Most drivers have no idea what happens when they turn the key in their car’s ignition. They don’t know how turning the key makes the car move. They don’t understand the battery’s role in the process, or the operation of the starter motor or how it engages the engine and “turns it over.” Nor do they know how the engine makes the wheels turn at varying speeds.
Most drivers don’t understand these things, but most mechanics do. And I, for my part, want my mechanic to understand how a car operates so that he can repair mine when it needs it. I also want my pilot to understand the basic principles of aerodynamics, my doctor to understand the musculoskeletal system of the body and my broker to understand the stock market.
An understanding of the why’s and how’s of any discipline is essential to one’s success in that discipline, and this is no less true of religion than it is of auto mechanics. Yet millions of people practice religion without having even a basic understanding of it.
A person who doesn’t understand how or why his beliefs function in real life is at a terrible disadvantage when it comes to putting those beliefs into action. He or she will likely find a substitute – ritual or right answers or emotional exhilaration – to fill the place of understanding.
Now ritual is a useful tool for those who understand the realities that underlie it, but it is no substitute for understanding. Having the right answers to theological questions is important, but even right answers cannot replace a working knowledge of how faith operates in life.
Because people who lack a basic understanding of their religion don’t know where it is leading, they often rely on their feelings to guide them. But while emotions are a good and helpful companion on the road of life, they are a lousy guide. They have no sense of direction.
People who lack a working knowledge of the faith are often reactive rather than proactive. They may be “zealous for God,” to borrow the Apostle Paul’s words, “but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Because they don’t know how to persuade those who disagree with them, they persecute them. They’re ready for a fight but they’re not ready to be a friend.
People who don’t understand why they believe what they believe are likely to leave the faith when things get tough. They “have no root,” as Jesus put it. “They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” Leaders who substitute emotionalism or doctrinal correctness or entertainment for understanding do themselves and the churches they lead a great disservice.
The Bible places heavy emphasis on the value of understanding. The letter known as First John, short as it is, has no fewer than 32 references to knowledge. The biblical writers considered the possession of a “full knowledge” or a “complete understanding” of who God is and what he wants to be essential to a life well lived.
The great evangelist Paul was not satisfied simply to win converts. He wanted his converts’ faith to be characterized by insight and understanding. He expected their love to “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” He prayed that they would have sufficient “wisdom and understanding” to cooperate with God’s actions in the world.
As far as St. Paul was concerned, a clear understanding of the faith was not an option. It was a necessity. More than that, it was a treasure. He describes it as “the full riches of complete understanding.” His great co-worker, the Apostle Peter, also prized the knowledge of God. He considered it the channel through which comes everything a person needs to live a good life.
Christianity’s emphasis on knowledge and understanding should not surprise us, since its greatest commandment is to love God “with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength.” What should surprise us is the lack of understanding that characterizes so much of the twenty-first century church, and our seeming acquiescence to that state.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 19, 2014