The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity

Posted on by Brooke

In which conventional wisdom is suspected to smoothly glove a muscled hand at the throat: a constructed justification for hoarding knowledge as power.

Are the Bible-blogging church-type educators among my readers reading Anastasia? And if not, why not?
It’s the same way I feel when people at church assure me that no one is interested in learning theology. My question is always the same. Has anyone tried it? Did we run a class like the one I’m proposing and had it flop?

The answer is no. No one has tried it because everyone already *knows* it isn’t going to work.

Oddly enough, the people telling me this are invariably interested. I would love it, they say. But no one else would.

This means my experience of people is exactly contrary to the received wisdom. I get cornered in the parish hall for conversations about theology—when people aren’t too afraid of me, I have to add—on a fairly regular basis. My experience is that people want to know these things. They just don’t know where to start.

Last week’s raft of graduates included a handful of students whom I had had together in “Introduction to the Old Testament.” During one session, as a result of a particular student’s deft handling of Jonathan Culler, they had an amazing conversation about the fact that many seeming concrete things—sexuality, the middle class, race—are invented social constructs. They discovered that, if “everyone knows” something to be true or real, then that thing especially needs to be pried up and dragged to the middle of the floor where the cat can sniff it. All conventional wisdom invites a hermeneutic of suspicion.

And finally—and this is why I am so excited about Anastasia’s post—these students aimed that insight at the “conventional wisdom” about Teh Seminary Book-Larnin’: “everybody knows” that our congregations don’t really want to hear about all thish-yere stuff we learn in these rooms. Except, when you ask around, lots and lots of us have experienced adult learners in the church as intellectually curious and patient of new ideas.

So: whose interests are served by this myth of the incurious laity? Some group who would be inconvenienced by an intelligent, knowledge-hungry mob of adult learners? Who prefer the unidirectional dispensing of approved perspectives to the unpredictable results of informed collaborative construction? Until such a group can be identified, we can assign them some meaningless cipher as a label; let’s just call them, floverly-controlling, flower-grasping, flinsecure fleaders in the flurch.

Example: I recall a student who dismissed all documentary hypotheses of the Pentateuch as “elitist.” He argued that all such inquiry was a fine “brain exercise” for those who enjoy higher education, but that there was no way he was going to inflict it on the “general public” in his care because they would only be “confused” and “outraged.” Clearly, he saw it as part of his ministry to

  1. enjoy the power bestowed upon him by the structures of accredited higher education and ordination, and to

  2. exercise that power to paternalistically keep the lay people in his care ignorant of such facts he judged they might initially experience as disorienting.

In other words, he didn’t see that he embodied the elitism he decried, and that he depends on that not-seeing to justify his exercise of paternalistic power. Seminary educators will recognize this stance as common. The “conventional wisdom of the incurious laity” serves the interest of those who see knowledge and power as a scarce resource to be hoarded among an elite, empowered ruling class. To challenge that conventional wisdom may be to challenge an oligarchical model of clergy and power. “The facts will set you free.”

[The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/05/20. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]