If Only You Were More Educated, Then You Would Agree With Me

I was sitting with a woman—a Mainline Christian woman—and we were chatting about my background. I explained to her that my family is politically and theologically conservative but that I had changed many of the views that I grew up with as a young adult. She shook her head, sighed, and said, “Well, people just need more education, that’s all.”

It’s a common mistake that progressives make, but I really wish we would stop it. More education did, indeed, make me become a more progressive Christian. But I always cringe when I hear progressives say, “Well, they just need more education” when it comes to political, sexual, or theological issues. Why?

•We are assuming that conservatives are uneducated, and that is not true. We are way past the point in our country when we can make those assumptions, and it’s naïve to do so. In D.C., there are plenty of conservative religious think tanks, with highly skilled and educated men and women who have been pumping out articles for decades. But I cannot think of many progressive religious think tanks. Only a few come to mind. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this…but religious progressives seem to be woefully inadequate in this area.

•When we assume conservatives are uneducated, that makes us arrogant and unattractive. I write for the Huffington Post, and often, when I put up a positive article about religion, inevitably a rash of atheists will break out to tell me how unintellectual I am. The logic is that if I were educated or if I were an intellectual, then I would think like they do.

Does this make me want to run out and join the Dawkins book group? No, it does not. It just makes me roll my eyes and think rather poorly of atheists. Which is too bad, because I rather like the atheists that I know in real life. I am not anti-intellectual, anti-science, or anti-education, and false assumptions that I am are annoying.

We do the same thing as progressives. Imagine a Midwesterner who went to work as a car mechanic instead of going to college, because he realized that he could make a whole lot more money as a mechanic in his town, and come out with a whole lot less debt. Would it be attractive to him if we said to him, “If you had an education, you would think like us”? No, it would not. We need to begin to accept people for who and what they are. We don’t need to go around imagining that if they would better themselves than they would look like us.

•If we really believed it then we would be better at resourcing education. If you’re a church professional who has been to seminary, it’s easy to find wonderful, scholarly work on all sorts of areas that are important to progressive ideals.

If you want to hand something to your members, if you want to educate them, you’re out of luck. I often hear people on Twitter asking, “Does anyone know of a progressive resource for (fill in the blank—marriages, same-sex partners, parenting, finances, devotions)?” And then the only response is “if you find out anything, can you let me know?” When I bring this up to people who might provide the resources (scholars, publishers, etc.), they say that they don’t want to “dumb down” their material. They are providing resources for a scholarly audience.

The problem with this idea is that the people in our pews are not dumb, they are just not educated in the same things that we are. I could not pick up a biology textbook and get much out of it. Why do we expect that the biologist in our pews should have to pick up a theological text, written for a handful of people at AAR and expect to understand it? Why do we expect that mechanic–who can fix my car when I have a difficult time finding the dipstick–to understand it? Sometimes the books only seem to be written so that other scholars can check the index to find out if their names appear in it.

When I met a representative from a denominational publisher, the first thing he told me was, “We would never publish one of your books.” It was a strange thing for him to say, since I had never sent in a proposal or even made an inquiry. I mean, to get a rejection out-of-hand like that seemed odd.

I laughed and said, “Why?”

He answered, “Because we only publish scholarly work.”

On one hand, it felt like a personal rejection that I’m still reeling from a couple years later (I’ve told the story countless times to others who have received rejections). But on the other hand, it was a clear statement of strategy on behalf of denominational publishing that had nothing to do with me, personally.  And so it also made me wonder a deeper “why.”

If we believe so much in education, if we believe that it is transformative, why aren’t we providing education for anyone but those who are already highly educated?


20 thoughts on “If Only You Were More Educated, Then You Would Agree With Me

  1. Excellent points and questions, Rev. Carol. Salvation by education is an old theological liberal idea, and heavily promoted by my own religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. (This is due, in great part, to William Ellery Channing’s emphasis on education as self-culture in the perfectionist view of humanity.) Education is important, but it isn’t everything. Reasonable, educated people can and often do disagree.

    Yes, wonderful education for all. & yes, we need some better tools for caring for one another while not agreeing with one another.

  2. Amen and Amen. I keep hoping that one day we’ll catch on that if we want to keep the progressive Christian theological tradition going, we’re going to have to make it accessible…otherwise we betray our Reformed heritage by insisting that learning about that theological tradition is only for the few, who will read and then pass on what we believe others need to know. umm….Latin bible, anyone? (sigh)

  3. Well said. The further problem is that the books that are available are so erudite and stilted that generally the people in the pews refuse to read them. “Just tell me what it says…” and we’re back to an elitist theology.

