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Letter: Intelligence and religion are not incompatible

From Sam Vicchrilli, Salt Lake City, UT:

As much as I typically despise letters to the editor, I would like to write a few words to you about your blog on "The Da Vinci Code."

I have not read Brown's book. I read the first several chapters and thought the writing was pedestrian and the mystery too obviously teased out. There is a stack of books I wish to read before returning to that bit of fiction. But I have heard about the book endlessly from my mother who adores it. We are Mormon. While it has not deterred our religiosity (rather it drove us to the bible for clarification on doctrinal points), I can understand why Christians around the world are questioning themselves due to this piece of pulp fiction. I think part of it is that they are unaware of what the bible says and how it was put together, as you have suggested. Moreover, I think most people are not very bright to begin with.

I wonder what you think of me as a practicing, believing Mormon. I wonder if you think I am not very bright. I have read the bible and the Book of Mormon several times, and prefer the former. Perhaps this is because the King James translation carries Shakespearean qualities. However, I am confused by large portions of it. Such as when God sends bears to kill children, a prophet seduced by his daughter, a talking ass, and Esau's father being duped into giving away his birthright. I am, as Anthony Burgess alluded to, a Christian who finds his intellect getting in the way. I simply make do as a student of the allegedly divine.

So I am one who has, to some extent, researched his religion (and others) and I feel that Mormonism is a good place for me to be. Being Mormon has supplied me with many worthwhile principles that I do not know I would have otherwise acquired. My mind has been quickened at times. I have been able to understand concepts - felt them penetrate my mind and heart - and later not been able to duplicate my momentarily profound understanding. And so on. I will not dwell on why I am Mormon because I doubt it interests you. Here is my point. And it runs parallel to yours:

A good rule of thumb is to never get quotes from large book of quotes. The problem being, it is always being taken out of its context.

Case in point: Many folks use the phrase "a little learning is a dangerous thing" to advise people not to get educated (or read books that question the status quo) based on the idea that it will upset the balance of their life. In religious communities, this means higher education will eat your faith the way worms will eventually eat your body. I once took a course in World Religions and was advised by the professor that nothing he was going to say should shake us from our religious foundations. "If so," he said, "Your faith wasn't worth a damn to begin with." That is right. The Alexander Pope quote "a little learning is a dangerous thing" is followed by "drink deep." This means to only know a little is dangerous because you don't see the whole image - you don't know enough to act. In my experience, people who learn a little think they know close to everything. If you've ever had a very basic college philosophy class you know what I'm talking about. I pity those that automatically buy into the first radical/unusual thought they stumble upon. (Few people are more unbearable than first year college students - I was one of them.) I write this to debunk the stigma that religiosity and intelligence are incompatible. People convinced out of their faith by a conflicting school of thought simply have not investigated deeper, or did not have much of a faith to begin with. "The Da Vinci Code" is hardly an intelligent piece of work, but because it seems so, that is enough to derail the uneducated.

Dear Sam:

No, I don't think you are "not very bright" because you are Mormon. Your articulate letter demonstrates you are both educated and intelligent. I agree with you: I have never been so certain that I knew everything as when I was about 15 to 17. The more you know, as they say, the more you realize you don't know, doubt and openness being essential components of any kind of knowledge or wisdom. Part of what I have been trying to get at, in my roundabout way, is narrowly addressed to those who claim to base their faith on a literal reading of the bible. It's better articulated in this interview with the great Karen Armstrong (author of the terrific book "A History of God") at Salon.com:

KA: The trouble is that we define our God too closely. In my book "A History of God," I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said you couldn't think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God....

You're saying these ancient sages really didn't care about big metaphysical systems. They didn't care about theology.

No, none of them did. And neither did Jesus. Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians. He went around doing good and being compassionate. In the Quran, metaphysical speculation is regarded as self-indulgent guesswork. And it makes people, the Quran says, quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. You can't prove these things one way or the other, so why quarrel about it? The Taoists said this kind of speculation where people pompously hold forth about their opinions was egotism. And when you're faced with the ineffable and the indescribable, they would say it's belittling to cut it down to size. Sometimes, I think the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious.

Unreligious? Like talk about a personal God?

Yes, people very often talk about him as a kind of acquaintance, whom they can second-guess. People will say God loves that, God wills that, and God despises the other. And very often, the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with those of the speaker.

Yet we certainly see a personal God in various sacred texts. People aren't just making that up.

No, but the great theologians in Judaism, Christianity and Islam say you begin with the idea of a god who is personal. But God transcends personality as God transcends every other human characteristic, such as gender. If we get stuck there, this is very immature. Very often people hear about God at about the same time as they're learning about Santa Claus. And their ideas about Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God remains infantile.

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