Passionate faith must be supported by knowledge

October 30, 2010 

The clergy of all the major faiths across our land were probably gritting their teeth when they read the results of the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life test.

The survey tested the knowledge of 3,400 Americans about religion, especially their own faith tradition, and other world religions. For a country that declares itself to be a place where people take their religion seriously, there seems to be a disconnect between what people say versus what they actually know about religion.

According to the combined results, 53 percent of the Protestants did not know that Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Forty-five percent of Catholics did not understand the church's teaching that Holy Communion is not symbolic, but actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Forty-five percent of Jews did not identify Moses Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and scholar and one of Judaism's most influential rabbis of all time, as Jewish. Clergy across the country are probably a bit embarrassed by these statistics.

Another result of the survey was that the American public still is confused about the place of religion in American schools. The respondents did not understand when a teacher is allowed to teach about Scriptures of different religions versus preaching the Scriptures in the classroom. Almost everyone got the answer right when asked if teachers could preach Scripture in the classroom. (The answer, of course, is no.) But they did not know if the teacher could teach Scriptures as part of world religion courses or sections of world history courses. The survey proved the public is not clear about the division between advocating a religion and teaching it in an academic context.

If we take this survey seriously and believe it actually reflects a lack of knowledge about religion in America, then we have a lot to work on. It is one thing when people are discussing other religions about which they have little understanding. It is really a sad commentary on institutional religion that our own congregants do not have a basic understanding of the faith tradition that they identify with generation after generation.

We can identify and stand proudly for what we believe in. But that is not enough. We need knowledge of the basics of our faith. There is no doubt that our houses of worship offer instructional courses in the fundamental teachings of our religions. Converts, for example, usually have the best quality of knowledge because they bring a passion to their newfound faith that multigenerational congregants do not typically possess. Have the latter become too comfortable in their religious identities? People don't read like they used to, something important in becoming an enlightened citizen in our country. We live in a digital era, and who has the time or the patience to read not just Scripture, but commentaries from our religious traditions that help us better understand our faith?

Religion requires us to have the passion of faith backed by a base of knowledge. What good is a strong faith without the historic memory and meaning of the rituals and theology our religion teaches? Those who rely solely on passion, never striving to study or learn the history and teaching of the faith, risk losing their faith in the long run. The ideal is to produce people of faith defined by a strong base of knowledge, passion for the faith and a commitment to service. These three elements are essential to those who are serious about their religion.

Sure, there are plenty of folks who would do better on the test by the Pew Forum than those who took it. But the test exposed an embarrassing truth: We need to spend our time enlarging the narrow scope of our knowledge, and not only in relation to our own faith, but, just as importantly, with reference to those other faiths that make up the diverse religious landscape of our nation.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @rabbibloom.

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