  4. As a pastor who is also a Christian Educator, I want to share the good news that there is some really good material out there. Adult Crossings: God’s Journey with Us from Logos publications examines the 8 core narratives of Scripture. Living the Questions at livingthequestions.org has a whole array of resources. And creative use of youth resources (with adults – don’t let them see the cover!) can also fill the gaps.
    I think another part of the challenge is that so few pastors know much about how to approach Christian Education or find resources,having had one (usually forgettable) class in seminary. While in seminary, I approached two professors with a proposal for a directed study that would result in a curriculum; both, being respected scholars, were uninterested.

  5. The problem is exacerbated by seminaries who dismiss writing that seems at all “personal” and stress the need for “academic polemics” from their students. Thanks for raising the issue.

  6. Great post. I’m guilty of this, while recognize how obnoxious and condescending it is.

    I think the right wing equivalent of this is, “If you would just take the Bible more seriously…”

    Your anecdote about the denominational publisher is quite telling. It’s why my books and continuing education events are more likely to be outside the traditional mainline standards.

    I value my mainline traditional seminary education, but I am frustrated that translating it into practical application or to regular folks wasn’t valued highly.

  7. AMEN, sister! I’m not sure how we got around to thinking education was the great be-all-and-end-all (if not the Alpha and Omega) in just about every sphere — not only in the liberal/conservative/progressive arena.

    Ya just can’t learn someone on to your side.
    Ya can’t learn someone into submission.

    And reasonable, well-educated people have different lenses through which to view our world. Thank God! Otherwise I’d always think I was right.

  8. Well said! It also saddens me that someone from our denomination said they wouldn’t publish your books. I have to admit that while I love scholarly books, I just don’t have the time to sit down and digest everything. Lately I have been reading practical books that I can then share with my congregation and help them learn.

  9. There is great wisdom here. WRT the Living the Questions suggestion, I have had difficulty introducing it to my moderate/ politically more right congregation because its politics obscures it’s theology.

  10. I use the phrase ‘need to educate’ or ‘better education’ sometimes to refer to the need to teach them a different point of view. Not that the persons in question need to go to college or become more scholarly, but that we need to provide them with alternative teachings.

    So, do we create ‘progressive tracts’ or do we leave it with things like the ‘coexist’ bumper stickers?

    I said this on twitter, but I think that in the same way political progressives have allowed the term ‘liberal’ to be defined by conservatives, progressive Christians have allowed the conservative arm of the Church to dominate the vocabulary and framework within which Christians are defined.

    So yes, we need more progressive think tanks but we also need more marketing! Abbie says it so well, people want “just tell me what it says…”. It’s a characteristic of our society – we do so much we want everything summarized. Those who grab that market in terms of literature are going to have the loudest voices.

    Following Christ is so simple, yet Christianity is so very complex. We have to be able to break it down into bite sized chunks or we’ve lost the opportunity to educate folks on alternative viewpoints.

    Just my 2 cents and long rambling! LOL


  11. Today when I found myself with a jammed parking meter, I took myself out to lunch at a reasonably priced restaurant in Oakland, Pittsburgh. (A student area in Pittsburgh, known for hard to find parking spaces.)I had cleared my car pretty much of debris for Christmas travel but found your latest book in a basket in the back seat. If your book isn’t scholarly, what is it? I found myself flipping back to look at your footnotes…Thank you for writing as well as you do.


  12. First, I applaud your usual adept way of asking incisive questions and pointing out absurdities in our midst. At risk of sounding contrarian some thoughts your article raised in me:

    There actually ARE contexts in which education is if not the sole answer, one very big part of the solution. Progressives who parrot this line, perhaps inappropriately in a mere ideological confrontation, nevertheless do so based on a history of success in educating people out of poverty and ignorance. Paulo Freire and others have demonstrated the radical liberating effect things like literacy can have on a situation of oppression. Furthermore, it is unfortunately true that a lot of Christians are poorly educated Biblically and theologically. I doubt it would be easy to map the education disparity along ideological lines, but some people really do hold their opinions out of ignorance.

    You’re right though, that it is insulting and wrongheaded to suggest that your opponents as a general rule are ignorant. It is ad hominem and says more about the person making the accusation than those accused.

    I also think there is the opposite impulse of what you describe here (a kind of elitist arrogance) – anti-intellectualism. Speaking as a Presbyterian, we have a long history of prizing intellect in the academy and the pulpit and the pews, but I think there is a strong and disappointing push at the present for everything to be written and said at a middle school level. I think it is demeaning to the people in our churches who are often highly educated and don’t need to be spoken down to. Even in the case of those many who perhaps aren’t educated theologically the proper tactic is not to abandon intellectualism, but to… well, educate.

    I am currently teaching and having a great deal of success with an adult Bible Study that is deep into historical critical methodology with a group of retired farmers and teachers who have never done anything like this in their life and they are loving it. I have constantly been told by the other ministers in my local association that I am wasting my time talking over their head and that I should just do a devotional Bible study and quit thinking that anything I learned in seminary should be applied in the congregation. I respectfully think that more education is exactly what the doctor ordered in many cases.

