Secular Religion: Religion and 360 degrees of knowledge

by phil on Monday Jan 5, 2009 2:36 AM
secular religion

I have a strange feeling that The Purpose-Driven Life is very much a career self-help book. While Rick Warren states early on that it isn't a self-help book, you could replace the word "purpose" with "career" in the text, and the book would still mostly make sense. This thought came to me when I read this sentence in the chapter titled, "You Are Not An Accident:"

He [God] also determined the natural talents you would possess and the uniqueness of your personality.

This sounds like Rick Warren is sneaking in advice from career consulting canon. Career self-help books often talk about finding your "signature talents." In The Pathfinder, Nicholas Lore emphasizes that while you can train yourself to be good at delivering speeches, if it doesn't come naturally to you, you shouldn't form a career based on public speaking. And in What Color Is Your Parachute?, Nelson Bolles spends a lot of time helping you find out what your favorite transferable skills are by looking at pre-existing stories where your skills flourished. Other career self-help books focus on Carl Jung's typology theory, which sort of assumes that we have a fixed, God-given personality.

I don't fault Rick Warren for, intentionally or not, including career self-help into his book. A major part of my motivation to read The Purpose-Driven Life has been to help me with my career-search techniques. I had started 2008 off with reading The Pathfinder and What Color Is Your Parachute?, and I felt that they were helping to change my life. At the end of 2008, though, I still didn't have myself fully squared away with what I want to do career-wise. I felt I had exhausted all other options. This made me wonder if I had some other blind spots in my knowledge. And one potential weak spot could be my religious development. That's part of why I considered trying The Purpose-Driven Life.

Now, if I'm going to dabble in religion like that, I must somehow believe there's treasure there. Given religion's massive adoption rates in the world, it seems silly for me to write it off completely. At the very least, it should be one tool out of many I use to navigate life.

How did I come to think that there might be gold in religion? It may turn out that a small comment from The Autobiography of Malcolm X will be what ultimately triggered my recent interest. In the book, Malcolm X mentions that the secular man has thirty-three degrees of knowledge, while as the religious man has more, and Allah has 360. Although in actuality Malcolm X said "white man" not "secular man," the big picture of the idea is meaningful to me: the quantity of our knowledge isn't as important as the type of knowledge we have.

This idea also relates to our contemporary attitudes toward academia. On one end of the spectrum, academics could be evaluated as being the end-all be-all wisemen of the world, the ones who should provide the "right" answers at the decision-making table. On the other end of the spectrum, academics could be valued as secluded bookworms, like how monks have been treated for two millennia. At the zenith of their valuation, they are wise professors. At the valley, they are lowly scholars. In the current state of our culture wars, the Christian Right is trying to diminish our dependence on academia. They constantly ridicule the secular liberal elite of academics. And maybe they're gaining ground in the culture wars. It's seeming more-and-more in vogue to go on a religious missionary rather than join a secular "study-abroad" program.

What kinds of knowledge are really important for living well? Maybe the best knowledge comes from experience. Obama would disagree with that statement. Maybe it comes from a great character. There are certainly some people who seem to go through life's basic rites with aplomb, doing things well the first time: they handled their first relationship well, it didn't take them long to find a career, their first marriage lasts forever, and their children are raised well. The ranking could go from those who never learn from their mistakes, to those who eventually learn through repeated trial-and-error, and then to those who don't seem error-prone at all. Finding out what the difference is between those types of people could probably be the most important knowledge we could have.

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