We know we are here but we don’t know where here is

By , 2 January 2009 9:01 pm

First of all, a happy New Year to all my readers, wherever you are. I trust that 2009 is going to be a year of blessing, at least spiritually (if in no other area) for you.

I am preaching on Sunday night at our church and am giving the first in what is probably going to be a monthly series on Christ in the Old Testament. It is actually far more than just ‘fulfilled predictions’ and the like, but about some of the great themes such as Prophet, Priest and King. Thinking about it I have recognised a problem that I have come across with my students in a totally secular context.

The background is this. Alerted to something of a general failure to answer a vaguely mathematical problem I asked my students this question. ‘If you had to buy a cupboard for your bedroom, what units would you measure it in?’ The answer was – as I expected – centimetres. I then followed up with a second question: how far is Swansea from Cardiff? The answer – as I feared – was ‘about 40 miles’. ‘I see,’ I said. ‘Can anybody tell me how many metres there are in a mile?’ No one knew. The sorry point that had emerged was of a completely dysfunctional measurement system. They had no real way (at least in a strictly mathematical one) of understanding how things related to each other.

I suspect this phenomenon is far more widespread. Our A level history course results in students only knowing about three elements. If I’m correct they are: Nazi Germany, the French Revolution and a part of 19th century Britain. Only the latter unit covers more than two decades. So you can get a grade A without any knowledge of any other time period and without knowing whether the American War of Independence occurred under Henry III or George III. The problem goes beyond education: with the aid of GPS it is all too easy to find out with utter precision where you are. The only trouble is you don’t really know what that answer means because you have no real concept of regional geography. I have invented the phrase ‘We know we are here but we don’t know where here is’, nevertheless I think it reflects very well the problem. To coin a word, it is the googlisation of knowledge. We have accurate but atomised fragments of information and we do not know how they relate to each other.

Incidentally I do not entirely blame the settlers of syllabi, the Internet, GPS or Google because I think it is also connected with the postmodern mindset. Our local museum has become very trendy and has scattered the formerly systematic layout of knowledge into thousand splintered shards of information so that apparently random facts about population mingle uneasily with images of industry and observations on botany. It’s all very clever but …

Taken like this can see you how it applies to my sermon series? Our congregations know bits and pieces. These facts are not in themselves fallacious but the problem lies in the way that they are not connected in any real systematic manner. This fragmentation of knowledge is enormously problematic. It makes any sort of logical defence of the gospel difficult, it torpedoes a consistent morality (you cannot argue from first principles because there are none) and it opens the door to making decisions on emotion alone. The cults – and Hell – must be very pleased.

So my challenge this year is to try to hold things together into some sort of consistent pattern. Long live systematics in whatever part of our lives, but particularly in the area of belief.

3 Responses to “We know we are here but we don’t know where here is”

  1. Christian Artists Ministry says:

    Hello Chris,

    The nature of intelligence is such a great topic, but like any subject, can often get bogged down with theory, philosophical musings, and faulty intellectualism. Ironic that our very ability to be sentiently intelligent, ends up creating so many problems with brain-power gone awry (which could be attributed to the problem of the sin nature).

    However, I do agree with your cause for concern over the current troubled intellectual climate in humanity. Perhaps the biggest barrier to being “smart” is that it takes a lot of work! The university – while perhaps not the institution of higher learning it once was – still can foster an environment of mental stimulation should the student take it upon themselves to be aware of the learning environment they are in. However, most of the time, the student questions why they need to learn a particular field of study, and thus opts to do as little as possible to make a passing grade. This, combined with the social delights offered in abundance with students free from parental authority – and eager to prove their newfound freedom – most often creates graduates who know how to perform an occupation, but not truly think for themselves.

    And then these adults – who now feel the stresses and frustrations of employment – have become too wearied by their work to learn anything of true use when they arrive home. Perhaps it’s retirement age, when people can have a lifetime of experience under their belt, that they have the time to once again learn.

    But in my humble opinion, this seems to correlate directly with Christians who suffer the same problem. While we do benefit from seeing reality through a different perspective, we still carry the burden of living in a self-saturated world. It’s too much work to read out Bible, and there’s too many entertaining distractions to sink our wearied minds into! But oh the difference it makes when one actually takes the time to think, discover, read, and discuss! And yes, I’ve read my Bible all the way through, discussed what it says with fellow Christians, and can attest to the fact that it makes a big difference in how this living literature is viewed!

  2. badwlf says:

    My first personal confrontation with the “fragmentation” of Christian knowledge came in 10th grade when I engaged in a bible study on the book of Genesis. I loved finally seeing all of my Sunday School, felt board, Bible Story characters coming together in a chronological way. That was a defining moment for me in terms of understanding Scripture and faith.
    This past year, I have been taking two Church History classes. In the introduction of the textbook, the author mentions how so many modern Christians are disconnected from their history and therefore the very foundations of their faith. It seems the devout may know something of the first century church, but then there is a big black hole until we get to the modern church. I agree that it is so important (in many areas) to have a “big picture” point of view. Perhaps what makes post modern thinking such an enemy to faith is this “compartmentalized” point of view. Here I’d like to point out the silver lining. I don’t believe this fragmentation is natural, and once an individual begins to see things come together there is an excitement and hunger for more understanding. And then, the pendulum will begin its journey back…

  3. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    Badwlf: What books are you using for your Christian history course? I took one a few years back that the book was Excellent for, so I kept it.

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