atheists,” I say, “are non-theists. That is, they don’t necessarily buy into the conventional belief in an objectified deity who (or which) is open to human communication through the medium known as prayer and who (or which) can and can be persuaded to intervene in natural processes to effect change.”
Theism is only one among many philosophies of religion. Deism is another. Pantheism yet another. None of these is, ipso facto, theism. Since, however, it is not within the present limits of human inquiry to affirm or reject out of hand any of them, the philosophy of choice must be “agnosticism,” that is, the stance of being willing to say “I don’t know.”
One of the questions in which I engaged my “Look B4U Leap-ers” is: “What religious beliefs that you may have are compatible with what you are learning in school?”
Thus ensued a discussion of how they see themselves learning. I heard these 14-year-olds use words like “hypothesis” and “data” and “theory,” leading me to believe that they are learning by the scientific method of applied reason and analysis. Excellent.
When I asked them for an example of a “conventional religious belief,” several of them responded quickly with “that God created the world.” I acknowledged that to be among the most conventional theistic religious beliefs and that certain passages in the Bible would seem to say as much. I asked them what data suggest that such a belief is valid. Somewhat hestitant, one of them introduced the “Big Bang Theory” into the discussion, another Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. And I knew we were on the right track.
They seemed troubled that the Bible was such a big deal in their religion of origin and hesitant, I think, to be seen as contradicting it even indirectly. So I told them the story of how at 25 years of age I first “saw” the Bible:
A few of us whose graduate work had taken us into the study of ancient Semitic language and literature were given a tour of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, wherein reposes a collection of ancient manuscripts mostly in scroll rather than codex form. When we entered the air- and humidity-controlled vault in which they were stored in pigeonhole-like tubes, ragged and torn ends visible, our professor said with a flourish in his Scandinavian accent, “Gentlemens, ziss iz za Bible.” Well, sure it was – or multiple versions of ancient documents that had been hand-copied by error-prone scribes from different times and places in different languages and alphabets.
As I told this story to my 14-year-old friends, I could see the light bulbs go on over their heads as they began to understand that the Bible is a library, rather than the “book” Johannes Gutenberg made out of it.
I’m well on my way to producing another class of confirmed agnostics. It’s the best work I do. I’ve given each of them a copy of my 2003 book, Seven Sayings of Jesus, the thesis of which is that New Testament Christianity is an ethical rather than a doctrinal entity.
By the time this crop graduates from college nine years from now, I hope to be able to give them copies of the book now under way the tentative title of which is Religion Without God: Ethics and Agnosticism in the New Testament.
© Copyright 2007, Harry T. Cook. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.