Religious Literacy: What Does That Mean?
Tomorrow (September 8) is International Literacy Day. I hope we all understand the importance of literacy and education! Several years ago, I was privileged to visit a Nazarene elementary school in Kibera, an impoverished section of Nairobi, Kenya. As I watched the teachers and their students, I was struck at how few resources they had. My reaction was, “We need to raise money and get them computers and proper educational resources!”
First, God responded: “Where are they going to plug in computers? They don’t have electricity!” Second, God said: “See how materialistic you are? The answer is not money; the answer is education – exactly what they’re doing. That will help these children grow and succeed, and transform their society.”
As a pastor, I believe that religious literacy is also important! Those who follow Jesus need to understand what he taught and what it means. I want to discuss a couple of areas of religious literacy which I think are vital to Christians. I’ll begin by addressing our understanding of Scripture. Next, I’ll deal with basic theology. Finally, I’ll reflect on why I think these areas are so important.
Religious Literacy: Familiarity with Scripture
The first area of religious literacy I want to address is familiarity with Scripture. I’m sure that familiarity with “sacred texts” is important to people of other faith traditions, but I am speaking specifically about Christian faith and the Bible. For example, as Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).
Paul identifies three basic functions of Scripture:
- Teach us what is true
- Make us realize what is wrong in our lives
- Prepare and equip God’s people to do every good work
Knowing the Truth
As followers of Jesus, we believe that there is such a thing as “truth.” We don’t get to define truth for ourselves; God has defined it for us. Consider what Jesus told his disciples about truth in his final discourse with them and his prayer for them (John 14-17):
- I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me (14:6)
- If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth (14:15-17)
- But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative – that is, the Holy Spirit – he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you (14:26)
- But I will send you the Advocate – the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me (15:26)
- When he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment (16:8)
- When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth (16:13)
- Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth (17:17-19)
Accordingly, we need to understand Scripture – God’s Word – because it is truth. Scripture is inspired by God and useful to teach us. We need to embrace that teaching!
Religious Literacy: Basic Theology
As important as Scripture is, we also need a framework to understand what it means and how to apply it. The Bible does not – indeed, could not – cover every conceivable situation that each person might face. I believe that’s why Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all the truth. The starting point is Scripture, and we must remember that the Spirit will never lead us in a way that contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. However, the Spirit does help us to “fill in the gaps.” Therefore, because the Church (the universal Church throughout history, what I refer to as the “Big C Church”) is Christ’s church, led by the Spirit, we can look at what the Church has accepted and taught to guide us as well.
In that sense, I believe that every Christian should be familiar with basic theology – what I call “Apostles’ Creed-type stuff.”
The Apostles’ Creed
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hades;
the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church universal, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
No one knows exactly when this creed was established, or how it developed. What is important is that it sets forth the basic elements of orthodox Christian faith. As such, every disciple of Jesus should be familiar with the concepts set forth in the Apostles’ Creed.
Over time, the Church further refined these beliefs. For example, the Nicene Creed (4th century) further clarified what it means to say that Jesus Christ is “God’s Son.” Additionally, it expanded the explanation of who the Holy Spirit is and what the Spirit’s ministry is. And since that time, the Church – or portions of the Church – have further discussed and sought to understand these basic elements of theology.
Religious Literacy: “One Mind and One Purpose”
History and experience tells us that disagreements, and even divisions, have been part of the Church throughout its history. As I mentioned earlier, the Bible does not specifically address every conceivable situation that a person might encounter. That means that there are opportunities for disagreement. Human beings being what we are, we take those opportunities to disagree very readily!
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul addressed conflict and division within that church. Most of us are familiar with the “Christ hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul encourages us to have “the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (2:5, NLT). The first four verses of that chapter Paul lays the groundwork for that call by challenging the Philippians to grow together. “Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose” (2:2, emphasis added).
“One mind and one purpose” does not mean that we have to agree on everything. Instead, it means that we need to remember what is important, and stay together on those things. As John Wesley taught his flock, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” We need to know what the essentials are, and insist on unity in those areas. But we also need to recognize that we will not all agree on everything, and we need to give each other freedom (liberty) in those areas. Above all, we need to love one another – that’s the “charity” that Wesley discussed.
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
How can we agree wholeheartedly with each other as Paul challenged us in Philippians 2:2? By loving one another and working together with one mind and purpose. “Religious literacy” means understanding the fundamental elements of our faith. That means that we know what Scripture says, and what it means. The Holy Spirit leads us in the truth, and works for the unity of Christ’s church. The Spirit will bring us together, just as Jesus prayed in John 17: I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me (17:21).