Socrates wasn’t a big fan of books. In fact, he was pretty much anti-written language. Due in part to his own deep investment in oral culture and the development of the mind that accompanied deep conversation, he feared the dumbing down of people. He argued that you could “know” something by reading it that you didn’t truly understand. After all, if you can simply read it, what impetus drives you to think through it?
He had a good point. You’ve likely read, and possibly even remembered to some extent, information that you didn’t completely understand. You may even have spit it out for someone else in conversation or on a test. We call this “regurgitation;” teachers consider it to reflect the least complicated (and least valuable) form of knowledge possible.
I recently discovered this tidbit from history through Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. This sentence ties up Socrate’s fears into a neat little package:
Socrates warned us against a society of decoders of information, whose false sense of knowing distracts them from a deeper development of their intellectual potential.
This brings me to the aka of my title. I have experienced first, second, and third hand the challenge of getting “Sunday School answers” to difficult questions as both a leader and follower at times. (As a side note, I have attended Sunday School for most of my life, taught Sunday School at times, and have no bias against Sunday School as one tool for spiritual formation.)
That said, the term “Sunday School answers” is rarely used with a positive connotation. Generally, these are the simplistic answers– the ones that may bring a nod from a teacher in the classroom but fail to stand up to the scrutiny of real life. In that sense, they are the type of knowledge that Socrates feared; they give the illusion of knowledge without the thought and understanding that true comprehension demands.
For example, consider an “easy” question: How do we know that God loves us? Sunday School answer: We know that God loves us because He sent His only begotten son, Jesus, to die for us.
Is it correct? Absolutely! Can it be regurgitated without a life-changing, surrender-inducing understanding of the love of God and the sacrifice of the Father and Son on the cross? Quite easily, yes.
So what is the answer? Should we quit reading, and return to an oral culture? To accept that solution, if it were possible, would be to deny the great progress allowed by the record of knowledge over the past two millennia. Instead, discipline is required to wrestle with the implications of what we read. Similarly, discipline is required to wrestle with the implications of the simple-but-deep truths of Jesus. You can pass a theology test and not be changed; Sunday School answers do not insure salvation.
Instead, let’s walk as children of light, taught by the Holy Spirit to live the new life of love. It’s harder than just answering the questions correctly, but it’s much more satisfying, too. Finally, may our easy access to scripture not become a crutch that allows us to be readers but not doers of the Word.