Wakey Wakey.
reveille precedes revelation

How did you learn what you know?

I think it’s pretty much general consensus in our culture today that part of growing up means evaluating different things that people have told you and making your own decisions about what you believe, who you are, what you’ll do, and who you’ll become. It’s general consensus, I think, because in a lot of ways, that’s what actually happens. Especially in our culture, there’s so much choice about what careers to pursue, what values to own, etc. It’s an essential doctrine: When you grow up, you’re supposed to think for yourself.
On the other hand, in another sense, it’s not really what happens in real life. We’re surrounded by values that we pick up on that help us decide what things are acceptable to believe, things that are unacceptable to become, things that are esteemed, and things that are not. Even the rebels among us usually tend to gravitate towards communities that validate the decisions they made. And most times, people rebel not because they reject the purported values of the system, but because the system is perceived to be hypocritical. Lots of anarchists, for example, rebel against democracy because they see democracy as not protecting individual freedom. But most anarchists don’t live in anarchy; they grew up learning to value individual freedom because they grew up in democracies. This doesn’t mean that the anarchists are wrong and the democrats are right, it just means that we all learn our values from somewhere. In addition, we don’t do all our learning as kids and all of a sudden we start thinking for ourselves as adults. Our thinking and decision-making is in dialogue with the people around us. Our thinking needs material to work with, and so thinking for oneself can’t really happen in a vacuum.

I think this is all fairly obvious, I’m guessing no one is going to argue with me about the above. “It’s takes a village to raise a child” rings about as true as the idea that taking the less-traveled road is an ennobling thing.

So what’s to discuss? Well, perhaps we all assent to the idea that our surroundings shape us. We agree that the influences around us can provide us good things as well as bad things, and we know we wouldn’t be able to think ourselves if people hadn’t been around to teach us how to think. I’m not sure though, we always remember these truths when we are thinking, though. By default, we’re often under the illusion that we’re thinking for ourselves. We don’t necessarily give credit where credit’s due; we don’t always take time to evaluate our predjudices. In light of that, it may be valuable to discuss:

How did you learn what you know? Who was a significant person in your life? For good or bad, what’s an event that shaped how you act, what you decided to do with your life, or how you view the world?

And if that’s not enough to talk about, how about this–

What’s one decision that you made that you feel was truly your own?

See you on the boards, or at Gray’s this Thursday night! We’ll be upstairs this month.

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4 Responses to “How did you learn what you know?”

  1. Sorry I missed the meeting! I bet it was fun.

    Interesting topic. You’re right: it’s difficult to argue against the obvious. We all are a product of at least four things: what we are taught by those individuals who we deem authoritative (our microculture), the influences of our particular society (our macroculture), our life experiences, and *some* genetic predisposition. These things blend, interact, and produce our respective worldviews. As such, our worldviews are always in flux (though some resist change more than others). I guess I’m of the opinion that when you stop learning, you stop changing; so those so dogmatically set in their ways that they will no longer consider any new evidence or arguments not only tend to be hypercritical but hypocritical as well.

    What we learn as children most definitely impacts our worldview as adults probably more than anything else. In fact, as we get older, I would argue that it becomes more and more difficult to dislodge and dispense of (or even *challenge* for that matter) false beliefs. The older we get, it takes more and more effort to even get into a mindset to question or re-evaluate beliefs held since childhood (placed there by someone in authority in our lives in most cases). For this reason, I think we need to be very careful about what and how we teach our children. Certain aspects of religious belief come to mind, but not just religious belief, of course.

    As for me, I was raised a Southern Baptist, went to a Southern Baptist college, a Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville, KY), and spent almost 20 years in the pastoral ministry. But over the years, I began to finally question certain presuppositions and assumptions — questions that bugged me for a long time but were salved with Christian apologetics (arguments for the validity of the Christian faith). In fact, Christian apologetics became a passion of mine and I was well-read on even the most technical and highly educated Christian thinkers (ones that lay-people don’t hear about because they write on graduate levels). Still, certain questions plagued me from time to time. Those questions arose primarily from my own reasoning since I have always been one to anaylze the daylights out of things…and when I come upon an impasse, it drives me batty to hang onto an answer about which I have serious doubts. Finally, about 6 or 7 years ago, while still in the ministry, I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore and began reading and studying certain topics that were considered taboo in evangelical circles. I read my eyes out. And the more I read, the more amazed I was at how much information I had been “protected” from by the confessional circles in which I had spent most of my life. Books on various aspects of science (from biological evolution to quantum physics to cosmology, etc.), psychology, biblical scholars that I had formerly considered “too liberal” to even consider, I read and struggled and read and struggled and read and struggled. Throughout that process, I experienced emotions ranging from terrific fear to release and liberation to rage to absolute elation. Talk about feeling schizo!

    I am no longer in the ministry (got out a few years ago) and now an executive director for the American Red Cross in South Central Wisconsin (a humanistic kind of ministry?). I’m agnostic in many respects (hence the screen name!), and still reading as much as I can. I believe people should read credible authors on both sides of an issue as much as possible and decide where you stand…but always be open to changing your mind if the evidence seems to shift. That’s the way science operates, and it has worked amazingly well since its birth during the Enlightenment and subsequent evolution.

    If you read all this, you must really be bored! 🙂

  2. I would say that agnosticus articulated an accurate statement of “How we learned what we know” in his first paragraph. I would add to it something more valuable in asking “Why do you think the way you think?” I think most people if you look at their “world view” it is almost always an expression of the compilation of years of what the media has placed in their subconscious. I really don’t think that most people ever do think. I am accused of thinking to much. I hear people say things like “The evidence is not there for me to believe in Christ” Well I say that opinion is an acceptable thing to say in any belief that a person is thinking of holding to be true.

