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Intellectual And Anti-Intellectual Elitism


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I was raised in a family and sub-culture that were fundamentalist oriented, and I consider anti-intellectualism, and anti-intellectual elitism to be very much apart of that sub-culture and mindset.

By that, I mean there was open disdain and often antagonistic attitudes toward anyone or anything they considered of "higher" intellect, what today we called "gifted" intelligence, and most of all higher education. Higher education was often denigrated with phrases life 'just book learnin', 'educated idiots' and the like. This was especially evident toward anything religious or theological education, as someone else mentioned in another post, it was of the worst of dangers to dare read such works as might come out of Academic theologians' perspectives. Preachers commonly annouunce with pride they are just a poor ol country boy, not one of them college educated theologians that may have a lot of book learnin, but no common sense. Religious version of the college educated idiot.

 

Being myself an intellectually gifted child, that early on demonstrated more than acceptable capacity to question things of religion that just didn't make reasonable sense, I took a lot of criticism for thinking myself smart or better than others, prone to the sin of questioning God, of making too much of my capacity for 'book learnin'. Even today within many fundamentalist communities, intellectually gifted children are vulnerable to special hurts.

Bottom line, fundamentalist environments tend toward demeaning intellectuals and the higher educated...there exists a very real and pervasive anti-intellectual elitism. Narrow, closed mindedness in there, a virtue.

 

But now as later in life I have discovered and moved toward a more intellectual approach, within a more intellectual faith community, I sometimes find myself concerned that I shouuld not let myself fall into the same error, if only differing indirection...of falling into intellectual elitism.

 

It is easily noticed here in these forums that participants, at least those that seem be able to communicate with one another on some very complicated topics, there is a higher percentage than usual for most religious-oriented forums of those more intellectually developed, with further higher education, and familiarity with a vast range of textual material, books,etc, of a higher sort in theology and philosophy especially, than most. This group tends to be much more educated and well-readm and reflects a much higher average level of intellect. In short, this is a pretty well educated bunch of folks overall.

 

I have to recognize that I am ever at risk, and suspect others are as well, of letting myself fall into such an intellectual elitist position as to dismiss that those less well endowed intellectually and educationally just aren't capable of examining and discussing such things as we do here.

 

I had a very humbling experience in this regard the other day. A woman now in her 40's, that I've watched grow up,and despite serious learning disabilities and a slightly below average IQ that prevented her ever having progressed beyond reading at the most elementary level, has admirably made her way through life, earning a decent income to take care of herself and her child by doing "men's work", construction, welding, iron working... Bluntly, she would never be able to participate indiscussions as we do here. I've always tried to relate to her at her level, not going over her head with such lofty intellectual ideas...

 

But the other day, she opened up to me about her frustrations with religion...and there came my humbling experience. In her own words, words that made sense to her, she was telling me the very same things we talk about with each other here! Her observations and reasons for questioning and ultimately rejecting the same elements of organized religion as we often do here, her conclusions about where her faith journey is now, was, in the plain language of the marginally literate, were right on board with mine and many others here.

 

And it was a lesson for me in how no matter one's level of intellect or education, no matter how limited such a one may be in being able to express her ideas as we do here, their experience of recognizing truth and sound reasoning can be as valid and sound as any of ours. It makes me think, perhaps part of that "prophetic voice" that PC is just now finding and beginning to articulate, must be presented in the common language that is accessable to even those of limited intellect and/or marginal literacy. For those of us intellectually oriented, perhaps more so for those that have learned and become comfortable daily speaking the language of higher academia, it can be a bit like having to try to learn a new and different language. Those that would seek to articulate what they have learned on the mountain top must learn ways of expressing those lofty ideas in the language of those living in the valley, if those mountain top experiences are to have any meaning or purpose beyond stroking our own ego.

 

Jenell

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Moderator, only after posting this did I realize it might be a better fit under the PC forum instead of here in debate and dialog. Use your judgement as to whether its best here or moved.

Jenell

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Jenell:

 

Thanks for the story of your "humbling experience" with the woman who reached conclusions similar to those found on this board. It reminded me of an experience I had in church on Trinity Sunday. As in so many churches, the Athanasian creed was recited with the warning that some would "struggle" with it. Well, I was one of those who struggled with it, and after the service I spoke with another fellow who is not an academic, and not well educated. I mentioned my reservations about certain parts of the creed, and he responded that some pastors like it and some don't, and we all have our opinions. So true!

 

Of course, it is one thing to comment as a parishioner, and another to pass an ordination exam. But still, I valued his immediate straight-forward insight.

