What Ordinary People Think

What Ordinary People Think April 10, 2008

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.

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