Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Most Important English Lesson

School starts up again for me and my kids in a few weeks, and as I was thinking about all the things that I'll teach and my daughters will learn, I remembered that some of the most important and long-lasting lessons aren't even on the lesson plan, and may have just come from a tangential comment from a teacher while discussing something else. I know that was the case with me when I was in high school.

We learned a lot of things in Freshman English at East Orange High School in East Orange, NJ, but the most important thing I learned in Mr Delaney’s class was the meaning of the word believe.

Mr Delaney taught us the difference between belief and knowledge, and that since it’s not first-hand knowledge, belief by definition has to imply some room for doubt. He taught me that when I say that I believe something, I’m also admitting the possibility that I could be wrong. He said that when we believe something, we don’t know that it’s true, but we’re willing to act as if it is until we get convincing evidence to the contrary. This lesson, that I learned at age 14, has stayed with me for almost 40 years, and has had a profound effect on both my intellectual and my religious life.

It seems that too many of us confuse belief with knowledge, and that too many people who profess one belief or another act as if they know for sure that it’s absolute truth. As a Christian, I believe many things, but thanks to Mr Delaney, I understand that I don’t know them to be absolute fact, but believe them based on what I consider to be convincing evidence handed down from a number of different sources. And – I accept the fact that I could be wrong.

When we confuse belief with knowledge, we also confuse knowing where we disagree with someone else with knowing where the other person is wrong. My understanding of the word “believe” requires me to admit not only that I might be wrong, but that there’s a chance that the other person, with whom I so vehemently disagree, may actually be right. I may not like that possibility, but since I’m not perfect, that chance definitely exists. I’d like it, though, if those who believed differently from me accorded me the same intellectual courtesy.

I know where I disagree with Catholics. I know where I disagree with Baptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I even know where I disagree with other Lutherans. But I don’t know for sure where any of them are wrong. Contrary to what many people may think, this doesn’t mean that my faith is wishy-washy at all. By no means! My faith is strong enough to handle knowing not only that I might be wrong, but that I will be wrong from time to time. My faith is also strong enough to handle the onslaught of new information that many “true believers” can’t deal with because their faith is based on never being wrong or having to readjust their worldview. Because I believe, in the Delaney sense of the word, I know that I’ll be constantly readjusting my worldview, and am not afraid to do so.

Indeed, the fact that I believe means that I need to be very careful in how I act. Many great evils have been done by those who were sure that they were right, and were able to count as “enemies of God” those with whom they disagreed. On the other hand, those who understand Mr Delaney’s definition of “belief” tend to be a bit more cautious about forcing their will and beliefs on others, and a little more willing to try to “meet in the middle.”

Other Christians may ask me, “How can you say that you don’t know for sure? We have it all there in the Bible. What more proof could you possibly want?”

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that just as my parents weren’t there for all the fights I claimed I never started (and I really didn’t), I wasn’t there when the events written down in the Bible happened; and so just as my parents didn’t know for sure and had to trust me, I don’t know for sure either, and so I believe.

Amusingly, this brings us to atheists. For you see, atheists are believers of a sort too. Garrison Keillor once said that all the atheists in Lake Wobegon are Lutherans because it’s a Lutheran God that they don’t believe in. Like Keillor, I believe that most atheists are atheists in opposition to some particular interpretation of religion that they’re familiar with. But more to the point, it’s not that atheists don’t believe in God, it’s that they believe there is no God. And as such, they are no more certain than those of us who claim to believe.

And of course, I could be wrong about all of this.

Adapted from my piece in the What I Believe column of the
Syracuse Post Standard on May 12, 2007.

No comments:

Post a Comment