October 14, 2010

Learning, Knowing, Doing, Being

by Debra Dean Murphy
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Last week the Pew Research Center made big news when its latest poll revealed that religious people don't know much about religion. (Atheists, though, according to the survey, are pretty savvy). Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered his own pop quiz, which, according to my unscientific calculations (counting the number of Facebook confessions), a whole lot of people flunked.

This news is instructive as far as it goes. Having spent a good deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and teaching about Christian formation and catechesis, I'm not surprised that life-long church-goers know so little about the history and development, the context and content of the Christian tradition. Not that it's really their fault. When I teach, say, the history of Methodism or the liturgical year to lay people, they can't get enough of it. They wonder where this stuff has been all their lives. Clergy don't teach or preach it much; Sunday School is about other things, sadly.

But the point of this kind of learning is not merely to transfer useful data from the knowledgeable to the uninformed. Mastery of material is not the name of the game - discipleship is. It matters, of course, that Christians know what pre-Constantinian Christianity was like or that the gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus, but not as a measure of fact-collecting competency. Rather, as the writer of 2 Timothy insists, "proficiency" in such matters is for the purpose of being "equipped for every good work" (3:17). It's for doing stuff - living a certain way, being a particular (and peculiar) kind of people.

This Sunday's passage from 2 Timothy is often cited by those who want to close off debate about complex matters of scriptural authority and doctrinal content - who see religion fundamentally as a set of fixed propositions to be assented to. Because it's a letter, 2 Timothy has the kind of didactic vibe that lends itself to this kind of reductive reading. (Sort of like the pastoral epistles, with their hortatory restrictions on women, trumping the gospels' -- and Paul's -- clear message of women's leadership in the early Jesus movement).

But the emphasis here is clearly on "learning, believing, and knowing" (3:14) as a "training in righteousness" (3:16). Discipleship is  not about just knowing but about living the strange truth of the upside-down kingdom of God, even when others turn from listening and "wander away to myths" (4:4). It's about "good work," says the writer, but it's also about hard work - about practicing a distinctive way of life which sometimes only makes you odd and out of step but other times costs you dearly.

In this week's Psalm there's a slightly different twist on the knowledge-content of faith - on its "laws, commandments, decrees, precepts, ordinances, and words." The Psalmist delights in the law for its own sake, for its intrinsic beauty and goodness and power.  Instead of using doctrine as a litmus test for determining orthodoxy or as a weapon to beat down those who are not keeping it satisfactorily, the Psalmist gushes, "Oh, how I love your law!"  What he "knows" about God offers the possibility for connection and communion, for life itself. It’s not mere knowledge for the head; it's life-giving water that soothes and heals and satisfies.

If this law comes down from a great high judge, the gospel lesson in Luke reveals a bit of what this arbiter of justice is like. Jesus tells a parable of "a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people" (18:2). A persistent widow kept coming to him asking for justice against her opponent. For awhile the judge refused but later, "so that she may not wear me out by continually coming" (18:5), he relented and gave in to her demands. God is like this, says Jesus. Not in mirroring the judge's laziness and indifference but in granting justice to those who cry out. But God is also not like the unjust judge for God's justice is swift (18:7).

These eight verses in Luke are framed by a concern for the uncertainty of the coming days. Speaking to the anxious in deeply anxious times, they constitute an encouraging word: "to pray always and not to lose heart" (18:1). But prayer is not mere private speech. It is not the half-hearted mumblings of the not-quite committed. Prayer in anxious times is like the persistent widow seeking justice: challenging the abuse of power – cruelty, corruption, laziness, indifference – even when it seems hopeless, when it's inconvenient or humiliating or mind-numbingly boring. Prayer is work: it's learning by doing, knowing by being.

We know this because Jesus concludes the parable by posing this question: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" This question wasn’t in the Pew Center poll or on Kristof’s quiz. But its answer might be the most important one of all.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this and found it helpful. Theory and praxis bridged.
(Mark Ryan)

Mich said...

Terrific Post!
Thank you.

Susan Adams said...

Debra, thanks for once again using your words and understandings to put my focus on that which is good in a time when my gaze keeps being diverted to rampant injustice and seeming hopelessness. Even when my heart is heavy, I am strengthened by the knowledge that I stand with brothers and sisters crying out to our Good God, our Just Judge, and our merciful, gracious Heavenly Father, Who has promised to hear His children when they call.

Englewood Christian Church