May 15, 2011 by Bill
“Functional illiterates” is a phrase coined by the late Robert Hutchins, who was dean of the Yale University Law School at age 28. He was appointed chancellor of the University of Chicago at age 32. He was obviously brilliant.
One of the most important events of his life took place when he was a teenager. He never forgot it. His father was a professor of philosophy at Oberlin College in Ohio. Hutchins went to his father one day and started to give him his “opinion” on a particular subject. His father stopped him with these words: “Son…let me remind you, before you proceed, that you do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.”
Would to God that every Tom, Jane, Dick and Harry going around giving their “opinions” about religion and the bible would take that to heart. As Dr. Fred Denbeaux put it in the Layman’s Theological Library series, “The person who is unwilling to study linguistics and literary distinctions and to differentiate between prose and poetry, history and mythology, legend and folklore, will not ever understand the bible.”
There is an enormous amount of confusion as to what it means to be religiously educated. There is a vast world of difference between training, indoctrination and education.
Let me illustrate: I had an acquaintance at Oklahoma State University who had a Ph.D in Poultry Science. (I do wish they would stop calling those degrees “Doctor of Philosophy.” He was not a philosophy major. He was a Doctor of Poultry Science) He knew all there was to know about chickens at that time. But outside of chickens he was one of the most ignorant, uninformed, poorly read, unlettered men I have ever known. A total “functional illiterate.” He could function in the area of chickens and that was the end of his knowledge and his “opinions” of religion, Christianity and bible were about as enlightened and informed as those of my dog.
And yet people assumed that because he had his Ph.D he was “educated” when nothing could have been further from the truth. He was a “trained” technician or “specialist” in poultry science and nothing more.
A dentist friend of mine in Tacoma, Washington was teaching bible classes. He was so religiously illiterate that when I told him the Old Testament was an English translation of Hebrew, he was amazed. And he often told me he refused to believe that Jesus was a Jew. And he was teaching bible classes. Even worse, people were listening to him. They assumed that because he had a degree in dentistry he was “educated” and could teach the bible. The blind leading the blind would be an understatement. He was a total functional illiterate.
What does it mean to be religiously educated? That is my question.
How swayed and duped we are by titles and so called “credentials” that may not be either accurate or legitimate. For instance, the “Doctor of Divinity” degree that ministers love to use and tack on their name. It is not an earned degree at all but an honorary one given by a church-related college of the minister’s own denomination, after his church has made a donation. I repeat, it is not an academically earned degree obtained through study. In my 35 years as an ordained Congregational minister, I have known only one minister who had an earned Doctoral degree in religious studies. And yet in the church ads of a local paper you will read, “Dr. John Smith preaching Sunday.” What a farce …a laughable joke: “Dr.” Smith.
What does it mean to be religiously educated?
If the bible is such an easy-to-understand book, why is it that we have over 700 different, fragmented Protestant denominations all reading the bible differently? Add to this the Roman Catholics, Jews and Eastern Orthodox with different interpretations. Add to this the fact that even within one single body, such as the Lutherans, there are continual internal fights as to how to “read” the bible, to such an extent that almost the entire staff of one Lutheran seminary was fired for not reading the bible “correctly.”
The world of religion is filled to overflowing with functional illiterates who do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.
The vast majority of the Christian professionals have been exposed to, trained in, and indoctrinated with only one religion, which leaves 99,999 others. Anthropologists estimate that over the past 150,000 years there have been at least 100,000 distinctly different religions. How can anyone preach, teach, speak or lecture intelligently about the bible or Christianity if he/she has no idea where they fit into that 150,000-year jigsaw puzzle?
Out of 150,000 years they have been exposed to only a very brief 2,000 year period, which leaves the other 148,000 years out like they were of no importance to the last 2,000. You can easily, and safely, call this a functional illiterate view of Christianity and the bible.
There is nothing in this column to invalidate personal, private spiritual experiences. That is a totally different matter from giving ignorant and uninformed opinions about the bible and religion.
What does it mean to be religiously educated? It means to have seriously exposed yourself to primitive religions (the bible is loaded with primitive religion), comparative religions, comparative mythologies, the origins of religions and religious literature, semantics, linguistics and symbolism, the history of religions and related disciplines, either formally in a university or seriously in your own private studies and readings.
It is not easy to read intelligently and to think precisely …it is not easy to speak fluently and write clearly …it is not easy to study a subject carefully and know it thoroughly. But these abilities are the foundation of a sound education, including a religious education.
Becoming a religiously educated person is a difficult, demanding enterprise. But, if it is all as important as millions claim it to be, then surely it is worth the effort. The alternative is to live in a society saturated with religious functional illiterates, which is the current situation, who, in the words of Robert Hutchins, do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.