“How do we know?” and “Whom do we trust?” Some Thoughts on Experts and Expertise

I lead an occasional, informal discussion group at our church called “CoffeeTalk.” Each time we gather I remind us that CoffeeTalk is not about the coffee but about the conversation, a conversation rooted in loving others the way we want to be loved, which means doing our best to listen to each other and to learn together—even around controversial topics.

Last week our conversation was about climate change. We watched a video presentation by Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and a Christian, and then we talked about it together. At the end of our session I took a straw poll. We were divided on the issue with most of us somewhere in the middle, somewhere around “climate change may be real but I’m not sure if humans have played a significant role in it.”

I said to the group that these kinds of issues come down to two questions: “How do you know?” and “Whom do you trust?” These are, I submitted to the group in a follow-up email, the crucial questions of our age.

In a world of instant, global information and opinion, how do we sift through all this to find the truth? Since anyone can claim anything about anything on the internet, it seems anyone can prove anything about anything from the internet. So how do we know what’s true?

The answer to this comes down to the other question: whom do we trust? Most of us are not experts in atmospheric science, or Islamic theology or practice, or the mysterious inner workings of Dodge Grand Caravans. None of us is an expert in every area of knowledge.

All of us, then, have to trust others to help us make our assessments of truth and fix the problems we face. We need to trust someone with greater expertise than us. We need experts. And not just self-proclaimed experts, but real experts, recognized experts: people who have education and training and experience in the relevant areas, and even the peer respect and credentials to prove it. (This is why you don’t want me doing your open heart surgery in spite of the “Dr.” in front of my name.)

But here’s the thing: it seems that each side of a debate can call upon an “expert” to back them up, like expert witnesses for the prosecution and the defense in a murder case. It doesn’t matter the issue. Global warming. Human evolution. The historical reliability of the Bible. The threat of refugees-turning-terrorists. What to do in the Middle East.

Some have noted a trend away from public trust of experts, and I think there’s some merit to that analysis. But I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. It seems to me that often it comes down to this: we don’t trust the “experts” on the other side of the divide from us. We trust the “experts” that agree with us; the “experts” on the other side are either illegitimate or they’re paid off by someone or they’re part of some grand conspiracy.

We intuitively recognize that it’s good to have an expert on our side. Yet it seems there’s an expert on every side. So what do we do?

In other words: “How do we know?” and “Whom do we trust?”

I’m not likely to say anything on this that will convince anyone who doesn’t know me or trust my judgment on such things (again, that’s the issue, isn’t it?). But for those who do know me and find the way I think to be at least somewhat compelling, here’s how I try to walk through this particular epistemic minefield.

Having done a PhD in a specific field, I know the time and effort and knowledge and analysis that go into becoming an “expert.” And so, I will always trust a recognized expert over a non-expert in areas where I am not an expert, at least in things that really matter. (So no self-surgery, but I’ll still sometimes trim my own hair. The results are mixed.)

Where experts disagree, I go with the strong majority of experts in the field—not unanimity (good luck getting trained independent thinkers to agree on everything), and not even consensus (that might be ideal, but it’s often impractical), but at least a strong, clear majority.

And where there is no strong majority of experts, I’m inclined simply to say, “I guess we don’t really know for sure”—and then strive to live in faith and hope and love anyway. In time, a strong majority may emerge.

Of course, experts are swayed by all kinds of things—they are human. It’s quite likely some are swayed by the government grant money they get, or the extra bonus from that oil company, or by an ideology they’ve come to adhere to.

But this is why that “strong majority” is so important. Again, having participated among experts, having gone to numerous academic conferences, I know that all those personal biases don’t normally come together into some large-group bias. Rather, the group acts as a system of checks and balances and such individual biases tend to get leveled out in the group. After all, academics are a pretty critical lot, by both temperament and training.

And some grand conspiracy among experts? Organizing such people is like herding cats. Seriously. Academics in particular don’t herd easily, if at all. (I know, I’ve been a department chair.)

That, again, is why the “strong majority” is so significant. If somewhere around 95% of published climate scientists from around the world say climate change is real and human activity is the root cause, for example, then, since I’m a non-expert in climate change, I’m going to believe them. Quite frankly, the idea that this many scientists from this many countries employed by a mix of public universities and government agencies and private companies and NGOs are involved in some giant hoax is, to me, far harder to believe than that these scientists are simply correct.

This “strong majority” of experts is important. It’s why we know the earth is round, that it revolves around the sun, and that it’s 4.5 billion years old. It’s why we know the Bible is a collection of ancient human writings from multiple cultures across centuries. It’s why we know that fascism has a terrible track record, as does any system that places too much power in the hands of too few with no checks and balances. It’s why we know you can stick a cryoballoon catheter up someone’s vein to their heart, inflate the balloon with nitrogen, scar the surrounding tissue, and so have a good shot at correcting atrial fibrillation (okay, I only know that because a friend is having that surgery done this week—amazing).