    There are a couple points that I finally came to realize in regards to the Christian faith. Did you ever stop and think about the Pharisees and Saducees in the Bible? Here was Jesus healing people right before their eyes and they killed him anyway. In the book of Acts when the lame man was healed and everyone saw it they threatened the Apostles to not talk about Jesus anymore. So to the person that says there is not enough evidence I would have to say that no matter how much evidence there is, as a human being you have the ability to not believe the evidence. One thing that has not changed is that people will do what they want regardless of what the scientific evidence says. One thought on apologetics. Let us imagine it is 1865. I am a preacher and I am reading the book of revelations. I find in there the part that states that when the two witnesses rise from the dead, the whole world will see it. It took 6 weeks for news of Lincoln’s death to reach to whole United States and here is the Bible saying something is going to happen in Jerusalem and the whole world will see it. 142 years ago the communications we have were unthinkable. Now lets say that as I read it I get confused because I deem that to be totally impossible. If I fall away from Christ due to my lack of faith in his word then is the fault with God or Me? I am not saying that it is that simple but if you start looking for a reason to believe something you can find somebidy who wrote a book who agrees with you.

    Well this is way to much typing. It is my opinion that anyone who falls away from Christ either A. Never knew him. OR B. Never spent enough time with him. Many Christians are more concerned about the “things” of Christianity than they are with the “Christ” of Christianity.

  3. Wow, I leave the country for a little while and all kinds of interesting stuff is said! I love how both of you wrote all this fascinating stuff and then are like “wow, so boring” or “I type too much”. Oh wait. I do that too.

    Anyway, so much to unpack!

    Agnosticus, I really think your story brings up such an interesting part of the idea that we are shaped by our surroundings. Our surroundings growing up not only provide inputs about what to believe, they also put boundaries around what we’d even consider. Sometimes this is for good reason–the self isn’t this unyieldingly fluid thing, people have beginnings and endings, and there just isn’t time to consider all the alternatives. A community can decide certain alternatives aren’t worth taking seriously (sometimes with good reason), and so the community’s conversation surrounds certain topics and leaves off other topics. But that’s not really what you’re talking about–you’re talking about the way your community drew a line around all kinds of topics that were considered “unsafe”. In that case, the boundaries around what you’re allowed to consider as a member of your former community were there–well, maybe to protect people’s power structures?

    As a Christian, I have a hard time with this kind of faith. The kind of Christian who draws lines around what lines of inquiry are forbidden vs. what lines of inquiry are ok (a.) cuts conversation off with a whole segment of his/her neighbors and (b.) betrays a lack of belief that all truth belongs to God.

    I’m not saying that every Christian should have a solid handle on the human genome and Freud’s theory of wish-fulfillment to be faithful to God. I am saying that Christian communities don’t need to be afraid of reading books. And when I say “communities”, I do mean communities–academic communities, churches, online communities, etc. I grew up with a community that taught me what to believe and instructed me in the life of this community. As I got older and started being exposed to ideas outside my faith, a lot of my own wrestling was by myself–many dark nights of the soul, off and on, from my childhood until now. But most of the stuff I take with me–the things that I feel are truly wise that I believe now–these were given to me by books I’ve read, professors I’ve known, wise folks who are older than me, my wife Emmylou, friends I share life with–people inside and outside my faith community.

    Anyway, agnosticus, your intellectual journey is so interesting, but it strikes me as a bit solitary in the end. Even if we come to different conclusions about many issues (I’m guessing), I’d enjoy chatting some time, if you have the time, to hear more about the road you took.

  4. Lawmar, you had some interesting things to say too. I’m glad you’re back. First, though, I think I’ll rib you a little for your third paragraph and remind you of rule 2–respect is necessary. You may have drawn conclusions about why people walk away from Christianity, but you’re kind of going out on a limb applying them to someone you haven’t met, who’s story you haven’t really gotten to know. Even if you’re right, I doesn’t feel like you’re making any true attempt to understand, and that will probably result in you not being fully understood.

    At the same time, your conclusions in the same paragraph have an interesting idea behind them–there’s the facts of a worldview, and there’s a life lived within a worldview. To me, conversations about evidence are important. There are a million placebos out there that make people feel good but can’t really be defended. On the other hand, conversations about evidence alone really don’t lead to much understanding about why the other person believes what they do. Investigating a worldview on the basis of evidence alone probably won’t provide enough push for me to switch worldviews. And looking at evidence alone, when I’m doubting my own worldview, doesn’t really provide much reason to stay if there’s something compelling outside.

    Beyond evidence, there’s the life lived in the worldview. I’m a Christian for a lot of historical reasons. The evidence is important to me. But I also believe in Christ because he answers prayers, and because Bible reading provides a lot of comfort when God seems far off, and He doesn’t seem to hear my prayers. When I’m not spending time with Christ, the historical evidence seems shakier. When I am, it seems stronger. When I’m trying to understand my neighbor, I can have a caricature of their worldview based on some of the facts of what they believe and the arguments that generally are used to support their view. Or I can understand them at a deeper level–what motivates them, what they value, what they hate–and even if I’m not convinced that what they believe is true, it’s at least more plausible to me, and I’ve made a friend.

    Yay, thanks for keeping things interesting during my absence, guys.


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