Recently in the Wisdom Circle I attend we engaged a discussion on the difference between “inflexible” and “flexible” knowledge. Inflexible knowledge is when our understanding of something is fused to the particular example by which it was first introduced. We are not yet able to think of it abstractly – or in other words, apart from its concrete instantiation.
Flexible knowledge is achieved when we’ve reached an understanding of the principles informing this and conceivably all examples of the same type.
Needless to say, education needs to be committed to helping people move from inflexible to flexible knowledge in any subject. Thankfully the normal progression in brain development unfolds through a “concrete operational” stage and opens a capacity for “formal operations” and abstract reasoning by the second decade.
And yet, there are plenty of us adults whose knowledge of a subject is oddly inflexible, given the direction our brains would otherwise have us go. I could pick any number of subjects, but as it is one of my favorites in this blog, let’s consider religion.
Probably most people I know hold an inflexible knowledge of religion.
- This may be due to the fact that their only exposure to it was back in childhood, and then only on holidays and special occasions. Now as adults they still consider religion (in this case, Christianity) through the filter of what church was like for them back then.
- Or perhaps in their younger years they were victims of religious abuse – made to feel guilty, depraved, and hell-bound unless they submitted to church authority and “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” It wasn’t possible to get out fast enough, but they left with the impression of religion – again, this religion, this particular church – as repressive, judgmental, and narrow-minded.
- And then it’s possible that their inflexible knowledge of religion is more than anything else a symptom of our modern admiration of science and secular interests. Science set us free from superstition, magical thinking, and metaphysical nonsense. All of that is religion, and we’re better off without it. Not some early or traumatic exposure, in other words, but really a lack of exposure whatsoever: just religion in general, thrown under a categorical gloss as pre-modern and culturally irrelevant.
I don’t dispute the claim that much of religion today is irrelevant. The various examples of religion we see around us do indeed appear stuck in tradition and wedded to worldviews millennia out of date. But does this mean that religion itself is obsolete?
Let’s go back to the critical distinction made above. Could it be that the widespread negative opinion on religion held by most people I know is itself a product and feature of inflexible knowledge? Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you hold such an opinion. For you, religion is a hopeless tangle of pre-scientific notions, irrational fears, abusive authority, worn-out convictions, and otherworldly distractions – made up, let us say, of just these five threads.
Here are some questions for you to consider.
On how many separate occasions were you confronted by all five threads of religion, as you are defining it? Maybe you think that one exposure to abusive authority was enough! I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed. But is it rational (or fair) to conclude from your one negative exposure that nothing of genuine value is to be found there?
Maybe you had numerous exposures to the same abuse in that church. Still, is it reasonable for you to transfer your indictment from that particular church to its parent religion, and from there to all religions, even to religion itself?
Through how many facets of religion were you confronted by all five of these threads? Examples of what I mean by an angle (or facet) would include sacred ceremony, theological instruction, moral codes, social structure, orthodox beliefs, devotional practices, and mystical experience.
Each angle of exposure renders a unique impression of what a religion is about. Has your experience of religion been multifaceted or more narrow in focus? If more narrow, is it rational of you to inflate one facet into a representation of this religion as a whole – and again, of all religions and even religion itself?
How many different kinds of religion have you experienced, or even carefully studied? If you had a negative experience once, or even many times in a single religion (say the Christian church of your youth), is it logical for you to conclude that churches of other Christian denominations, or faith communities of other non-Christian religions are the same?
Exposure to a wider variety of religions forces open the conceptual frame by which you define one religion or another – unless, of course, you are ready to take just your example as “religion,” dismissing all the others as something else. But how reasonable is that?
How far under the surface features of religion have you gone, in any kind of intellectually disciplined analysis? By deeper elements I mean not only the more esoteric notions (i.e., reserved for those on the inside) and historically formative material that makes each religion unique, but (deeper still) the intuitions of presence, ground, unity, and mystery – the source-experience of religion itself.
Such intuitions may be mediated and expressed through a religion’s symbol system, but their direct experience is spontaneous and ineffable (beyond words). A disciplined analysis can break into a myth, for instance, in order to contemplate its root metaphors. But these, rather than taken literally (which by definition amounts to a denial of depth), are followed to the edge of mystery and finally released for the direct experience itself.
You can be said to possess a flexible knowledge of religion when (1) you’ve had numerous exposures to a single religion (2) from several distinct angles; when (3) you have participated across a wide variety of different religions, and successfully (4) penetrated its surface to the present mystery of reality, to the ground of your own being where all is one.
With those qualifications in place, we can now pick up our dialogue on religion.