When I was nine, my brother was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. His portion, as the cycle of the year had it, was the opening section of the Torah; I heard it over and over again in Hebrew as he practiced. And so I learned, like everyone else who grew up anywhere in Western culture, the story of creation laid out on those pages – in it, God takes six days to create the earth, and on day seven, declares a day of rest.
I was a faithful kid, and yet I was also a modern third grader, learning about dinosaurs and fossils. So I asked my Rabbi about the conflict. His answer (which was, of course, a question, since he’s a Rabbi) was, “Why do you assume a day to God is the same as a day to you?” What a perfect answer! I needed nothing more, and, indeed, continue, some 34 years later, to be fascinated by the idea of time not being a fixed, linear object, but something that changes and flexes, from creature to creature, and even for in our own lives. My faith was utterly unshaken by my understanding of evolution; indeed, I have to say it grew stronger at that moment, only fading later in life, in vastly different, non-academic circumstances.
Because faith? It’s belief. True belief. In the dictionary, it’s “complete trust or confidence…based on spiritual conviction, rather than proof.” There is no fact that can shake faith, if faith is true. Belief and knowledge are not opposites – they are complimentary ideas.
And yet, here are all of these supposed believers, these spiritual leaders and politicians, who keep telling their followers not to learn. Not to trust education. There is a whole movement that pits those who believe against those who study. I can’t tell you the number of times over the last year that I’ve heard about how the “Educated Elite” simply don’t understand “the Heartland” where the Christianity thrives. I see all of these folks who fight against higher learning, declaring it an obstacle to faith and God and just scratch my head.
Because the most powerful believers I know, or know of, are truly well educated. We can start with the famous – the Pope, the Dali Lama, Joe Biden. And move from there to those I know personally – my Sunday School teacher who is now Rabbi Frisch-Klein in Elgin, Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and member of the LAByrinth theater company, my dear friend Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who is leading a renaissance in black theater in America. These people are all immensely knowledgeable, well-educated thinkers with a well of belief that inspires me whenever matters of faith arise.
As I think about the fact that many of the greatest religious minds alive, along with those long gone (including Jesus Christ, Mohammed and the Buddha) are or were tremendous scholars, I become suspicious of the motives of those modern leaders who encourage their followers to despise education. The Christian philosopher Brother Lawrence said, “as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and wider our knowledge, the greater will be our love.” Islamic scholar Ibn Abbas (one of Muhammed’s cousins, and an early scholar of the Qur’an) said, “A single scholar of religion is more formidable against Satan than a thousand devout persons.” As for Judaism – well, it’s a well-known truism that, if you ask three Rabbis a question, you’ll get five answers; it’s not for nothing that our temples are called “Shul” which comes, of course, from the same root as the word school.
So, then, what drives those who seek to keep believers from learning? I believe that there are two issues at hand. One, they must not be truly faithful. Because, if their faith was strong, they would know that no amount of learning would displace it. And two, even worse, they doubt the faith of their followers, and because of these doubts, they mislead them – away from education, thought, growth, and towards a sort of “father knows best” religious mindset.
If these leaders had faith, and believed in the faith of their followers, they would never fear knowledge. So – why do they push their followers away from education? Because they know that knowledgeable believers sometimes question their leaders, and they are afraid that they don’t have any real answers. Martin Luther, that founder of Protestant thought, spent ten years translated the Bible into German so that the people could study religion on their own. He felt that the leaders of Christianity, at that time, were using their knowledge, and their followers’ inability to learn on their own, to maintain power. He believed that knowledge would be an incubator for faith, and that hoarding knowledge was solely a means of retaining power.
It’s my belief that the faithful and the learned are not enemies; there are great leaders in our communities who have both belief and knowledge, and many who don’t believe, but who still see the one as in no way interfering with the other. It is those who seek to divide us into two opposing groups (the faithful versus the educated) who are the enemies – to peace, to unity, to love, and to growth. America’s greatness grew out of a simple vision – E Pluribus Unim – Out of Many, One. The divisions being fostered today, by leaders who declare that knowledge is poison, that science and religion are opposites, that we must see each other as opposing forces? They are just a sign that those very leaders lack faith necessary to lead, and the wisdom necessary to guide us.