Over the weekend, I read with interest an opinion piece in our local newspaper, in which the columnist, a retired school teacher, wrote passionately about the need for more public libraries. The essayist’s premise concerning the necessity of/access to libraries was cogent enough. The author argued that people within our communities (particularly children and young people) benefit from exposure to the critical thinking, research and synthesis of knowledge enfolded within the pages of books and made available to all through the public and private support of libraries.
The author further argued that the development of problem-solving skills, the ability to draw logical conclusions and the cultivation of rational, discursive thought are the cornerstones for a progressive, intellectual society. A well-schooled, well-rounded populace is then prepared to compete effectively in the global markets, thus securing America’s status in the world (or at the very least obtaining some modicum of economic security for succeeding generations).
Along the way, toward making the point about the role of public libraries in the development of intellectual capital for society as a whole (and children in particular), the author couldn’t resist taking a shot at “churches” as the identified opponents of libraries — indeed of all higher knowledge. For the author, the proliferation of churches was seen as the primary roadblock to any sort of rational progress by our society. I believe the author was implying — if not outright saying — that every church building constructed within our community not only took away a potential location for a library, but also, simultaneously insured somehow, the continued intellectual degradation of our society.
The writer characterized what happens in churches as the promulgation of a superstition-based mythology in which people were taught, not to think for themselves, but instead were fed religious fairy tales. The author’s perception of people who attend churches is that they are decidedly anti-intellectual, too dependent upon one “Book” to the exclusion of other texts, too willing to hand over their minds to “some person” (also known as a religious leader) who tells them what to think, and have gullibly believed in some “magic being” beyond the sky who will rescue them from their problems. I could certainly appreciate the author’s fervor, even if I didn’t quite enjoy the polemic.
I actually agree that libraries are a key component in the intellectual and cultural life of a community. But I didn’t so much appreciate the author’s unfriendly characterization of churches. The author didn’t exactly say it this way, but I could summarize the column’s assessment of churches thusly: churches are places set aside to house non-thinking, sheep-like dullards incapable of asking meaningful questions as they pitifully bleat their way through this life on their way to the grave of disappointment, utterly dependent upon some authority to tell them how to manage their absurd trip. The criticism offered by the columnist was scathing. So I wrote the essayist a letter.
I don’t expect I’ll hear back. It’s far easier to caricature all religious people than it is to understand the diversity of intellectual openness within each religious tradition. It’s far easier to believe that libraries are the products of post-Enlightenment intellectual prowess than to acknowledge they are the outgrowths of the key role religion played in the preservation and promulgation of the written words in the West for centuries after the Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s easier to ignore the Church’s role in the establishment of institutions of higher learning throughout the Middle Ages and into the present time. Of course, if the author had visited a library and read a bit of history, those facts might not have been overlooked.
What most saddened me, though, as I read the column, is that yet again I see how those of us who happen to be the sort of church folk who value a good argument, understand our own ignorance and seriously want to wrestle with the big questions of existence have done such a good job of keeping our conversations to ourselves, very few people outside our walls know they can bring their own doubts and wonderings “to church” with them. We’ve also been far too complacent in allowing other parts of the Christian Church to set the terms of the dialogue and define what it means to be “Christian”. I wonder if the author of that column has ever had a conversation with a Christian who isn’t threatened by questions, but rather welcomes them. Such conversations (or even an argument or two!) would be fun to have. In the meantime, here’s the closing paragraph from my letter to the columnist:
“I would like to suggest to you that not all people who go to church believe the Bible is a book of science. In fact there are plenty of us believe science (including the “Big Bang” and evolutionary theories!) helps us understand our universe, while the Scriptures give us some clues for figuring out our place in it. There are, in fact, plenty of us who think the purpose of “congregating” isn’t to have some person give us pat answers, but rather it’s an opportunity to explore our questions and confront our doubts in the company of fellow travelers through this mystery we call life. Some of us read books, think critically and believe the human capacity for exploration and creativity are to be encouraged and supported at all costs, even if that ultimately means the end of religion as we know it, and we believe maybe that was the point of religion all along — not to bind us up, but to set us free. But what do I know? I’m just one of those redundant, library-trained clergy that are of little use in a ‘thinking’ society.”