What does it mean to be a religious school during a period of widespread religious illiteracy? I frequently ask myself variations of this question, and I think it’s a crucial one for leaders and members of Episcopal schools to productively wrestle with.
To help me understand how we got to our current situation, not too long ago I read the book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero, a scholar in the field of Religious Studies (and an Episcopalian). Beginning with the ironic observation that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Prothero goes on to explore two main causes of religious illiteracy that are themselves religious. The first cause driving religious illiteracy, he says, is the evangelicalism that originated with the Second Great Awakening and prioritizes emotions, enthusiastic experiences, and ecumenical action at the expense of study, intellect, and doctrine. The second driving cause behind illiteracy was that liberal and conservative Christians alike partook in a general “shift from theology to morality”, or, put differently, reduced religion to ethics. As religion became dominated by emotional and moral projects, the Biblical narrative and doctrinal teachings receded from collective consciousness and understanding.
Notable for Episcopal schools, the shift from theology to morals took place most significantly within educational settings. According to Prothero, as America became more diverse and its schools started reflecting the religious plurality of the population, it became apparent that Biblical approaches, theological claims, religious doctrines, and liturgical practices are sectarian in nature and inevitably prioritize some approaches, claims, doctrines, or practices over others. It seemed easier to agree on morality than to learn, debate, and possibly unite around the particulars of theology and religion.
To my mind, this challenges each Episcopal school to be transparent about Episcopal theology, liturgy, and spiritual formation, while simultaneously honoring the plurality of religious differences among the community. This is a balancing act, to be sure; but I am convinced that retaining this tension is central to the health of a school’s religious identity.
Prothero notes that early educators made the mistake of “assuming that religion could be made generic. It cannot. Just as it is not possible to speak language in general (at any given moment, you have to pick one), it is not possible to inculcate religion in general. That is because religion in general does not exist; all that we have are specific religious expressions.” Mirroring the response to the pluralism of the 19th century, within Episcopal schools of the 21st century I often detect the temptation to prioritize what is generic and avoid or downplay the specific religious expressions, and this, I think, results in a tendency to downplay or push religious literacy and theology to the background while placing morality at the foreground of religious life within the school.
Attempting to understand or practice morality when it is separated from particular theological traditions and religious practices, however, makes a great deal of the moral world unintelligible—producing what I would call a ‘moral illiteracy.’ The morality embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is unintelligible without knowledge of his particular religious convictions and practices (his roots in African American religion, his theology of personhood, his commitment to Gandhian non-violence). While religious and moral literacy are not reducible to one another, they nevertheless need and illuminate each other—they’re complementary and mutually reinforcing. Success or failure in one area can be gauged by success and failure in the other.
To specifically be an Episcopal school during a period of widespread religious and moral illiteracy means not only expecting those within our schools to ask the great religious and moral questions of our time, it also means sharing how Episcopal theological claims, religious doctrines, Biblical approaches, and liturgical practices provide unique answers to those great questions. Exploring uniquely Episcopal answers alongside the unique answers of neighboring spiritual traditions will only make for a healthier, more robust religious and moral education. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke advised the youth to live the questions. Many stop at that inspiring ambiguity, but by exploring the answers, an Episcopal education takes the next a crucial step forward—for it is only living the question and the answers that we arrive at religious and moral literacy.
The Rev. Timothy J.S. Seamans is an Episcopal priest, author, and Associate Chaplain & member of the Religion, Ethics, & Philosophy Department at the Episcopal School of Los Angeles.