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…And Methodists!

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Let me start with this: if you don’t understand the reference in this post’s title, you should go immediately and watch Blazing Saddles.   If you have never seen Blazing Saddles, there is something profound missing from your American experience.

Beyond that, I have a few introductory remarks.

This is a post about how we argue vital social issues–gay marriage and abortion most prominently–and how we ended up talking about these things the way we do.

Note that I don’t intend to argue ABOUT gay marriage or abortion, or any other issue.   For the purpose of this post, it doesn’t matter which side of any of these issues you are on, legally or morally. 

This is about HOW the argument goes, when we have the argument, in public or otherwise–the methods we use to defend our positions.

If you look long enough, you will find that there is something very odd about the nature of the conversations we’re having.

And I think I’ve figured out how and why that happened.

Unfortunately, I haven’t miraculously recovered from whatever it is that has got hold of me.  My throat is still sore and I’ve still got hot and cold running chills, if that makes any sense.

If anything, I seem to be worse today than I was yesterday.

So my focus is–ah, a little bit off.

With any luck, some of you will be willing to stick with me long enough for me to make this plain.

First, I want to back up a little, to something I touched on in yesterday’s post.

Some of you will remember that I am in the middle of rereading Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  And I talked yesterday, and got comments yesterday, on how difficult it is for anyone to define “intellectual.”

But I think it might be a lot easier to define “anti-intellectual.”

I think that most of us could say that someone who believes that “book learning” is at least unnecessary and probably bad for you, who believes that being uneducated in the arts and sciences (from classics to chemistry) is to be preferred to people who do for all jobs anywhere (and especially the most important), that an ignorant man will always be more virtuous than an educated one–

I think most of us could call that “anti-intellectual” without fighting too much about it.

And this matters because it was the great argument between the then-standard churches and the evangelical revivalists in the First Great Awakening and every Awakening after it.

Let’s call them the theological and the evangelical churches for the moment.

And let’s stress that I’m talking about the period from just before the American Revolutionary War to the period just before the American Civil War.

The position of the theological churches, and especially of the Calvinist Congregationalists, was that the purpose of a minister was to expound doctrine.

Ministers had to be very highly educated indeed.  They had to be able to read the Bible in more than one language, to read the early Church fathers, to understand the complexities of the matters of faith, like the nature of the Trinity and the workings of predestination.

The function of a minister was to bring his congregants into an understanding of these things as far as they were able, and therefore to head off heresy and apostasy before they could get started.

For the evangelicals, the purpose of the minister was to “bring souls to Christ.” 

The fine points of theology matter not at all if they did not bring the people to conversion and repentance.   In fact, they often got in the way.  The plain, simple man couldn’t understand them and was left confused and without a relationship to God.  The learned minister was seduced by the elegance of the arguments and undermined by the corrosive skepticism the elegant arguments brought with them.

Insisting minister be highly educated in theology, philosophy and the sciences didn’t make better ministers, but worse ones–and any minister having such educational credentials should be automatically suspect.

The actual history is, of course, much more complicated than this, but the book I’m reading quotes passage after passages from the autobiographies of people like Dwight Moody, Charles Grandison Finney, and Peter Cooper, all saying the same thing:  it is far better for your soul to be ignorant than to be educated.  Religion is feeling the movement of God inside yourself.  Nothing else is necessary for preaching, and the lack of such feeling disqualifies anyone from preaching, even if he has a hundred degrees in theology.

Now, there is more to be argued here than this overview provides.

For one thing, the Congregational position that it is the learning that matters rather than the bringing of souls to God makes more sense than it seems to at first when you remember that the Congregationalist were Calvinists and the Calvinists believed that all souls were saved or condemned by God from the beginning of time and nothing anyone could do could ever change that judgment.

There is also the fact that the evangelical denominations were often founded by men who were themselves very well educated (see Wesley and Asbury).  Those denominations–see the Methodists–often went on to have a very conflicted idea of the place of education in religion and later to change their minds and go in for founding colleges, universities and seminiaries.

