Monday, October 11, 2010

Douthat on Smith on Religious "Knowledge"

Over at his NYTimes "Evaluations" blog, I appreciated Ross Douthat's engagement with my "off the cuff" piece on the Pew Survey on Religious Knowledge (also noted at the Atlantic's "Daily Dish" blog).

While he's sympathetic to my second thesis, Douthat raises a fair point by asking:

Can one be a serious practitioner of Catholic Christianity who doesn’t know (as 41 percent of Catholics in the Pew survey did not) that the Church teaches that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, rather than just symbolizing and memorializing Christ’s sacrifice? (Note I’m not even talking about whether you believe in transsubstantiation here — just whether you know that it’s what the Church says is happening on the altar.) There I think the answer is probably no: At a certain very basic level, what you know about a religion and how you practice it go hand in hand, and you can’t really be “a master of the game” if you’re ignorant of its rules — in the same way, say, that you couldn’t be a great baseball player if you didn’t know that three strikes make an out.
Of course, I wasn't saying that there's no place for religious knowledge in faithful religious practice. But his case and the analogy got me thinking further:

(1) In my book Desiring the Kingdom, at several points I discuss how children and mentally challenged adults participate in worship, sort of as "limit cases" to consider. I don't pretend these are the norms. But in both cases, it seems to me one can have devout practice that isn't necessarily attended by reflective knowledge. (Nor does this preclude emphasizing that such reflective knowledge would be a desirable good.) I think these sorts of questions remain germane particularly given my interest in (and concerns with) Christian Smith's work on youth spirituality, which also tends to come down pretty hard (at least implicitly) on 19-year-olds who seem to be playing a game but unable to articulate the rules. I'm not in the least suggesting religious communities haven't failed in catechesis, but I do think there are also modes of religious "understanding" which do not always translate into articulated answers of the sort measured by surveys. And since Douthat specifically raises the Roman Catholic example, it seems to me that Catholic spirituality has always made room for an affirmation of faith that is tactile, kinetic, and visual and thus not always articulated by the believer. That is, while many converts to Catholicism have "intellectual" concerns front and center, global Catholic spirituality is precisely a tradition that has always been hospitable and accessible to the uneducated, even the illiterate, who are no less faithful. Of course, this is also a mode of spirituality that is susceptible to superstition, but the two are certainly not identical. (I'm thinking of the peasant believers in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.) So I can imagine all kinds of Catholic faithful who are not able to articulate what Douthat is asking of them, but nonetheless have a kind of tacit appreciation and understanding of just what's at stake in the Eucharist.

(2) I wonder about the baseball analogy: yes, it seems right that I would have to have a kind of propositional knowledge about 3 strikes constituting an "out." And so I think both Douthat and I agree that there are reasons to be disappointed about the outcome of the survey--which sort of shores up my cynical "civil religion" thesis, as Douthat notes). On the other hand, we should also recognize that knowing 3 strikes = an out is not the sort of knowledge that actually makes one a good baseball player. It is just the sort of "spectator knowledge" that armchair batters around the country will be muttering about in October. But of course that's a long ways from having the sort of know-how which enables one to get a piece of a 98-mile-an-hour fastball. And it seems to me that religious "knowledge" is more on the order of that know-how than spectatorish acquaintance with the rules.