The “strong majority” of experts has given us the knowledge and technology we all take for granted all around us. Imagine a world without modern medicine, without high-speed transportation and communication, without electricity. Imagine a world without constitutional democracies or declarations of human rights.

All this and more is the result of the accumulation of expertise, experts collaborating together, building on the expertise of those before them. Ironically, it is only because of the expertise of experts that someone blogging in their basement can rail against experts and their expertise.

And so, at the end of the day, I’m with the experts. No, I don’t believe everything every expert says, even on their area of expertise. My own experience with expertise has taught me that. But trusting in the strong majority of experts has done us pretty well as a human race—this my experience with expertise has also taught me.

For a more expert analysis of the “death of expertise” in our world, check out this article by Tom Nichols. For related thoughts on discerning truth in the information age, check out this previous post of mine. And yes, in case you’re tempted to point it out, I do know that there’s a whole forest of further epistemological questions and assumed answers lurking behind this post. 🙂

Being a Discerning Christian in the Information Age (Or, What to Do When You’re Forwarded That Email)

We all get those emails, forwarded to us by a concerned friend or family member. Or we see the posts as we scroll through our Facebook feed. Or we hear the reports in the coffee shop, passed along in solemn tones. Something alarming has happened in the world, or is about to happen, or is being planned even as we speak.

You know the ones I mean. I’m talking about those emails or posts or reports that claim that we’re about to be overrun by violent Muslim extremists masquerading as refugees, or that Donald Trump is following Hitler’s playbook, or that there’s some gay agenda to take over our schools, or that climate change is a hoax, or that we’re all going to die in fifty years because of climate change, or whatever.

Usually, when I see these kinds of posts or get forwarded these kinds of emails, I sigh out loud and then hit the delete button or keep on scrolling. Maybe you’re the same way.

But sometimes the email or post requires a response, or maybe it’s something we feel we should be aware of if only to know what people are talking about when they mention it. Or, maybe something about it even grabs our attention and we think, “What if it’s true?”

What do we do then?

In our era of instantly, constantly available “news,” how do we sift through the chaff and find the truth? How should we even think or feel about the relentless storm of bad news, conspiracy theories, and conflicting claims that swirls around us in this age of dis/mis/information?

When sigh-and-delete is not an option, there are three things I try to do. Maybe you will find these things helpful, too.

First, I remind myself that we are called to be people of faith, not fear. These kinds of reports are always driven by fear: at bottom they exhibit a profound lack of trust in God.

As Christians we are called to trust that God is indeed sovereign through all things, that God’s kingdom is indeed growing throughout the world, that Christ is building his church and not even the gates of death can prevail against it, and that God has raised Jesus from the dead, conquering death itself.

These reports are driven by fear, not motivated by faith. The fear may be understandable, it might seem natural, but it runs counter to the fundamental stance of a follower of Jesus: a stance of faith in God.

Second, I remind myself that we are called to be people of love, not enmity. We are commanded by Jesus to love our neighbours—anyone we encounter who is in need—but also to love our enemies—anyone who opposes us, even violently.

The fear that I’ve just mentioned often leads to a kind of “defensive antagonism”—we get our hackles up (it’s the “fight” in the “fight or flight” response built into our most primitive intuition). That defensive antagonism can sometimes leap immediately to the extreme of physical violence, but more often it takes the form of hostile attitudes that settle in our hearts, which then build toward offensive words and aggressive (or passive-aggressive) actions.

This is essentially the nature of prejudice or bigotry: fear, when fueled by ignorance and left unchecked by genuine faith and love, leads to hostile attitudes that separate “us” from “them,” and ultimately to more direct actions of injustice and oppression.

But we are called to empathy and compassion, not prejudice and bigotry. We are called to love, not enmity.

And this leads to the third thing I do: I remind myself to gain knowledge about a situation and to learn more about the “other.” It’s important that we do our best to discern the truth about our world and one another, in order to love each other better. Knowledge dispels ignorance, which is crucial for dismantling bigotry and oppression.

otero-chart

Handy chart of news sources by Vanessa Otero.

For myself, I avoid the so-called “news” sources on either the extreme right or extreme left. Instead I try to get my news from major news outlets—whether leaning left or right—that follow basic codes of journalistic integrity. When I come across a specific item, I first look to its source to see if it fits the bill.

I might also do some quick fact-checking on sites like Snopes.com or TruthorFiction.com (for popular stories), FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com (for American politics), or Wikipedia (for general info). If more in-depth research is needed I’ll follow the links at those sites, or, even better, I’ll search more academic or technical sources of information such as research pages at university websites, scholarly research portals, various UN sites, or others. I’ll check multiple sites if needed to avoid getting only one angle on things.