But if the evangelical denominations of the first half of the American nineteenth century were ambivalent about the rejection of learning and education, the evangelical tradition was not.

Even now, you can find church leaders across the American South, and not just there, making the same arguments against a learned clergy, and against education as a corrosive force, as the pastors and leaders Hofstadter quotes from the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s.

And therein comes the problem I ran up against when I started to think about this yesterday.

For better or for worse, for good or ill, the most significant voices arguing against abortion, against gay marriage, in favor of the reality of God–most of that is coming from people inside the evanglical tradition.

Evangelical churches, most of them still arguing that classical education is corrosive to faith rather than an aid to it, and that reason and logic and (now) science are enemies rather than allies, that what you feel in your heart is more important than what you know in your head–

Evangelical churches and their members or the ones out there in the public square making the arguments for those particular positions.

(Yes, there are also the Catholics, who most definitely have a theological and not an evangelical denomination.  But, for better or worse, the public face of Catholicism is split.  There’s the hierarchy, but there is also Catholics for Free Choice.)

But I think that one of the reasons why the arguments we have about these things are so acidic is this: each side is structuring its arguments in a way that the other side assumes to be completely illegitimate. 

It’s not just that one side thinks abortion is okay and the other doesn’t, or that one side thinks that God exists and the other thinks He is a fairy tale.

That would be bad enough, but it doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The two sides don’t even agree on what constitutes “evidence,” or what it would take to prove their own side wrong.

Looking at all this from the perspective of the here and now, I’d have to say that, given the way society has developed up to this point, it’s the evangelical side that is being hurt worse by the position they’ve taken.

This is not because I think the theological side is actually better educated than the evangelical side in today’s America.

Let us all give a profound moment of silence to Al Gore defining “E Pluribus Unum” as “out of one, many.”

What I am saying is that style matters as much as content does, and we live in a world where the theological style–the resort to discourse that at least sounds educated even if it has its head completely up its ass–just “seems” right to most people, and not being able to argue in that style makes you “seem” wrong.

To make matters worse, not being able to argue in that style and from that set of evidentiary assumptions means it’s almost impossible to to anticipate and answer your opponent’s objections, so that, to undecided people who accept your opponent’s style as “right,” you sound evasive and irrelevant.

Of course, this is also true of the theological tradition’s arguments in respect to the evangelical’s style–but it matters less, because, no matter how unfair it might be, it is the theological style that has become pervasive across the culture.

And it is the culture that both sides are trying to win.

I have no idea what the evangelical side is supposed to do about this. 

It’s not impossible that the original arguments against a “learned clergy” were entirely right–that a learned clergy will always be a skeptical one, that acquaintance with classical learning and science will always corrode faith, that a church that sees the proclamation of Right Doctrine as more important than saved souls is no Christian church at all.

And then, of course, they should stick to doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it.  They won’t much affect the culture, but they also won’t go to Hell.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to '…And Methodists!'

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  1. I would certainly agree that anyone who agrees to all three of your statements is an anti-intellectual. Let me know when you find one. I don’t believe I ever have.

    Mind you, I can find you lots of people who say “you can’t learn Skill X out of a book.” They’re right a discouraging percentage of the time. (“Management” or “Leadership” courses, anyone?) I can also find you lots of people who think a saved soul (or, for the secular, virtuous living) is more important than education, and most of the time, most of us would agree–unless you’d really rather have a thief or rapist with a PhD for a neighbor instead of a well-behaved high school dropout. But I don’t think I know anyone who would prefer that his or her doctor, engineer or architect was not educated. In fact, people tend to get a little huffy when the credentials are falsified.

    As for the “significant voices” I can’t comment. I haven’t heard them. I’ve heard Sayers and Chesterton, Coulter and Buckley, Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov. For I too am a citizen of a great city. You need to find someone plugged into a different world.

    As for the others, it’s never hard to find a pompous idiot–or a thief–with a respectable degree. And it’s not an act of anti-intellectualism to point that out. Like pulling counterfeit money from circulation, it’s something that has to be done regularly if the items of real value are to be respected.


    30 Jun 14 at 7:55 pm

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