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Thank you, Robert

 

I am reminded that those first people that recognized something special about the man, Jesus, and gave up everything to follow Him, were NOT highly educated intellectuals! Neither were so many that came after. They were ordinary people, most without formal education, common laborers, fishermen, working class, others were paupers and beggars. My thought is that if any Christian message we would seek to share with others isn't accessable and understandable by even the least of these, there is something wrong with it.

I admit to having fallen into such intellectual arrogance at times, thinking those that seem so foolish to me to follow the obvious frauds and charletons, that accept religious environments that effectively require you check your brain at the door before you enter in, must lack the mental capacity to "get it." If any within the PC community is going to speak to the common people, it is going to be neccesary they be able to get on their level, learn to present the good news in a common language even the least of these can understand.

 

Jenell

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Jenell,

 

Some progressive churchs do what you suggest. In one example, a group of around 25 average to above average teenagers and a similar number of teenagers with Down Syndrome spend a week together in summer camp. The end result is quite amazing ... and, OK I'm an old softie, heartwarming.

 

Myron

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Thank you, Myron, that's a wonderful example.

 

It seems to me, that as God meets any of us where we are, so to are we to try to meet any others where they are, not only in hoping to present any spiritual message, but in every day life. That comes easier to some of us than others. A lot has to do with our personal experience and background.

 

One thing I do want to interject here, is that this idea of meeting people where they are, learning to speak the common language of any person, should never be thought of in terms of "dumbing down" anything, in any way. I've seen an awful lot of that among Christians that think they are sincerely reaching out to those of less intellectual capacity. To me, that isn't to meet someone where they are, it is to stand above them and looking down upon.

 

What was so aparant to me in the conversation with that woman I wrote of in my post, was that nothing in the ideas and thoughts she expressed were "dumbed down", she was just expressing them in the simplified language that she knows, the vocabulary she knows. It reminds me of a primary rule of effective writing or public speaking is to always choose the simplest language and most common words to say anything. To write or to speak to the intellectual and educational level of the least of those among the intended audience. The language and vocabulary one would use to express an idea to class of a senior-level college honors students is very different than how the same idea would be presented by a pastor in a sermon to a congregation of people with a wide range intellectual and educational levels.

 

Another element in adjusting language to the level of anyone being addressed is avoiding the use of jargon. It has been my experience and observation that many Christians, particularly deeped involved churched Christians, don't even realize how much jargon and church specific language they use, that is common among themselves, but not to people outside their own religious community, even Christians of a different denominational background. Robert's account of the creed that he didn't understand is a good example of that. Were the content of that creed to be presented in plain everyday language, the idea itself would be something Robert or anyone else might easily understand. Having been "unchurched" most my adult life, I have even still a significant problem with that when I'm around those that are comfortable with the language of their particular church environment. It has caused me problems, sometimes very serious problems, in mis-communications with involved churched people. They say things differently that I would, and I say things differently than they do. It is in some ways like we are speaking different languages, but they don't seem to realize that.

There's nothing about dumbing down the ideas, the message itself, but rather simplifying the language in which it is presented.

 

Jenell

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Jenell,

 

I don't know if this is typical or not, but I have watched several Rabbi's work with teenagers at different levels of understanding. Usually it goes something like this. The teenager will ask a question and the Rabbi responds with something like "Ahh ...yes, now do you remember the story of ...". The teenager thinks about it for awhile and comes back with " ... so that means ..." and so on. Gradually, things get worked out. But, the teenager is never pushed beyond what they can handle. It's sort of like a "good enough for now" approach.

 

At a Buddhist temple not far from where I live they hand out literature to quests that oftens says "each to their own capacity of ..."

 

Myron

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If any within the PC community is going to speak to the common people, it is going to be necessary they be able to get on their level, learn to present the good news in a common language even the least of these can understand.

Good Sunday School teachers and preachers do this daily and weekly. I had to give up Sunday school teaching because, although I had been good at finding a way to talk about particular passages in away kids could understand, I could no longer do that.

 

Every one who plans worship well pays attention to the different levels of understanding, appreciation, and beliefs of the congregation. In my daughter with Down Syndrome I saw many unstudied expressions of joyful worship and wisdom.

 

The message is simple Love God; love you neighbor. My wife observes that theologians find explanations and reasons to explain why she is already doing it. Sometimes even those whose wisdom follows the KISS rule want to know that intellectuals find issues of faith important. It is enough to know that smart people think about these things or that mystics experience in a way that is not accessible to us. It affirms their own understanding of the importance of this belief system.

 

My observation is that the words we use over and over become what we believe so I think choosing "plain language" must be done carefully. At the moment I am choosing poems of Bruce Sanguin to use in worship. As I looked at the effect of them taken as a whole I realized that for the congregation who will use these in worship I will have to flatten some of the images or there will be too many times when someone will go "huh" and be distracted. So in addition to the issue of what level of abstract thought there is the issue of accessible imagery.

