Expertise: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I tend to be a bit conservative when it comes to expertise. Recently, I’ve undertaken a translation and annotation project of Athanasius’ Second Apology. Laid out before me I have the Montfaucon edition of 1698, next the Hans-Georg Opitz critical edition of 1934. Off to the side, I have the notes prepared by my friend, Charles Kannengiesser, in the 1970s. As my patristic Greek is not what it once was, I keep Geoffrey Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon close at hand. Finally, of course, I constantly have to consult the monumental Lexicon Athanasianum by Guido Mueller, SJ. This work, which runs to 1,663 pages, contains the definition and use of every word found in the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria. More remarkable still, this volume, published in 1952, was the second time Mueller had attempted such a work. His first completed manuscript was destroyed by fire during the war. As soon as he learned of its destruction, he gathered his notes and began the work again.
Now, I turn to such expertise because I realize my own limitations. I am aware that the editor of the 1698 edition likely had access to materials which have since been lost. The Opitz edition came out of the Prussian Academy where almost three generations of scholars had labored on patristic texts. Lampe literally set down the vocabulary of the Church Fathers and Mueller spent his entire scholarly life specializing in the words and nuance of meaning of Athanasius’ writings. Finally, my friend Charles, with three earned doctorates, championed the central place of Athanasius in the development of early Christian theology for over five decades. I need them all, because expertise, born of multiple lifetimes of study and learning, matters. Without their expertise, I could do little, or, at least, I could do little that would be of value.
I also depend on expertise, however, in areas other than scholarship. As I go to the dentist this week for a semi-annual check up, I trust that the technician is competent in her field of work and that my dentist is board certified with expertise in his field. The same is true of my physician. Although my father tried to teach all of his sons (including me) how to do basic work on cars, such limited knowledge has increasingly become redundant. Lifting the hood of a modern car, one does well to locate the battery. To do much beyond that requires an expertise that I do not possess, so off to the dealership I go.
Yet, even though most of us, in one way or another, depend upon such expertise in our every day lives, even a cursory look at social media indicates a deep suspicion of expertise or, in some cases, an outright rejection. In his recent book, ‘The Death of Expertise’, author Tom Nichols, made the following observation: “While expertise isn’t dead, however, it’s in trouble. Something is going terribly wrong.” Now, it would be easy to use such a statement to comment on current public policy, especially during this time of crisis. My concern, however, is less with the body politic and more with the Church.
It is not a revelatory statement to say that there are large swaths of the Christian Church that are anti-intellectual and that, to one degree or another, dismiss or, at least, fear expertise. Such an attitude transcends denominational (and/or non-denominational) boundaries. It can be witnessed among sections of the Roman Catholic Church as easily as among evangelicals. Earlier in the week, I encountered it among Anglicans and Lutherans in calling for an end to some states prohibiting public gathering of more than ten persons at one time. Regardless of science or the models, much less the 60,000 plus deaths, opinion and belief were counted to be of greater weight and importance in making such decisions. Moreover, more than just offering this as an opinion or belief, writers went on to excoriate pastors, priests and other church leaders for submitting to such “tyranny”. In some postings an article or two would be referenced to support such a position. When challenged, however, it become clear that the argument was not about evidence or facts, it was about belief and, perhaps, politics.
As I have written above, I turn to expertise because I realize my own limitations.
The vast majority of pastors, priests and church leaders are not scientists. Few, if any, are epidemiologists. More than that, merely to be a person of faith does not give one insight into the way in which a virus spreads from nation to nation, from state to state, from city to city, from person to person. If such insight among people of faith does exist, I would like to ask the question, “Why did you not tell us about what was going to happen four months ago so that lives could have been saved?”. Apparently, four months ago (and more) there were some who gave warnings, but it seems they were ignored. The ones who gave the warnings were scientists and intelligence officers, but their expertise seems to have counted for little.
Of course, experts can be wrong, but as Nichols points out, “…Being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything. The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact.” Yet, all too often, people look for the loopholes and, if needed, turn to conspiracy theories to justify their beliefs and opinions and place them on the same level as facts.
The truth of the matter is that we all have limitations, whether we wish to admit it or not.
As people of faith, however, recognizing our limitations does not limit the good we can do. Earlier this week, I wrote the following:
I’ve had a number of communications from friends, some of them former students, who are pastors and priests. Like all of us, they are frustrated with self-isolation. Yet, instead of engaging in blaming others and/or conspiracy theories, they are caring for their parishioners as and how they are able. One is sending out handwritten notes to each parishioner every week. Another is calling 10 parishioners a day on the phone. Yet another is coordinating extra care for elderly congregants. While all are streaming services (an exhausting task) all of them are also devoting themselves to study, prayer and reading to be of greater service to their people when they are able to gather once again. I’m really proud of every one of them…
Railing against facts, decrying the experts and demanding rights pales in comparison by contrast, at least in my opinion. Time will tell, but let us hope that as people of faith, we will be equal to the time.