  13. Bravo and Amen!

    I fancy myself an intellectual, and love to plow through a theological tome every now and then. But I wouldn’t expect my congregation to share my hobbies, nor do I think that their lack of interest in scholarly biblical study reflects poorly on their faith. You can be rigorous and engage progressive biblical theology in language that is accessible and books that are a manageable size for non-professionals. You are right to point out that there are far too few of them.

    I’ve been writing over at my place about the problems with a strictly educational approach to faith formation–learning about our faith is important, but so is shaping people into a way of life. The way of life Jesus calls us into definitely demands humility–not thinking you are better than others based on your wealth, status, achievements, righteousness — or education.

  14. “Progressives are arrogant and condescending.” A sentence like this should make progressives just as mad and disgusted as when they say or show to believe that conservatives are uneducated and stupid. Why? Because it is only true of some and grossly untrue of some others. It shows a profound lack of education about “the other.”
    I applaud you, Carol, for writing this blog. People who have converted away from some belief, as you have, often look down on those who still believe what they used to believe but have traded in for something they consider to be better.
    By the way, the Midwestern mechanic in your example could just as well be an uneducated progressive. Some Midwestern states have one progressive and one conservative US senator. In general, uneducated people tend to vote more often D (progressive) than R (conservative).
    Too bad that a blog like this one had to be written.

  15. Thank you for your article, I’m really glad that Presbyweb linked to it. As someone who has, as I have become more well-read and ‘educated’, more conservative through the years, I too have wanted to use some of the same arguments that well-meaning progressives use.

    I think your attitude as expressed in this article is very healing. I don’t know if we will agree on much, and sometimes I wonder how important it even is to agree on everything, but if we can get to the point where we can recognize each other as truly being well meaning (and not just some poor lost souls needed to be educated), our disagreements maybe can become less disagreeable.

    I hope you can get my drift. Enjoyed your writing!

  16. I am a person in a denomination that is considered to be “progressive” or “liberal”. I am not very fond of labels but was intrigued by the article. I am a person who has actually become more “conservative” and feels that it is, at least in my tradition, a misnomer to consider The Church as a still too conservative institution that needs market a more progressive image. We are all people who are called to bring a message to a people who are looking for guidance, for hope, for transformation. If our education does not fill that hope it has little use, whether it is scholarly or otherwise.

  17. Good post, Carol. In the evangelical world, “notables” write for the folks in the pews. With a few exceptions (yourself included), we oldliners seem to think that pastors should write for pastors. It’s one of the reasons we’re irrelevant.

    It’s important that we retain our intellectual integrity, and not just spew out pablum that doesn’t challenge or transform or bring people into more authentic relationship with the Gospel. I’m convinced there’s a happy medium somewhere in between Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza and Joel Osteen. The challenge is finding it.

  18. Carol,

    You are so right about the knee-jerk atheists that lurk in HuffPost chatrooms. Unreflective atheism–for me–is significantly more offputting than unreflective belief.

  19. Jesus is much more near and dear to me lately than I can remember Him being. He has a way of making everything and everyone seem better. More vivid, more interesting, more possibility laden. I am aware of certain types of input that brought about this transformation. I am aware of other types and sources of input that had no shot of helping me.

    Too bad there isn’t an objective way of measuring the potential of a book or a sermon or a program or whatever in bringing a person into a deeper relationship with Him.

    Then we could all feed only upon things that met that standard and avoid those things that provide us with no actual help.

  20. I think one of the big issues is that progressives and conservatives don’t speak to one another. I’m a conservative, but liberal friends often tell me I’m their favorite conservative (because I can have an intelligent conversation, appreciate the viewpoints, and not descend into Glenn Beckisms).

    A lot of conservatives get up in arms over being outnumbered in higher education, but I actually think it was a benefit to me. To survive, I had to know both the argument of liberals (often better than they did) as well as my own rebuttal. This also extends to conservative faculty; there are not many of them, but they are usually brilliant because they simply have to be (take Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, for instance). I’ve often found that it is impossible for me to argue with liberals because they’ve never had a meaningful relationship with any conservative, and thus, when we disagree they are literally incapable of going beyond “you hate the poor, haven’t read the Bible, and obviously don’t love Jesus.”

    That said, I don’t consider myself a “progressive” or a “conservative” Christian. I don’t think these are helpful categories when applied to theology because everyone means different things by them. Politically, I am quite conservative, but theologically I consider myself either Wesleyan, or Orthodox, or, if I’m feeling funky, postliberal. For far too many Christians, calling themselves progressive or conservative is simply another way of saying that their politics have infected their theology.

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