What Ordinary People Think

Starting with a quote on Maggi Dawn, I found myself tracking down the full source of the quote on another blog, Commonplaces. It is a letter attributed to Dorothy L. Sayers, which addresses itself to what “average people” think about, and think they know about, Christianity. No specific primary source is identified in any of the places I have seen it quoted. The content, nonetheless, is worth quoting as thought-provoking discussion fodder:

The only letter I ever want to address to average people is one that says: Why don’t you take the trouble to find out what is Christianity and what isn’t? Why, when you can better yourself to learn technical terms about electricity, won’t you do as much for theology before you begin to argue?

Why do you never read either the ancient or the modern authorities in the subject, but take your information for the most part from biologists and physicists who have picked it up as inaccurately as yourselves? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as bold and constructive contributions to modern thought when any handbook on Church History would tell you where they came from?

Why do you complain that the proposition that God is three-in-one is obscure and mystical and yet acquiesce meekly in the physicist’s fundamental formula, “2P-PQ equals IH over 2 Pi where I equals the square root of minus 1,” when you know quite well that the square root of minus 1 is paradoxical and Pi is incalculable?

What makes you suppose that the expression “God ordains” is narrow and bigoted whereas the expressions “nature provides” or “science demands” are objective statements of fact?

You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you do about beliefs. I admit that you can practice Christianity without knowing much about theology, just as you can drive a car without understanding internal combustion. But if something breaks down in the car, you humbly go to the man who understands the works, whereas if something goes wrong with religion you merely throw the creed away and tell the theologian he is a liar.

Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check up on it and find out whether I am giving you a personal opinion or the Church’s doctrine. Go away and do some work.

Yours very sincerely,

Dorothy L. Sayers

Interestingly, Bible.org and Blamm! give a different version of what is clearly the same letter but altered in places, supposedly written in response to an agnostic scientist. I did some more research, and One Eternal Day seems to have a stronger link between Sayers and the version addressed to the “average person”. Presumably Sayers’ letter was edited and used for other purposes by later apologists who, perhaps because they themselves share the ignorance of theology Sayers denounces, decided to turn her accusing fingers in the direction of others.

I would have to concur that discussions of religion, like discussions of science, among non-experts, regularly reflect an appalling state of misinformation, misperception and half-truths, with no effort having been made to find anything out. I think that is the heart of the matter. What is the cure for the unwillingness of people to take responsibility for informing themselves about matters of religion, science, politics, economics, medicine, and everything else? Many of our modern ills trace themselves back to this common root, at least in part.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    “But if something breaks down in the car, you humbly go to the man who understands the works, whereas if something goes wrong with religion you merely throw the creed away and tell the theologian he is a liar.”Fantastic quote. I hve ben told by conservatives that when I say that Genesis says nothing clear babout creatio ex nihilo or that scripture regarding homosexuality doe snot speak directly to smae-sex marriage at all that I am “twisting scripture”.Atheists ironically have made the same exact argument. That I am making stuff up because I have some irrational need to make God better than he is.Funny how the third option does not come into play: I have devoted my life to careful and painstaking study of the issues and constructing a rational engagement of them which is why I came to these and other conclusions.I’ll give them this: fundamentalism is consistent. But it is consistently bad which is why is not not the default view! Strange world we live in eh?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    It is ironic that Ms Sayers does not take her own advise and consult with a scientist before claiming that using Pi is somehow mysterious because it is “incalculable.” In fact knowing Pi’s value to within a reasonable number of decimal places is quite calculable and entirely sufficient to do good engineering and science. Same with using the “imaginary number” – the square root of -1. We used this notation all the time during my Electrical Engineering education and understood it as a place holder, a convenience, that made certain calculations tractable. We did not add an Occamian agent in order to protect our fragile preconceptions but used it because its utility was provable through observation – the answer was either correct or not.It is true that “ordinary people” should not indulge in theology without some understanding and study but let us remember that humility is called for before tarring others with such a broad brush.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12438981322009430784 Tim Ricchuiti

    I’m having trouble with the link to bible.org. It simply leads to a sermon illustration page.Scott, I think this might be a case where you’re missing the forest for the trees. That π or the square root of -1 were her examples isn’t really the point. Her point is that all worlds (whether the scientific world, the physical world, spiritual world, etc.) have their kinks, those areas that are not completely understood. Many of them which we don’t give any thought to while benefiting from the systems built upon them. But somehow, theology gets held to a different standard, where something like the Trinity (admittedly, a hard concept to understand) becomes a reason for skepticism, while, to use an example she didn’t use, string theory does not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Tim, the quote from Sayers is on the ‘sermon illustrations’ page. There didn’t seem to be any way to link to that specific item on the page…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    While I agree with the basic premise that Ms Sayers points to—specifically, that people generally don’t take the time to inform themselves on a topic before commenting on it at length—I find her implication and examples to be rather inadequate. In fact they highlight another problem, one that is just as bad—i.e. the forced analogy.Scott Ferguson is essentially right to point out that neither π nor i are as mystically charged as Ms Sayers implies. (Tim is the one missing the point there, not Scott.) Appealing to the abstraction involved in contemplating string theory is not helpful either. While conceptualizing a “trinity” is an attempt to explain an abstract relationship between intangible psychological constructs, string theory is an attempt to explain observable, measurable phenomena in nature. In short, when something breaks down in my car, I humbly go to the man who understands the workings of internal combustion et.al, and hope that he/she might help me (through observation and measurement) to remedy the damage. “If something goes wrong with [my] religion” (interesting phrasing there), there is no such thing as a comparable “expert” in this case, I’m afraid. The Christian theologian is no more an expert than the Yanomamo shaman or the Haitian witchdoctor are in this respect.So while the analogy is somewhat clever, it is just one more case of comparing apples and coconuts. The thologian is not a “liar.” He/she’s just not really qualified for anything except contemplation and the occassional prescription of ritual. peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12438981322009430784 Tim Ricchuiti

    well, i don’t think i’m missing the point, obviously, but that’s neither here nor there. we could go back and forth all day on the vagaries of string theory. the broader point is that every analogy is forced if it’s pushed too far.Additionally, the Christian theologian IS an expert: in Christian theology, though, not necessarily in the pursuit of God. Sayers’ letter (or at least one of its later iterations) is addressed not to those who have a religious problem, but those who have a problem with religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16698562143972216357 Jim

    Ah ya see the problem is AKM just had the central bit and you’ve a lot more of it. ;-)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X