 

Two pastors I listened to a lot.

To stereotype the first, sermons always contained a sports illustration, a Narnia illustration, and a third, which to my mind attracted the attention of as many listeners as possible.

The second, in church of a extreme range of beliefs, always had a story or illustration that suggested but didn't say that he was on the side of the fundamentalists, another which allowed liberals to have the same experience. There was truth in both extremes that he tried to honor. In person he also worked towards reducing judgments each had about the other. His original goal of moving to a central orthodoxy (or maybe that is just what he told me :D ) was replaced by his highest value: maintaining and building community.

 

Historic confessions and other literature which are not consistent with our current understanding should not be used without framing or teaching. Again, because the words we say over and over become what we believe. If we are to make our current understandings accessible in plain language then we must do the same when we use historic confessions. The Athanasian creed is not in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions so it is new to me. And I had a strong reaction. I, personally, would be careful of how I used any of the historic Presbyterian Confessions, and would frame them as necessary.

 

For some, worship is about community and as part of the ritual the language used is interesting but not that important. For others worship is about connecting with the spirit and language as a vehicle is much more important. Worship strives to be in all languages.

 

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

 

 

 

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Dutch, as I mentioned, some of us find it easier than others to adjust the level of our language, and that has much to do with one's personal background and experiences.

That you had a daughter with Down's syndrome, it is one of the gifts that experience in your life bestowed upon you.

 

Jenell

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Jenell,

 

I think there is some correlation between education and the type of religion one practices (i.e. the more educated, the more progressive). And, there is some correlation between intelligence and education. However, there are a number of very intelligent people who are not educated and there are different forms of 'intelligence.'

 

In addition, there are other factors that motivate, or influence, the type of religion one practices (or abstain from): There are psychological and social factors that are highly influential.

 

George

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George, that is very true. That is why I stressed I am not talking about any kind of 'dumbing down' anything.

 

Such as the woman in my original post, while limited with language and academic subjects that are largely dependent on reading skills, she is obviously able to use sound reasoning in what she encountered in religion she had encountered (which was mostly fundamentalist) relative to what she can observe in real life.

 

I haven't gone into my life background in my profile, but some may be surprised to learn that my formal education in my early years was having completed the 9th grade. I was a mostly stay at home mom with 4 children. But I always read a lot. It wasn't until I was in my 50's that life circumstances were such that I was able to attend college to earn my BS, which I accomplished with an honors GPA. I think my experience in that, being able to bring into my college studies a lifetime of real life experiences to relate them to, made my experience quite different from most of my class mates of a more traditional college age group, who would begin with those studies that might help inform their life experiences that are yet ahead of them.

 

Jenell

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Btw, I have also not had the experience of attending a progressive oriented church...even the nearest I find on listings connected to this site are quite some distance from me. The communities of my family, as well as my residence all my life have been evanglical, and to a more or less degree, fundamentalist.

 

Jenell

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George, that is very true. That is why I stressed I am not talking about any kind of 'dumbing down' anything.

 

Such as the woman in my original post, while limited with language and academic subjects that are largely dependent on reading skills, she is obviously able to use sound reasoning in what she encountered in religion she had encountered (which was mostly fundamentalist) relative to what she can observe in real life.

 

I haven't gone into my life background in my profile, but some may be surprised to learn that my formal education in my early years was having completed the 9th grade. I was a mostly stay at home mom with 4 children. But I always read a lot. It wasn't until I was in my 50's that life circumstances were such that I was able to attend college to earn my BS, which I accomplished with an honors GPA. I think my experience in that, being able to bring into my college studies a lifetime of real life experiences to relate them to, made my experience quite different from most of my class mates of a more traditional college age group, who would begin with those studies that might help inform their life experiences that are yet ahead of them.

 

Jenell

 

Jenell,

 

You are not alone and I am not surprised. I didn't get to my graduate degree until age 57. But then, Kant didn't produce his best work until age 54.

 

Myron

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George wrote "I think there is some correlation between education and the type of religion one practices (i.e. the more educated, the more progressive). "

 

I've encountered this before, and personal observations have been consistent with it. Now, what I am curious about is, and wonder what you think, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

I've noted elswhere my observation of there being a definite anti-intellectualism, even anti-higher education bias within fundamentalist communties. Obviously I am one raised in that environment that bucked the standard, so to speak...but I am not entirely sure my own self whether it was an inate intellect that drove my interest in becoming more educated than most of my family, that then resulted in my being more progressive in my views, or was an early progressive tendency in my personality that drove my interest in learning, more education?

 

Jenell

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