Yes, this all takes time, and it doesn’t always yield clear and simple results. Discerning truth is like that. And sometimes we just have to say, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I still choose to live in faith and love.”

It has never been easy to be a discerning follower of Jesus in the world, being, as Jesus put it, “wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.” In some ways it’s even harder now, with millions of terabytes of information at our fingertips, both true and false, used both for good and for ill.

May God give us wisdom as we seek to discern the truth in our complex world, and may God give us faith and love—and hope!—in a world that at times seems determined to rob us of these gifts.

Cross-posted from www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Love, Above All

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

Image: Stephen Hopkins

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need more than anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Sounds simplistic and naïve, I know. Sounds idealistic, and darn near impossible. Sounds suspiciously like some liberal agenda, or some trendy “spiritual-but-not-religious” kick.

But I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

And now I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

Think back to the way the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, speaks about love. Jesus and Paul agree that the whole point of Scripture is love: every command, every promise, every story, every poem in the Bible hangs on the hook of love, loving God and loving others (Matt 22:35-40; Rom 13:8-10). John concurs, affirming that this love is the defining characteristic of the true life of God, truly knowing God, truly being a disciple of Jesus (1 John 3:11-20; 4:7-21; John 13:35).

Paul talks about love as the virtue that “binds together” all other virtues, including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (Col 3:5-14). Love for others, Paul says, is more important than seeking true knowledge, or striving for sinless purity, or having great faith. There are three things that “abide,” he stresses: “faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).

Underlying these and similar biblical texts is the notion that every ideal humans are to strive for, every virtue Christians are to cultivate, is subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

How does this work? A few musings—and be prepared, this is the most abstract and “theological” of all these posts on love.

Love incorporates all the other Christian virtues. Again, I’m not talking about a sentimental affection or a clinical self-sacrifice, a benign tolerance or an intense intimacy. I’m talking about the love that God shows us in Jesus, the love that freely gives oneself for the good of the other, to share together in the flourishing life of God. Any human ideal or Christian virtue you can conceive of is subsumed under this love.

You can trust someone without loving them, but you can’t love in this way without trust. You can hope without love, but this Jesus-love includes hope. It’s possible to have justice without love, but not love without justice. Peace, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, joy, and more—they’re all the same, woven into the fabric of a Christ-like love.

Clothe in LoveLove defines and governs all the other Christian virtues. If one ever seeks a justice that is not loving toward all involved, then one has not found true justice. If one strives for a faithfulness that is not compassionate or charitable toward others, then one has not found true faithfulness. If we ever feel a tension between holiness and love, or between truth and love, or between any other ideal or virtue and love, we must choose love—because it is in love that we will realize the potential of all other virtues and ideals.

Love precedes and supersedes moral holiness, being “separate from sin.” Before sin was in the world, before moral holiness was even a thing, there was love. After sin and death are dealt their final blow, when moral holiness is no longer a thing, there will still be love.

This is why holiness—in the sense of moral holiness, separation from sin—cannot be the central, most essential attribute of God. God is eternally holy, in the sense of being utterly distinct from all else, wholly other. But moral holiness is not an eternal attribute of God, unless we wish to say sin and evil are eternal.

God’s eternal holiness, God’s distinctness, God’s otherness, is shown first and foremost and always in love. It is, in fact, because God is distinct and other that God can love: love requires a distinction in personhood, an I and a thou, a self and an other, before it can give the self for the other, before it can love the other as it loves itself. Classic Christian theology understands God to have been loving in this way for an eternity as three persons in one God, and God’s love for humanity and all creation is simply an extension of this eternal love within the Trinity.

God is love. This is the essential nature of God’s character, God’s person. And so it is the defining feature of God’s ultimate self-revelation, Jesus Christ. And so it is to be the essential nature and defining feature of those created in God’s image, those being re-created in Christ’s image, God’s new humanity. Just as God’s holiness is manifest first and foremost and always in love, so it is with the holiness God calls Christians to. Our holiness, our distinctiveness, is seen in our love.

Love fulfils truth; it completes it. Love puts flesh on truth. It is truth put into proper practice. By itself, truth—in the sense of “correct knowledge about reality”—has no virtue. It is neither inherently good nor bad. Truth only becomes virtuous, it only becomes good, when it is used in good ways for good ends.

This doesn’t mean that truth has no value. It is valuable and necessary, even in relation to love. Love should be guided by a right perception of reality, as best as we can discern that—recognizing that our knowledge of the truth is always incomplete (1 Cor 13:9-12).

