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On knowing what one is talking about

February 1, 2014

While doing some reading in the area of religious pluralism, I came across this quote by Hendrik Kraemer:

“Superficiality is not nearly such a serious offence against the expert as it is against [the ‘inexpert’ reader], because he may well be misled by a shallow approach. He more than anyone else has a right to expect the subject to be handled with integrity.” (Why Christianity of All Religions?, 11)

How many times has one heard a Christian speaker pontificate boldly on some subject about which he knows very little? How many times has one been that speaker, and has been called down afterward by someone who knows the subject?

This can be a tricky matter, for not all of us can be experts on all the subjects we address. Everyone relies on authorities in one area or another. How much does one need to know to write or speak for public consumption? This question has come to mind again and again over the years after embarrassing myself on a few occasions by my lack of understanding. It is one reason I take a long time to write anything, and why I re-work almost every lecture before giving it again. When is enough, enough?

My current readings in contemporary (mostly French) philosophy provide a good example of the problem. My studies in philosophy at TEDS were to a great extent, although not all, from secondary sources. We were MA or MDiv students at a seminary, and most of us wanted to learn enough to understand the flow of philosophy through Western history and to engage people in our day on an intellectual level. Some of us went on to doctoral studies in philosophy. William Lane Craig, who was there some years previously, and Paul Copan, who was there at the same time as I, are two examples. Others of us wanted to speak intelligently from the pulpit or to perhaps do campus ministry. I went on to work for Probe Ministries. Although lay people might have been somewhat impressed by the names and ideas I could discuss, I knew that I didn’t know enough to engage in debate with real philosophers who had spent years studying the figures and ideas in detail (I learned that the hard way by arguing with Stuart Hackett in philosophy classes).

The knowledge I gained at Moody and then Trinity and my own follow-up studies on that level was sufficient for most of my work at Probe and other teaching in churches, but I still felt a lack. This was noticeable when I would read what Christian scholars were debating among themselves about one issue or another or when I wanted to go deeper in my interactions with non-Christian thought. It became apparent after some years, for example, that I really didn’t understand what postmodernism was. I was doing what a lot of mid-level scholars do, namely, reading about postmodernism from other Christians who had read the postmodernists themselves, and then speaking with great authority on that basis. It didn’t occur to me that I might not be getting a fair enough and broad enough picture. All postmodernism was was relativism, right (and maybe some odd architecture and clothes styles)? Nobody knows anything absolutely. That’s enough to dismiss the whole thing, isn’t it?

Because of some big gaps in my learning, I entered a Master of Humanities program at the Univ. of Dallas which gave me the freedom to design my program to a great extent, thus allowing me to take more philosophy courses (I entered the humanities program rather than the philosophy one because I wanted to also study the liberal arts more broadly). I intended to go through the four course history of philosophy series, but was not able to take the last course which covered postmodernism. This was a serious blow; it meant I had to pursue that era on my own as time permitted. I have been picking my way through Peter Sedgwick’s Descartes to Derrida as my primary guide with occasional forays into other books and articles. This book has enabled me to review (once again) modern philosophy and to get the postmodernists in a digested although not simplistic form. I had read some of their work on my own and in a course titled French Thought and Culture Since World War II, and I had found it tough going. They seemed to be speaking of matters totally removed from what I had read in the modernists. They used a whole new philosophical language. What had all this to do with what had gone before? (A philosophy professor at UD once told me he didn’t teach these thinkers because, as he put it, “I teach philosophy.”)

So, where is this mini biography going? It brings me to this. My interest is in helping Christians in local churches and wherever else I might have an influence know how to think and to live in this secular age. What will I say when I write and speak? How can I talk about living in this age if I don’t address the dominating ideas of the age, and how can I address them fairly if I don’t understand them? Will I take to heart Kraemer’s quote and know what I’m talking about before I talk about it?

Simply reading the “enemies” of postmodernism won’t do. It’s easier to do so, but one has to wear blinders. One of the names encountered often in Christian circles now in the broad area of thoughtful Christianity is James K. A. Smith (people in the know call him Jamie). Some years ago he wrote a book titled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? The title brought me up short. What do you mean “who’s afraid of postmodernism?” Aren’t we all supposed to be? If not actually afraid, at least we all know that it’s bad thing. I had read for years about this scourge. And now this supposedly respectable Christian philosopher was challenging all that?

