Three Key Words Today’s Experts Can’t Seem to Say

One of my heroes–or heroines, I should say–in the field of New Testament studies is Morna Hooker. She served as the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge from 1976-1998 and, if memory serves, is professor emerita. While I was pursuing a degree there, she often attended the various seminars and occasional lectures at the divinity school, and at the tea times that followed these events she graciously endured my benighted questions and often redirected the course of my studies away from the rocks of truly remarkable stupidity.

Known especially for her work on the Gospel of Mark, in her discussion of the probable location in which the gospel was written, after considering and critiquing various proposals ancient and modern, she offers–rather wryly, I suspect–her own assessment: “All we can say with certainty, therefore, is that the gospel was composed somewhere in the Roman Empire – a conclusion that scarcely narrows the field at all!”

This is Hooker’s wonderful way of saying three key words that “experts” today (in all manner of fields) say far too rarely, if at all:

Morna Hooker

“I don’t know.”

Hooker’s answer, which is a sign of a true expert, is not one of ignorance. It is, rather, one of studied ignorance: “I’ve studied the matter as rigorously and dispassionately as I can, and I couldn’t find an answer. In fact, I’m inclined to think that at present it can’t be known. And to put forth an answer with any strong degree of confidence would almost certainly be misleading.”

I fear that in our times these three words are left unsaid by far too many in that rather nebulous class of “expert”–be it politicians, pundits, the press, professors, and, yes, preachers.

Let the last one (preachers) be first: In my first year of seminary, the guest lecturer for the annual preaching lectures memorably quipped, “Too many preachers preach like they just came from a press conference with God!” No one in nearly two millennia (or more) has quite grasped the meaning of this particularly difficult text–until this Sunday. Yes, an entire team of some of the best scholars in the guild worked together to arrive at this particular English translation, but after a 10-15 minute consideration of the Greek text, apparently it should’ve been translated differently, thereby eroding the congregation’s confidence in their English translation and misleading the congregation to overestimate (grossly) the expertise/authority of their pastor.

Far better for the busy pastor to do three things: (1) address (rather than ignore) difficult texts by first admitting you also have no absolutely no idea what it means and then by either listing a few of the most common explanations or by providing one explanation in a very provisional way (“My best guess is that perhaps…”); (2) use it as an occasion to speak of how interpretation of the Bible can be difficult and express what congregants regularly feel and what the very “privileged” polylingual Ethiopian eunuch laments to Philip in Acts 8: “How can I [understand the text], unless someone explains it to me?”; (3) state clearly what you can say with confidence (“I’m not sure about that, but I am very sure about what we need to hear most this morning, which is…”).

Another brief story from my grad years: I hopped on a train to London one morning to attend a day-conference for scholars who study Paul. Unbelievably, I plopped down in my seat and looked up only to see sitting across from me one of the most formidable and prolific scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, Richard Bauckham, with his nose in a book. After I rudely interrupted him and discovered we were attending the same conference, we began talking about Paul’s letters, and at one point he said something like, “I have to say: I find Paul to be at times very… elusive… very hard to pin down.” Here again is the sign of a true expert: “I won’t pretend like I understand more than I do.” If a world-class scholar of the Scriptures says as much, then perhaps preachers should say it as well?

Richard Bauckham

Too often we preachers (and we Christians in general) fear that, if we say, “I don’t know,” we will lose credibility. Perhaps with some that’s true. But more often–at least in my own experience–we will gain more credibility: maybe we’re not the know-it-alls that others judged us to be, whether fairly or unfairly.

But this temptation to give way to know-it-all-ism isn’t confined to preachers.

Sadly, it seems to be a pandemic among the intelligentsia of our time. This know-it-all-ism has greatly aided the social and political polarization of our time and sorely impaired efforts to mitigate the present pandemic. The result has, first, been a tragic erosion of trust in expertise in America (though we’re hardly alone–see this recent scathing article in Canada’s conservative National Post entitled, “A Year of COVID Cluelessness from our Esteemed Health ‘Experts'”).

But a second devastating result has been that central issues and events of our time are more easily (and immediately) politicized–how and why?–because one can find an “expert” who will pronounce with an air of infallibility whatever promotes one’s political agenda. From there on out, the political game is about ignoring or discrediting any “experts” who voice dissent.

Minister of Magic Pius Thicknesse

An uncommonly nuanced article was recently published–it’s an op-ed piece in WSJ–called “Trump and the Failure of the Expert Class” by Barton Swaim. Without ignoring any of the failings of the Trump administration, Swaim laments how the past 4-5 years have revealed how routinely the “experts” have gotten it so devastatingly wrong: from pollsters to professors of epidemiology to public health officials to foreign policy experts, it wasn’t even that they got it wrong, but that they repeatedly got it wrong on matters of which they had been so confident, and often they never even acknowledged their failures but rather wondered with indignation as to why so few people were still listening to them.

This is the price, it seems to me, that we all pay for the pride and presumption among intellectual elites who refuse to say three simple words: “I don’t know.”

A few reflections that seek to shed the light of Scripture upon all this:

1. Scripture isn’t remotely surprised by the folly of “the wisdom of the world”: The failure of the expert class is no mere accidental misfortune in a world infected by sin. Rather, Scripture actually says that there is divine purpose at work. To give a fair 21st-century paraphase of 1 Cor. 1.19-20:

“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will undermine.’ Where is the sage [or perhaps: therapist]? Where is the expert? Where is the pundit of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Importantly, here Scripture agrees that these persons are in a very real way “wise” and “intelligent”; they’re not remotely stupid. But their efforts are undermined; their intelligence gives their conclusions the guise of truth, and their research might contain much truth in it, but their findings are nevertheless all too often flawed, usually due to methodological error, unexamined philosophical assumptions, or prior ideological agenda. In short, being wrong is an incredibly easy, almost inevitable thing to do.