But, while love without knowledge can still be virtuous, knowledge without love never is: it is as a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, it is as nothing at all (1 Cor 13:1-3). Such knowledge risks simply puffing us up in pride, while love—even ignorant love—always builds up others (1 Cor 8:1-3).

These ideas are behind the most significant dimension of a Christian understanding of “truth,” the idea that truth is not just about “correct knowledge of reality,” but that truth is ultimately about a Person, a Person who shows us a certain Way, a Way that leads to Life. Jesus is this Truth, and his Way is love, and this Jesus-love leads to Life (John 14:6).

In all this we’re circling around something very profound, and crucially important: love is at the heart of the gospel, and so at the centre of Christian theology and ethics.

The God who is love has, out of love, come in the person of Jesus, who taught an ethic of love and lived out a life of love, and who suffered in love for us in order to bring us with him into flourishing life, a life energized by the Spirit of Jesus and characterized in its very essence by our love for God and others. We might spend millions of pages and thousands of lifetimes exploring this trinitarian gospel of Jesus-love, but if we ever lose this focus in our theology and ethics, then we no longer have a theology or ethic worthy of being called “Christian.”

It’s love all the way through, no matter how you slice it. It’s love all the way down, from top to bottom. It’s love from beginning to end and everywhere in between.

I’ve sometimes heard people say that calling for love is somehow being wishy-washy. That somehow saying, “We need to love each other,” is being soft on holiness or truth. “Just take a stand, won’t you! Get off the fence on this issue, or that issue, or the next issue. Stand up for truth! Demand holiness!”

Well, here I stand. I can do no other. I give you the strongest moral imperative there is, the most profound truth one could ever declare:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

If we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Up next, some concluding reflections on putting this love into practice.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Love is All We Need

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

We live in turbulent times.

Everything is changing. Nothing seems certain any more.

Humans NYOur knowledge of the universe is growing exponentially, racing beyond our wisdom, outpacing our ability to tame this knowledge for good purposes.

Our globe has shrunk to a village, but it’s a village made up of thousands of distinct cultures, dozens of religions with hundreds of offshoots, and seven billion one-of-a-kind individuals.

Our world is increasingly complex, and we don’t know how to handle this. We scramble for some kind of order in all the chaos and confusion.

We’re afraid, though we don’t like to admit it. We’re afraid of change, afraid of losing what we value most, afraid of the unknown other, the unknown future, afraid of a meaningless existence.

We mask all these fears with stuff—big houses and new cars, gizmos and gadgets and mindless entertainment, all just bread and circuses. Or we medicate our fears away—whether it’s prescription drugs or spiritual highs or something else—anaesthetizing our angst until it retreats to the depths of our subconscious.

Naturally, everyone’s got an opinion on what should be done—that’s part of the mad scramble for order, and part of the chaos and confusion. We take sides on issue x or issue y, digging into our polarized positions in binary code. We shout at each other IN ALL CAPS across the internet. We react to opposition with flaming words, with shaming and scapegoating, or with bullets and bombs—betraying all those underlying fears, and giving us even more reason to fear.

We Christians have our own brands of chaos and confusion, growing from those same complex realities. Faith nomads shift from one Christian tradition to another, church attendance overall is on the decline, and Christianity’s public influence is waning even faster. And we eagerly contribute to the cacophony of opinions on what should be done about all this.

Some of us call for allegiance to doctrinal systems that lay everything out with clarity and certainty—in this we will find our stability, we are told. Others turn to the latest fandangled worship bling or revive tried-and-true forms of ancient ritual. Still others shrug their shoulders at theology or liturgy and instead focus on social justice efforts or political engagement.

Some point to charismatic speakers or compelling authors and hang on their every word—surely they will point the way forward. Others appeal for a simple return to the Bible, apparently unaware that the Christian Scriptures have in fact spawned dozens of different worldviews themselves, contributing to the complexity and chaos and confusion of our post-Christendom world.

In the midst of this chaos and confusion, standing in the complexity of our world, I join my voice to those who say this:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Yikes! Did you hear that? That was the sound of Christians shouting their objections at me. (Yes, we Christians do that, in case you haven’t noticed.)

“Love? Seriously? The world’s problems are going to be solved by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’? Get real!”

“Love, sure. But we are also called by God to be holy, we are called to seek and speak truth. Love without holiness and truth is no love at all!”

“You’re just another liberal following the crowd, reducing the gospel to mere ‘tolerance,’ willing to accept anything and everything in the name of love!”

Well, before you grab your pitchforks and storm mi casa, hear me out.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary.

Love is all we need.

Faith Hope LoveIf we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Sound a little over-the-top? Well, come back tomorrow and I’ll begin fleshing this out in a series of blog posts this week.

In the meantime, here’s a little reading to get you started.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.