I will not turn this into a brief for or against postmodernism. That isn’t the purpose. I’m still trying to understand it, and the court is still out for me regarding its value in Christian thinking. What I need to do is to understand Derrida and Foucault and others as best I can, even if I don’t have the time or ability to work through several of their own books (although it’s always best to include source material if possible). I’ll read some, but I’ll have to trust knowledgeable scholars to give fair presentations for people like me just as I have trusted the scholars who have presented to me in digest form the ideas of ancient and modern philosophers. I’ll have to read assessments by people for and against. And all this as one who doesn’t work in academia and must, for the sake of what I want to do, spread my time and efforts across a wider spectrum of issues.*

How do I apply this? For one thing, I don’t bring up rather esoteric subjects unnecessarily. New graduates, eager to share their knowledge because it is very exciting to them, go home to their churches and teach classes in which they share much of their new knowledge, even though there is much in it that has little to do with the lives of the people listening. Yes, I know that there are aspects of contemporary thought that need to be brought to people’s attention. But do they really need to hear quotes by Lyotard or Baudrillard? Maybe in some cases they do. But for the most part some of the key ideas or their implications are sufficient, such as discussing relativistic thinking in a class on religious pluralism or one on current ideas about morality.

When these issues are important and need to be addressed, it should be done with a level of modesty befitting one’s  level of knowledge. Must I not mention them until I’m convinced I have a thorough grasp of them? Must I get a PhD in philosophy first? I don’t think so. Although I probably should not present a paper on Derrida in a philosophy conference, I can still bring in some of his ideas or ones spawned by his thinking at appropriate times. If I do, I ought to be comfortable enough with the subject to believe I’m not treating it superficially, and to believe that if someone knowledgeable about the subject is listening, he or she will see me as offering a respectable view even if disagreeing with it. I should be able to expand on what I say if questioned or be able to respond at least somewhat knowledgeably when challenged.

The bottom line is this. I must respect my audience and the thinkers whose ideas I’m engaging. I have no right as a speaker or writer to put on a show for Christian lay people by trotting out words and names in a display of impressive learning. I also don’t have a right to lead them to think that all these issues can be bottled up nicely with a few snappy comebacks and tossed onto the trash heap of faddish ideas. If I’m convinced that the ideas are wrong, I can say so, although I need to give reasons for thinking so (by the way, dismissing waves of the hand and smirks don’t constitute good reasons even thought they are widely employed). Even more importantly, I might be leading people to miss out on some important developments in truly Christian understandings of life and the world that have meaning for them.

I’ll end where I began, with Kraemer’s important caution:

“Superficiality is not nearly such a serious offence against the expert as it is against [the ‘inexpert’ reader], because he may well be misled by a shallow approach. He more than anyone else has a right to expect the subject to be handled with integrity.”

*Books currently on my “to read” and “to finish reading” lists include Taylor’s A Secular Age and a follow-up conversation among other scholars titled Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age; Reardon’s The Jesus We Missed and Barron’s The Priority of ChristWinter’s Philo and Christ Among the Sophists; Penner’s The End of Apologetics [a second reading] and perhaps Evans’ Introduction to Kierkegaard (Penner draws heavily on SK); Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom perhaps with Ladd’s The Presence of the Future preceding; and etc., and etc. I’d really like to finish Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer, too!

Feb. 2 postscript: The list above was not given in a meaningful order of priority. Likely, the first ones tackled will be Taylor and one I forgot to include, Glen Stassen’s A Thicker Jesus. Taylor I’ve read in part. Both of these are in the broad category of books addressing the character of the age, and Stassen, who draws on Taylor, considers how to live in it (Varieties would provide a good follow-up to Taylor, but may have to wait until later). Smith’s Desiring could likely come next, in that same vein. Ladd is iffy. He would provide theological background for thinking about the kingdom of God as already here in some sense. Penner, Evans, and Winter will feed my thinking about the nature of apologetics (Winter will address a passage of Scripture largely ignored or simply brushed aside by apologists: 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). Reardon and Barron will feed my ongoing understanding of Jesus. And Metaxas will fill in major gaps in my knowledge of the war years in addition to providing inspiration in the area of Christianity and culture.

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