The graduation season is in full swing. It started a fortnight ago in St Peter’s church, when three graduation ceremonies were held: one for the P7 leavers from St Peter’s Primary School, followed by two for St Peter’s Nursery pupils. Now, across the country, university students who have completed their degrees are hiring gowns and mortar-boards in readiness for going up to receive their diplomas, which are handed to them in a decorative tube during a ceremonial gathering. Such a ceremony marks the end of a relatively carefree student life and either the beginning of a gap year (for those whose parents can afford it) or a more-or-less frantic search for a job. Only a tiny fraction of the graduates will go on to pursue a strictly academic career, and one day these will become research scientists or academic teachers and professors.
At first sight, today’s gospel seems to dismiss the value of education and knowledge. Jesus applauds the simplicity of ‘mere children’ over against ‘the learned and the clever’. It’s the former to whom God the Father reveals his mysteries; such divine knowledge remains out of reach for ‘the learned and the clever.’ There’s no shortage of Christians who consider any scientific knowledge superfluous at best, and satanic at worst. They are happy to quote a few biblical proof-texts that seem to support their narrow viewpoint. There is even a theme-park in Kentucky, built at the cost of £76million, presenting a literal interpretation of the biblical vision of the history of the Earth in opposition to common proven scientific knowledge. Funnily enough, many of those who despise modern science have no problem at all with using modern technology which was developed as a result of modern scientific discoveries. On the other hand, the attitude of some very vocal scientists is no help in reconciling science with faith. Some of these dismiss religion as redundant; others are actively hostile to religion. Paradoxically, those attitudes put them on a par with their opponents – both sides are similarly dogmatic.
The primary mistake of religious fundamentalists is their belief that their holy scriptures present the correct version of historical events, the correct description of the world we live in, and the correct set of morals. Anything and everything that isn’t in line with such vision is false. The infallibility of their holy scriptures comes from their belief that God dictated the content word by word; and God obviously cannot make even one mistake. If such a fundamentalist vision doesn’t agree with scientific facts or common knowledge – tough luck. The problem is that the holy scriptures of whatever religion are the literary product of their time, from their specific historical and cultural background, and bearing their limited or plainly mistaken understanding of how the universe works. God spoke to people through visions, happenings and chains of events; but He spoke the ‘language’ that people could understand at their particular time in history and in their particular geographical and cultural location. Ever since the holy scriptures were recorded in written form, many things have changed. Our common scientific knowledge of the universe has widened and become more correct. Technological advancement has changed our culture and our social interaction. Our perception and our understanding of the world have changed too. To many, these have created an irreconcilable conflict between faith and knowledge. Consequently, some fight senseless battles against science, while others have rejected religious beliefs as irrelevant to the modern world. In fact, such a conflict is artificial.
Jesus’ apparent condemnation of ‘the learned and the clever’ in today’s gospel isn’t directed at the educated or the wise. His reference is to those who are snooty and arrogant, whose pride and self-regard make their hearts closed to the message he brings. Jesus praises those who listen to him with open hearts and open minds, regardless of their level of education. The second part of the gospel passage makes clear what the whole point of religious belief is: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me […] and you will find rest for your souls.’ In common with the other two main monotheistic religions, Christianity provides a deeper meaning to life. It helps to make sense of sometimes senseless circumstances. Religion taken seriously can be a strong motivator to live a good life. So, if you want to know more about the physical world around us, sign up for a university course about it or read scientific papers for yourself. If you want to understand your own life better, study the Bible. Preferably, do both in tandem.