September 21, 2019

Why EVERYONE Needs Religious Education

“Wisdom cries out in the street. In the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out. At the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”
(Proverbs 1:20-21)

Religious education is something that usually is reserved for only a select few. It’s most often in private schools as a requirement for kids of all ages. Other times it might be offered at churches for particularly inquisitive adults seeking meaning and knowledge beyond what normal services can typically offer. To an even lesser degree, religious education of a truly rich and insightful caliber is often reserved for a select, privileged few who can afford to attend seminary colleges or pursue an anthropological course of study at universities. But, shouldn’t everyone have access to this knowledge, chance to explore, and opportunity to ask difficult or even strange questions? Should religious leaders and educators shy away from the dark corners of religious convention or the complex ideologies that toil behind the curtain of church institutions?

Leaders and Teachers: It’s only by avoiding education that we propagate doubt and division. By dodging the hard questions, we don’t have rehearsed or comfortable answers to, we instill a greater fear and confusion in those that look up to us for pastoral and knowledgeable guidance. Being a successful teacher and pastoral leader has little to do with your knowledge and education, and even not too much to do with your experience. It has everything to do with your willingness to open yourself up to the unknown at every moment of every day—to take a new journey that you didn’t know was there to take, and likely didn’t bargain for. You have to not only keep asking your own questions and be prepared to be wrong (a lot), but you have to be willing to step down from the podium and join your students or seekers on their particular journey of curiosity, no matter how strange, confusing, or even painful it might be. You don’t need answers, but you do need courage.

"Wisdom cannot be taught, only demonstrated"

Seekers and Students: Never be afraid to ask your spiritual leaders tough questions. Today’s seeds of unsatisfied curiosity can easily germinate into tomorrow’s bitter angst. We live in a diverse world, full of uncertainty, that necessitates an intimate understanding our identity more than ever. You owe it to yourself to demand answers, and at a lack of sufficient attention, to seek until you find them. Jesus himself was a teacher (rabbi, (Heb.) “master [as teacher]”), and he spread his message two ways. He taught through relatable stories, facing every question that was asked of him with bravery and conviction, and he demonstrated what he taught in his actions. He knew, just as countless sages before him, that wisdom cannot be taught, only demonstrated. You should expect no less from your leaders and teachers.

Everyone: We are here among our fellow humans to coexist by making distinctions, not judgements. Because of our finite, squishy, little brains, we can only see so much at one time, and our thoughts are guided by our material needs, immediate desires, cultural biases, emotional baggage, and social pressures. Only God, in His infinite presence and understanding, is truly fit to judge, and thankfully, we don’t know what those judgements are:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-4)

My most fulfilling moments were those when I had no answers at all.

During my time teaching both adults and teenagers, I’ve seen a lot of the same manifestations of curiosity and eagerness to learn. I’ve filled the mental reservoirs of those who were thirsty for raw knowledge. I’ve cluttered the minds of those who scratched the surface only to find an entirely new world underneath the fa├žade of our dismal preconceptions. And, I’ve gently opened the minds of those who thought they could learn nothing past what they were already determined was the reality of the world, based on their justifiably wounded perceptions in our culture. Knowledge is my right arm, humor and satire are my sword, and humility is my shield. Compassion is my armor, and I have no helmet, because I can’t understand another’s journey without sampling it for myself and relating through my own weaknesses. All that aside though, my most accomplished and fulfilling moments were those when I had no answers at all, but merely walked with someone along their journey for a short time, sharing their pain, confusion, and thirst to know. We have to hate ourselves just a little bit in order to ever truly love ourselves, and without loving ourselves, we are all but useless to all others.

There are discernible and crucial differences between reaching adults versus youths. Take these observations, not as criticism, but as sincere understanding and a way to ask yourself hard questions, both teacher and seeker alike:

  • Youth seeks to understand and belong to a world that is intimidating and hostile to it.
    Age is compelled to prove what it already believes after a hard-won battle to claim those beliefs.
  • Youth seeks acceptance for what they’re discovering about who they are.
    Age wants comfort in the ways it’s accustomed to.
  • Youth is troubled by ignorance it desperately seeks to overcome.
    Age is burdened by knowledge it would rather leave behind.
  • Youth seeks to avoid the follies of its ancestors.
    Age is compelled to justify the mistakes of the past to make them easier to live with in the present.

We are not projects, but components of each other.

Always know your motivations. Live your life for yourself, but cultivate it for others. Seek knowledge where you can find it, but don’t let pride turn your heart to stone. Learning is not a process one can finish, but a softening of the mind to be malleable and receptive to more and greater things all the time. Teach by living, correct by example, learn by failing, and above all, guide others with nothing less than love. We are not projects, but components of each other, through which we can heal ourselves by healing others. As Martin Luther once said:

“One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.”