Knowing religion only takes us so far

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2010

On the Texas Faith blog that I help moderate (, panelists this year have been discussing the depth of Americans' religious knowledge.

The issue has received a good going over since loads of data spewed out about how little knowledge there is of religion today among people of faith!

A Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life survey in September showed agnostics actually knew more about religion in general than Jews, Muslims and Christians of different stripes. And in their new book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell report that Americans are wonderfully tolerant of different religious views, but at the expense of serious theological conviction.

A side of me would love to be a systematic theologian and study how doctrines are formed into a cohesive unit. So, I tend to side with those who worry about the decline in religious knowledge, particularly among believers. It seems like you ought to know why you believe and be able to explain it.

But this focus on religious knowledge assumes that we learn about God only through the mind, doctrines and even Scriptures. I don't know about you, but life's curves have informed my religious views at least as much. What's more, they often challenge my ability to string together a consistent theology.

This is why I love an essay in this month's Christian Century by John Buchanan, the magazine's editor. Writing about the march-up to Christmas, this Presbyterian pastor recalled how he once wanted people to understand "the central intellectual claim in Jesus' birth." He even wanted them to "review the fourth-century controversies about whether Jesus was of the "similar substance" or the "same substance" as God."

Buchanan says he learned later that many of us this time of year are more frazzled with Christmas cards and deadlines than in pursuing doctrinal depths. As he put it, we are looking for "trust and peace and hope. And you get those not by someone telling you about intellectual distinctions but through relationships."

How true. Relationships wonderfully guide and shape us. And not just at Christmas.

It has taken me a long time to realize this, but being a part of my church's congregation is as important as its teachings. Working out God's love in a community, as difficult as that can be, brings Him alive in a way that doctrines rarely do. We learn in relationship to one another about trust, love, heartache, sin and redemption.

Of course, we learn from relationships well beyond the door of any house of faith. Looking back, I probably connected more honestly with God while standing on a street corner one day at the University of Texas at Austin than I ever did studying the Trinity. A sophomore lost in the cosmos and surrounded by swarms of students, I wondered to the depths of my soul where I fit in such a swirl. Amid all that humanity, I was in communion with God.

Don't get me wrong: We should study our faiths. As Texas Faith blogger Jim Denison said, we wouldn't go to a doctor if we didn't believe that person were reliable. The same is true of religious faith. Why believe without understanding what you believe?

But let's not assume religious knowledge alone shall guide us. In that vein, I appreciate how Buchanan summed up his views of this time of year. I'll let them speak about the wonder of Christmas, which, after all, is about the Word being made flesh:

"Christmas tells us that here is one who cares about us and comes to be with us. The simple story means that in this vast and mysterious universe, in this sometimes frightening world, we are not ever alone. And it means that God cares about how life is lived in the world."

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; e-mail:

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