Discover more from Christian Ethics in the Wild
Expertise, Scrutiny, and Other Endangered Species
Everyone Wants to Be an Expert. But Having Others Evaluate Knowledge is Part of the Deal.
The crisis of expertise has theological roots. Some brief scheduling updates for the next two weeks.
First and foremost, thank you for reading. This little newsletter topped 1,000 subscribers for the first time last week, and hopefully, we’ll keep going for a long time to come. In celebration of your trust, paid subs (20% off forever!) are on sale until the 11th.—The Management
The Death of Competency: A Limited Personal Example
As someone who spent a number of years in graduate school in Christian theology and ethics, I feel a bit ahead of the curve on a relatively recent phenomenon: expertise is having a rough go of it. Medical professionals, mental health practitioners, counselors, financial planners, and immunologists have been inundated by people who have “done their own research” and, on two months’ notice, become conversant with years of specialized work in niche topics. But as someone who went to seminary and then followed that up with a Ph.D. in theology, I have news for these professions: get in line and wait, because it’s only going to get more bumpy.
The “Master of Divinity”, or M.Div., is one of the most audaciously labeled degrees in existence—who among us can climb the holy hill?—and one of the least seriously-taken, I think, because everyone can pray. One needs no special license or education to encounter God: one only need to be living, and even then, death doesn’t really present that much of an obstacle to the presence of God. But doing an M.Div., while making you no more qualified to pray, does give a measure of facility in things which are not commonly accessible: history, languages, exposure to the traditions of Christians for millenia. A self-directed reading course is not the same as formal instruction.
Some of this is a peculiar crisis of my branch of Christianity. I belong to a theological tradition in which this crisis is built in—Baptists hold to the “priesthood of all of the believers” and to “soul competency”, both of which grant a great deal of authority to the individual faith and practice apart from any mediation. But it’s not as if other traditions are immune from this phenomenon as well. For years, I’ve been a reliable NPR listener until sometime last year, I realized that every single news story was about sex and the economy. I tried listening to the area Catholic radio, as a good faith effort, and quickly discovered that its lay coverage of news is no less susceptible to hysterical prognostication or authoritative appeal to “what it means to be Catholic”, independent of magisterial authority to claim this.
The point is this: there is a diminishing return on expertise of many kinds. But let us be of two minds about this.
The Return of Scrutiny: A Modest Appeal
On the one hand, the decentralization of expertise can be, in principle, a good thing. As Ivan Illich talks about, education has become more about gaining a credential than gaining skills. And in those cases, the sooner we break the machine, the better. In his Deschooling Society, Illich proposes a new model of education, one weaved together with community skills exchanges and alternative sites of skill acquisition, a multi-focal educational approach which will encourage people to get the hands-on training they need in ways which will produce new forms of skills.
And yet, we are living in the Dark Mirror version of this vision, I think. What Illich envisions is not a libertarian free-for-all in which anyone can make equal truth claims about what kind of medicine works best, or what it means to read the Scriptures and theological tradition well, or promote the virtues of Bitcoin over against stable currency, or to self-diagnose one’s own neuroses or neurodivergence absent the attention of trained professionals. The old corridors of expertise, as equated as they were with credentials, now operate largely parallel to alternate knowledge economies: what Venn diagram there is between the two worlds grows thin.
The difference that has occurred, I think, is along the line of how knowledge enters into public life. Much has been written (including here) about the mechanisms of technology and mass media in this problem, but the shifting feature is that, increasingly, new knowledge—emerging in parallel tracks—emerges without submitting that knowledge to scrutiny from others, not for validation, but out of the sense that my own sense of truthfulness will have blindnesses and mypoia. I will see things and not others, and scrutiny is part of how the truth appears.
New knowledge—whether a psychological self-diagnosis or novel reading of the book of James—now comes kicking and screaming for approval, not scrutiny.
The mechanisms of attention, not evaluation and critique, means that when new knowledge comes into the world, it comes as a PR machine, gaining validity through agreement, but agreement absent criticism. The difficulty with having inhabited any discipline long enough is that your thinking becomes insular: there are inviolable norms and unspeakable rhythms to How Things Are. And the benefit to entities like Substack is it allows for endless digital garages for the next Big Thing to emerge, but what good is a garage if it doesn’t connect to a street that everyone shares?
Submitting to scrutiny still happens in a way, but as a function of the marketplace, as a maelstrom of thinly sliced options flood the world, without much to distinguish themselves, and so they generate noise to attract support. There must be a fresh word given, for the old words cannot be enough: there must be a new word spoken, for the old words have become like a drone in the distance. Scrutiny of the Next Thing is deflected by the claim of disruption, of offering something fresh in a stale set of options.
But not all disruption is a disruption which brings new life. Some disruption is like a branch falling off of a tree, too encumbered by its own self-importance, crashing through fences and roofs, ruining flower beds below. Some disruption might actually succeed, breaking off not like a limb but like heavy and ripe fruit, falling to the ground. But over time, it too will grow into a new tree, whose branches may too decide they don’t appreciate being branches instead of roots or fruit.
Expertise and The Common Good
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses a particular metaphor for describing the way that Christians relate to one another. And in this metaphor, we find both the way that expertise (of a kind) works, and one way of understanding how all of this went sideways:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The establishment of there being one body of Christ, made of Jews and Gentiles, comes, as Paul says, by the Gentiles being grafted into a Jewish tree: there remains, even within the singular body of Christ, a priority of expertise of sorts which enables for this complex body to exist in the first place. The one Spirit which all drank from is one which baptizes the whole of the body, uniting Jews and Gentiles into one body, to be sure. And yet, in that body, not all things are even: there remains differentiation of both gift, and of generative force within that one body:
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
Apostles—in this case, all Jews—lay the groundwork for the church, and have made possible any number of other gifts, in which the miracle of God’s inclusion occurs. The apostles themselves are the vessels of God’s work, and certainly incapable of being the whole of the body, and find their own work refined and rebuffed by the wisdom emerging through the Gentiles.
This kind of generation of new wisdom by the Spirit comes, hand in hand, with a recognition of differentiation, priority, and of mutuality: what gifts there are to have come through the Spirit’s internally differentiating work. Much like a child in utero grows through internal differentiation of organs and systems, so the church grows not by drafting new body parts that it likes, but through internal recognition. It is this internal recognition which allows for the new wisdom to not be competing wisdom: because there is a prior commitment to the whole, new knowledge does not silo off into fragments.
It is the Spirit’s work, generating wisdom from within a commitment created by their common origin in Christ, which enables both a priority of the Jews and new fruit from the Gentiles to come into fruitful exchange. Absent this prior commitment, forms of expertise become pistols at dawn, “follow the science” brawling with “do your own research” in an ever-dirtying kind of conflict over which expertise should trump which.
For the next two weeks, between some family medical needs and some travel for work, I’ll be on hiatus. There may be an occasional offering the next two weeks, but I’ll plan on returning to normal rhythms on May 22nd. Pray for the family if you don’t mind?
It goes without saying that I shall not enter the Kingdom of God first, but will be entering behind countless anonymous saints who, like particular loved ones of mine, get up in the early morning to pray and meditate with God, and have so for decades.
The phenomenon of the rebel who becomes the institution is an endlessly fascinating one. As one who grew up in the heyday of grunge, it’s been nothing short of weird to see Pearl Jam getting old, or U2 with grey hair, and holding more conservative positions relative to their younger peers. Without naming names, it’s been even more curious to read the relative theological rebels from my own seminary days reflecting on how they now find their own writings being rebelled against as too blase. So it goes.