Skeptical? Me, too. But then I read a 2005 article by John Ioannidis called “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” One of the most consistently cited and respected scientists of our day (and this article in particular is seminal), Ioannidis is Professor of–are you ready?–Medicine, Health Research and Policy, and of Biomedical Data Science at Stanford University. He says, devastatingly, “The facts suggest that for many, if not the majority, of fields, the majority of published studies are likely to be wrong… the vast majority” (cited in this fascinating and impressively self-critical book by David H. Freedman, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us).

2. Scripture speaks of sin’s debilitating effect on our faculties of reason: Sin impacts us not only morally (“I think bad things”) but rationally (“I think badly–period”). That is, sin does a number on our capacity to think accurately: humans “became futile in their reasoning, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although claiming to be wise, they became foolish…” (Rom. 1.21-22). We humans are, alas, all like that stereotypical rebellious teen: we think we’re so damn smart; we’re sophomores in the truest sense (“wise-fools”). Given the Greek word for “mind” is nous (pronounced, ironically, like the English word noose), theologians speak of this as the noetic effect of sin: sin hijacks both our morals and our minds.

These first two may lead one to a deep cynicism or even a dismissal of all things scholarly or intellectual. It shouldn’t. Rather, it should lead a Christian first to (1) a breadth and (ideological) diversity in what they read; (2) a humble provisionality in what they believe concerning matters that aren’t central to the Christian faith; (3) a warm charity and hospitality toward (and even defense of) those with opposing (and esp. minority) views; (4) a humble yet bold stance against anyone who would wrongly prioritize tertiary matters and make them a litmus test for fellowship or friendship (the few times that Paul gets truly incensed in his letters is precisely when this happens–just read Galatians).

3. Christians can best learn and love locally: The 2nd greatest commandment calls our attention away from matters remote and “national” to matters local–to our neighborhoods, communities, and those with whom we interact every day. It’s one thing to discuss, e.g., race and racism in the abstract or to speak of it as “out there” (nationally or systemically) or “there in particular” (e.g., a police shooting five states away); it’s quite another to consider its presence in my heart, in my family, my neighborhood, my classroom, my work place or my church.

Personally, I have come to a place where I am altogether suspicious of the very concept of “national news”–as if a person with an undergraduate degree in journalism, with no expertise in the subject areas on which they regularly report (even if they’ve got a small army of fellow reporters working with them) can tell us American history “live”–i.e., as it’s happening. The historian’s job is difficult enough (to examine complex events with the benefit of some distance), and the idea that the true significance of present-day events can be immediately ascertained is, in my mind, at best misleading and at worst Orwellian, certain to be hijacked by political agendas, whether conservative or progressive.

Claims to know the “big picture” or “what’s really going” or “where this culture is headed” or “the biggest problem facing America / the American church” in a nation of 330-odd million people are common, but upon some reflection seem rather comical. In truth, there’s so much we don’t know and probably can’t know. And it’s definitely worth asking: do I even need to know it? and what can I do about it?

“I alone see the big picture.”

But let’s say that we’re deeply concerned that a particular “-ism” is on the rise in America and/or is infecting the church in America. What is to be done? How can we change this? My answer: generally speaking, a person’s ideological (or, specifically, political) allegiances change only when deeper spiritual allegiances change first, be they Christian or non-Christian. And spiritual allegiances largely change the way that Jesus changed them–i.e., through life-on-life discipleship within a communal context, and even then it’s a very sloooow process, as Mark’s Gospel is at pains to show and as my own life demonstrates–ha!

But here’s the thing: Over time it actually works. In fact, it changed the world. (Some have called it the Great Commission.)

This is why in recent years I personally have inclined toward a Christian quietism, as found in numerous parts of the Bible, perhaps quintessentially in the forgotten books of Ezra-Nehemiah (as discussed here). Quietism doesn’t mean being silent. It means, generally speaking, that a Christian’s focus is directed elsewhere (to embracing the daily roles of single, spouse, parent, congregant, etc., and loving locally via hospitality, charity, discipleship, etc.)–why?–because long-term these are what change the world. Princes, and especially presidents, come and go. But they mostly go.

“Apostle Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt. “The day was to come when men would call their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.” – T. R. Grover

Quietism lives out a threefold view of politics in the Bible: (1) princes are His pawns; (2) political power has little currency in His economy (it can check evildoers, but it can’t change them); and (3) with rare exception it is deeply opposed to God’s purposes.

Another implication of learning and loving locally: evils and “-isms” that may confront me in my neighborhood or city may be different from those in other locations. And even in the same neighborhood or town two different Christians (or churches) may be called to address different evils and “-isms,” as God has led them. Scripture explicitly states that we have different gifts (and, thus, often concerns or “burdens”), and that is a very beautiful and very necessary thing. E.g., I have deep concern for the devastating consequences of lockdowns on little ones in the majority world. I regularly read up on it, pray for it, and give toward it. And in my zeal I can think that everyone should be just as animated about it as I am. But while it’s right and good to invite others to share this concern, it’s wrong to insist on it.

A final and, to me, very freeing thought: the primary role of the Christian is not sage but servant. Nowhere in Scripture is there a command that calls us to figure out aspects of our own personal narrative, much less aspects of our nation. Loving requires much learning and listening, and we each have limits, and that’s precisely why the Second Greatest Commandment lovingly limits us to loving our neighbor.

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