The Gift of Understanding
BY Mark Shea
January 3-16, 2010 Issue | Posted 12/27/09 at 6:54 PM
One of the curious paradoxes of our time is summed up in the saying “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” So often, atheists and fundamentalists don’t disagree about things so much as they disagree about whether the things they agree on are good or bad. Atheists and fundamentalists agree, for instance, that Genesis is a science textbook. They merely disagree on whether it is a good or bad science textbook. They agree that the Bible is supposed to be the Big Book About Everything. They merely disagree about whether it does a good job filling that role. And they agree that spiritual things and intellectual things are separate and opposed to one another. They merely disagree about whether faith or reason should come out on top.
Case in point: the standard atheist trope that “When Christianity took over Europe, scientific and engineering advancement virtually stopped.” To this, Catholic science-fiction writer Michael F. Flynn lays out evidence to the contrary:
“In no particular order: watermills, windmills, camshafts, toothed wheels, transmission shafts, mechanical clocks, pendant clocks, eye glasses, four-wheeled wagons, wheeled moldboard plows with shares and coulters, three-field crop rotation, blast furnaces, laws of magnetism, steam blowers, treadles, stirrups, armored cavalry, the elliptical arch, the fraction and arithmetic of fractions, the plus sign, preservation of antiquity, ‘Gresham’s’ law, the mean speed theorem, ‘Newton’s’ first law, distilled liquor, use of letters to indicate quantities in al jabr, discovery of the Canary Islands ...”
In short, Catholic faith has always produced a bumper crop of interest in science and reason because Catholic faith has never opposed either faith and reason nor grace and nature.
Yet, curiously, on the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, we find a similar notion of the hostility of faith and reason. One persistent myth among many Christians ignorant of Catholic teaching is the notion that there is something intrinsically meritorious about being an ignoramus. This is typically framed with the boast, “I’m not educated like all those fancy-pants theologians or scientists, but I know the Holy Spirit personally tells me [insert ignorant dogmatic opinion about anything at all here].” Such folk invariably point to Christ’s tart words to the scribes and lawyers of his day and say, “See! Head knowledge is worthless! But I am truly spiritual in my simplicity and lack of education.”
However, the fact that Jesus rebuked educated people for being prideful about their education is a really bad reason for being prideful about our ignorance. It is pride, not education, that Jesus rebukes. That’s important to realize, because the same people who advertise lack of education or intellectual laziness as a virtue are usually the ones who believe that understanding comes not by trying to understand something but by some sort of direct, telepathic “illumination” by the Holy Spirit: God just downloads into their minds his views of farm subsidies or fly fishing or the works of Ernest Hemingway and “empowers” them to sound off on these and other topics.
Scripture contradicts them: “An educated man knows many things, and one with much experience will speak with understanding” (Sirach 34:9).
The confirmation gift of understanding comes to our brains the same way the gift of strength comes to our muscles — by exercise. Today, ask for understanding. Then roll up your sleeves and crack the books.
Mark Shea is content editor of
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