Sunday at St. Dunstan’s we blessed our children as they begin a new school year, and celebrated God’s gifts of learning and knowledge.
By happy coincidence, the scripture readings appointed for the day supported this theme.
The first reading, from the Book of Exodus, began with a warning about the consequences and dangers of not knowing one’s history. “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Egypt’s new king is ignorant of his own country’s past. He doesn’t know that Joseph, a Jew, saved Egypt from famine. He doesn’t know the special role that the Hebrews played in his country’s history. He doesn’t know or care about their God.
And so he enslaves the descendants of the people who once saved his country. His ignorance makes him a fool, and more importantly causes suffering and misery — first for the enslaved Hebrew people, and later for his fellow Egyptians when he tries to pit himself against the God of Israel.
There is a lesson here about the importance of knowledge, and it is as relevant for us today as it was during Moses’ time.
We seem to be in an age when knowledge and intellect are under attack.
Scientific knowledge is at the forefront of this assault.
Global warming is now a hot button political issue — not what we should do about it, but whether it exists. A recent poll shows it is considered a lie by many Americans, despite all credible scientific evidence to the contrary.
When I was a student we studied the Scopes Monkey Trial, held in nearby Dayton, Tenn., in 1925 about the teaching of evolution in public schools. As high school students we found it hard to believe that there were once people who thought the science of evolution should not be taught in schools.
Now that old debate is being revived in school districts across the country.
But it is not just scientific knowledge that is under attack.
Like the Egyptian pharaoh of long ago, many leaders of our time seem to have forgotten or revised history. As we observe the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, there are those who maintain that slavery was not the primary cause of that conflict.
In some conservative Christian circles the Civil War is described as “an unjust attack on the orthodox Christian south by the godless north.”
“Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity,” says a biography of Robert E. Lee, a book described as a “must read” by one current presidential candidate.
“Slavery bred mutual respect,” the biography continues. “The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common Christian faith.”
Those who embrace this thinking, indeed, do not know Joseph, or Joseph’s God.
What is especially galling about this assault on knowledge is that so often those who seem to delight in ignorance are people of faith, or more particularly, Christians.
“Choosing God over facts,” said one headline I saw recently.
The implication of that headline is that those who believe in God must suspend their intellect.
Indeed, there are many Christians who agree with the words of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, who declared that the Bible “is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith, as well as in areas such as geography, science and history.”
Such attitudes prompted this statement from one of my favorite theologians, Douglas John Hall, in his book "Thinking the Faith":
“We have to admit that for countless millions the Christian religion has not only been an unthought affair, but an aid to thought’s repression, a tranquilizing agent assisting one to pass through this ‘vale of tears’ with a minimum of original reflection upon the whole and wondrous journey.”
But as we know, Christianity does not have to be an “unthought affair,” or an embrace of ignorance. In fact, such an attitude seems to me to be extremely unfaithful.
Years ago I had a poster published by our national church hanging in my office. It had a picture of Jesus and these words, “He came to take away your sins, not your mind.”
A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.
The Bible itself proclaims the importance of the mind.
“I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also,” says Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus says, echoing Deuteronomy. “This is the first and greatest commandment.”
And in his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you might discern what is the will of God.”
In our service Sunday we invited all students — from preschool to graduate school — to come forward for the “Blessing of the Backpacks.” What we really blessed, of course, was not the backpacks, but our children as they begin a new school year.
We prayed that their minds will be renewed by what they learn this year, and that they will rejoice in the knowledge they gain.
Of course, we want our children to grow up knowing scripture and the stories of our faith. We hope that the truths contained in those stories become the foundation of their faith, and inform how they live, how they treat those around them, how they see the world.
But we also want them to grow up knowing the basics of history and science and literature and mathematics, to use the minds God has given them, to be aware of the amazing discoveries being made almost daily about the world and universe that God created.
Most of all, we want them never to feel they have to stop asking questions, stop seeking knowledge, stop looking for truths in fear that doing so might somehow threaten or lessen their faith.
There are two sure signs to help discern that what is being purported is not the good news of the Gospel, unworthy of a person of faith — if it’s mean or if it’s just plain stupid.
As scripture reminds us, “All wisdom is from the Lord and with the Lord it remains for ever.”