Sunday, February 05, 2006

THEOLOGIC II: The Secular Case for Religion in the News—and in the Schools

Are televangelists the people best qualified to speak on behalf of God?

If they are, then let's bag it right now.

If they’re not, then let’s broom the charlatans from their assumed positions of authority.

Why do news producers put theological luddites on the air? They don't put high-school science teachers on the air or in print to speak on behalf of science. They make some attempt at least to contact recognized authorities. Educated minds. Cogent thinkers. So, why do news shows lean on Robertson, Dobson, and the other glorified Sunday school teachers of the Religious Right to speak on behalf of God? If the public needs to know what God thinks, then share with the public minds that are knowledgeable and articulate in the varieties and subtleties of theology, not the mass-market hallelujahs of populist preachers.

The fundamentalists have been on a luxury ride ever since Reagan and Falwell enjoyed intercourse in the White House. Consequent to that indecency, the public has swallowed the idea that it would be audacious or impertinent to question the legitimacy of the televangelists as purveyors of divine will. So the preachers assume a really weird untouchable status as they march into the news studios and the offices of political influence.

They’ve gained rhetorical ground by substituting “faith” for “religion,” as in euphemisms such as “people of faith” and “faith-based initiatives.” It’s a verbal battle in the culture wars that they have won. The U.S. Constitution says nothing about “faith.” Alas. Faith is safe, free and clear, even it if smells like a musty perfume cover for “religion.” But therein lies an opportunity.

What about theology? Unlike faith, theology is subject to logical dissection—it can be argued about. By triggering disputation, theology exposes the differences among religions. By introducing theology to public discourse, potentially eclipsing faith, secular interests would get the Religious Right to pick at the weakest seams of its own internal alliances. Internecine histories should be explored as readily as the nuances of Darwinian theory. Disputes among scientists make news. Disputes among theologians should too.

But the call to open the doors of public disputation to theology is more than a political maneuver. It is a call to civic responsibility. The informed citizen owes it to his or her community to grasp not only the arguments for and against embryonic stem cell research, for example, or the potential impact of converting rainforest into cropland, but also the arguments for and against the omniscience of God, or for and against various theodicies—theories of the origin of evil. It’s no one’s duty to adopt any particular set of beliefs, but it’s hard to engage people competently when you don’t understand their premises. As long as the origins, histories, and doctrines of the various theologies remain obscure and their scrutiny a public taboo, the fundamentalists will enjoy the advantage of their opponents’ ignorance.

Given the political heft of all things religious these days, news producers ought to rethink the criteria that define an informed citizenry and include theology—along with politics, economics, and science—among the topics they consider fit for broadcast.

Look for example at the debate about Intelligent Design. The average citizen could engage the debate more sensibly, more effectively, if that citizen had anywhere near the education in theology that he or she has received in science—received, that is, thanks by and large to the public education system. A typical high-school graduate undoubtedly understands Darwin’s theory of the origin of species better than he/she does Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. But today somebody setting out as an informed citizen to participate in civic affairs ought to be as familiar with the latter as with the former—so as to have a sense of its strengths and weaknesses. It hardly seems fair that a public education will inform youngsters about the demonstrable and theoretical mechanisms of evolution but offer no similar tutoring in the shades of theology. The result is a citizenry with a working knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory but hardly a clue as to the sometimes tortured logics and declarations by fiat that have shaped Western theology. Darwinian theory has its strengths and its weaknesses, and its opponents know what they are and so are in a good position to sidestep the former and exploit the latter. But it is a mistake to think that theology is neatly wrapped up. Loose ends abound. Yet, there’s little public exposure to the strengths and weaknesses of anybody’s theology. And the Religious Right is conveyed merrily along by the taboo against theological dissection.

The evangelical movement is to the political right analagously as the labor movement to the left. But think about the lessons taught in a public school. How much is the development of the modern labor movement covered in a history class? How much the development of the modern evangelical movement? If they're roughly corresponding political movements, then why the disparate treatment?

Keeping religion out of the public schools does not protect our children from religious indoctrination, but only protects religious doctrines from the skepticism of an informed public.

By banishing religion from the classroom, public education effectively shields theological dogmas from scrutiny. But religion’s high profile in the political arena begs for a new consideration. We just need to keep our categories straight and not confuse theory with research or practice. Religion in the classroom shouldn’t spook anybody; it doesn’t need to include devotional instruction—anymore than literature in the classroom has to mean instruction in any particular style of creative writing.

The study of literature in the schools provides a good model for considering the study of religion in the schools. Instructors can teach literary theory, literary works, or creative writing—the last being instruction in the practice. Similarly, schools should teach theology—the debates among theologians, the histories of the debates, and the satisfactoriness of their proposed resolutions, along with the critiques of rationalists. And schools should teach comparative religion: surveys of humankind’s religious expressions through time and around the world. Overt instruction in practice is all we need to throttle back on. But to insulate students from the theories and the works of theologians is to protect from informed general scrutiny those who would wield religious dogma as a political weapon.

A curriculum along these lines might include facts about the Nag Hammadi library, for instance. The “library” is a cache of Gnostic manuscripts written contemporaneously with the gospels of the Christian canon. But the Patristic Fathers deliberately excluded the Gnostic books from the canon. The books describe the adventures of Jesus and the disciples in terms that suggest a different picture of teachings and relationships among the disciples than what we receive from the selectively edited Bible. The churches that imagine Christianity to be a constantly evolving institution—that is, the liberal churches—should be able to assimilate the new knowledge. Those that rest on a dogma of immutability—the fundamentalist churches—need to be challenged.

If the arena of public discourse and disputation is going to focus a laser beam on the doctrines of evolution to bring the theory’s shortcomings to public attention, then the managers of the arena need to play fair and apply the same scrutiny to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In other words, reach over the fence of taboo, grab theology, religion, and faith by their respective collars, and haul them into the ring. And let the political chips fall where Nature and Nature’s God may guide them.

(Note to Nobel Committee: How about an annual prize for innovations in theology?)