The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.

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Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, and Theological Controversy

In my little corner of life recently there’s been some controversy over the firing of a professor, what part another professor might have played in that firing, and What It All Means for everybody involved. I don’t feel like litigating those issues here, mostly because I don’t know enough or have even strong enough feelings to make such thoughts profitable, but also because I have personal friendships and relationships that might be strained unnecessarily, one way or the other. That raises a question for me: How important do I see friendships, partnerships, and personal loyalties when it comes to navigating controversies, especially within evangelicalism?

The issue can become complex for me personally because I have friends and relationships with people representing many different “tribes.” I have young, restless, and Reformed friends, and I have friends who read post-evangelical blogs. I have Presbyterian friends who hate Baptist political theology and I have friends at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have friends who believe in Biblical counseling and friends who believe in Christian psychology, friends who believe in Roger Williams’ soul freedom and friends who believing in a truly Christian public square. I have friends who believe in just war and friends who are pacifists, friends who voted for Donald Trump and friends who could not. My “loyalties” runneth over.

This can be awkward, because sometimes things are said by tribe A that tribe B interprets as uncharitable, or tribe C will announce something tribes A and B agree is heretical, or–even better–tribe D will come along and ask who in the heck all these tribes are to go around labeling stuff. There are many who would call this tribal brouhaha a tragedy of American Christianity, a symptom of a broken, dysfunctional religious identity. Maybe it is. Most of the time I find myself thankful to know and associate with Christians who really do take ideas and truth seriously enough to articulate it in a specific way. Yes, tribalism can easily turn toxic, but it needn’t. Often I find that those who complain the most frequently and loudly about Christian “tribalism” are those who always have something to sell me instead.

Anyway, back to the question. What’s a fellow to do? When Facebook becomes an overnight blog battleground, and people I respect and admire and want to keep in my life are taking opposite sides, what should I do? Should I play politics and calculate which friends I *really* want to keep and calibrate my response to satisfy them? Should I try to prove to myself and others my own ideological purity and start saying things that will let my friends know they don’t “own” me? Should I make the bad theology into a t shirt that the offended party wears? Should I do nothing?

On the one hand, personal relationships don’t determine what is true, and therefore shouldn’t have an ultimate say on what I believe. Many churches and religious institutions have prioritized unity and solidarity over reality, and many times the results have been heretical, abusive, or both. Jesus wasn’t persuaded to relent when the rich young ruler walked away sad. Paul did not determine that Peter’s refusal to associate with Gentiles was fine just because they were partners in the gospel. Relational flourishing is not the supreme good. God is.

On the other hand, an arrogant dismissal of those who have helped  and served me is wrong too. When reminding Timothy to hold fast to the gospel, Paul reminded him of the trustworthy people who had taught it to him (2 Tim 3:14). Human beings aren’t merely thinking machines that just churn after propositional truth at all costs. Truth is enfleshed and embodied, first in Christ himself, then in the gathering and practices of the church. Christian friendship is not an obstacle to truth, it’s an expression of it.

Conservative evangelicalism has oft been so zealous for right “knowing” that it has, unwittingly and otherwise, denigrated the relational character of Christianity. I grew up believing that friendship was a bad reason to go to church. One went to church to worship God, individually. It wasn’t for many years that I realized the problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t explain why believers shouldn’t just stay at home and study the Bible on Sunday. Other people are not accessories to the church, they are the meaning of it.

So I don’t want to slough off friendships in the name of good thinking or theology. Nor do I want to outsource my convictions to in-groups and exchange honesty for belonging. So where does that leave me?

I think it leaves me with ears to hear. My instincts need to be questioned, because, like everyone else, they are fallible, biased, self-interested, and incomplete. That doesn’t mean curling up in an oven like Descartes and erasing everything I know. To be oriented toward trust in some ways and suspicion in others is to be human. We are formative creatures. I can hear someone say X and immediately think, “Knowing what I know about that person, I’m not sure I can believe X.” That’s a human instinct. But when that instinct empowers me to make up my mind in ignorance, to shut down the conversation and proceed with judgment, then I have probably cost myself friendship and mutuality. When the tingling sensation of distrust emerges, I want to be able to listen well.

When people that I know, love, and trust are accused or criticized, my striving for truth does not mean I assume that the accusations are true. It doesn’t mean tossing out the love and good faith that is so hard to build and yet so easy to destroy. I’m willing to venture that if it’s easy for you to believe bad reports about everyone, you probably love yourself more than anyone. It is the nature of love to dam suspicion. It hopes all things–and rejoices with the truth.

We are all sinners, and no sin is impossible for the best of us. Finite creatures as we are, we are almost always bereft of exhaustive knowledge. So we have to proceed in trust–trust of the Word, trust of each other, and trust in the sovereign hand of God. Trust is fragile. It doesn’t just break, it shatters. That’s why listening well and remembering our own frailty and sinfulness is important. But just because trust is fragile doesn’t mean we ought never handle it. Even when it comes to theological tribes, war, and rumors of war, a disposition of trust–bordered on all sides by humility and self-awareness–is a healthy thing.

How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

4 (Simple) Responses to Science-Based Atheism

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism. Many college students discover atheism through science classes; students who enter university as Christians have their faith fiercely tested by their studies, and too many give up the fight merely because they assume that a biology professor must be correct about whether God exists. When a little bit of childlike faith meets a lot of studied atheism, fear can take control.

That’s unnecessary. You don’t have to have a degree in science to have something to say to those with scientific objections to faith. Here are four simple responses to those who say that science has either disproved God or has made belief in God unnecessary:

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge. 

There are two possibilities when it comes to human knowledge through science. The first possibility is that everything that is real is actually reducible to scientific principles. Everything–from the universe, to human emotion, to spiritual experiences–is explainable through scientific research. The other option is simple: Not all existence can be explained through science.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is utlimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion. The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible. Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority. 

The progressive nature of scientific inquiry is essential to its value. Done rightly, science can correct its own errors. But this presupposes that science can make errors in the first place. And if that’s true, then the question is: How do we know what could be a current error in scientific consensus, and what do we know is absolutely true?

This is a very important question to ask religious skeptics who appeal to science. A likely response is that science may be wrong on almost everything it says, but it almost certainly isn’t wrong about what it doesn’t say; ie, if science hasn’t revealed God by now, it’s not rational to think it will. But this objection misses the point. One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge. If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work. 

The wording of this point is very important. If we left out the word “rational,” then the statement would actually be false and quite easy to shoot down. You don’t need supernatural theism to be curious, or to want to explore the natural world. But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science. What does the word rational mean there? It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars. All of these facts are pursued by scientists as being intrinsically valuable, yet they offer very little information that can help guarantee a species’ continued existence on the planet.

The real explanation is that scientists pursue these facts because there is intrinsic value in knowing what is true about the world, regardless of how much help it gives us. Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles. Science itself offers no self-evident account for why it should be pursued. You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all. To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study. It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth. Theism offers an explanation for why knowing truth is valuable. Scientific atheism does not.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.”

The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties.

But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

This astute observation was echoed by Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel, an agnostic philosopher from New York University, argues that human comprehension of the universe cannot be explained merely by atheistic evolutionary processes. It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to. Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

Scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true. If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark. If, however, human beings are the products of an infinitely greater Mind, then we have justification for believing that true and false are realities and not merely the shadow puppets of our ancestors.