Religious Literacy

Aaqil Ahmed’s claim that we have become a nation of religious illiterates should come as no surprise. Even among those who claim to be Christian, knowledge and understanding of scripture and doctrine has been in decline for years. As regards knowledge of other religions, that tends to be even more sketchy. We may know the names of some important Hindu or Muslim festivals; we may be vaguely aware of how the Jewish calendar unfolds; but, for the most part, we rely on having a neat little summary of the main facts given to us in a call-out on the web page or in a sidebox of the newspaper column. I think, however, that it is not just religious illiteracy about which we need to be concerned. There is a cultural illiteracy that includes religious illiteracy and is becoming more and more pervasive in the west.

Literary types argue about the existence or otherwise of a western canon, a body of thought and literature that every educated person can be expected to have some acquaintance with. In a plural, multicultural society such a canon becomes less and less identifiable. Add to that our increasing reliance on the internet for our grasp of ideas, and it is easy to see why one cannot take much for granted. We are not alone, for example, in prescribing a course in Christian doctrine for new entrants. We cannot assume that well-educated, well-motivated people will necessarily have the intellectual grounding in faith of previous generations.

Should we worry about this? Personally, I think there are two aspects to consider. There is a cultural impoverishment when we no longer understand the story of our past—when literary references are not understood and the art and artefacts that embody the story are no longer recognized for what they are. There is also an emotional impoverishment when we no longer relate to the story of our past in a personal way. When we cease to be moved by the holiness of places where our forebears worshiped, or have no real sense of the values by which they lived, we are cut adrift. We become existentially lonely. That is, of course, quite the opposite of what Christianity is about: incorporation into Christ and so into fellowship with all the living and the dead. As we journey towards All Saints and All Souls, it is worth thinking about these things. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’— not even the religious illiterate.

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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