The struggle for reputable information over the past few months has been frustrating. Whether due to the sheer volume of COVID-19 related publications or the confusing messages issued by public health, it is difficult to know who to trust. The tendency for many of us is to reject the advice of these fallible people altogether. How should Christians respond?
Believing in both God’s good creation and the subsequent Fall, we must be ever mindful of the tension that exists between how experts and their knowledge can be beneficial or detrimental to human flourishing. But in a climate where expertise is increasingly disregarded, Christians should be able to recognize the goodness therein.
First of all, Christians contribute to undermining expertise as an idea. We may face an even greater danger precisely because we are Christian. Our faith in God shapes all our beliefs about the world. And because we have an eye for the underlying worldview and hand of God in all things visible, we tend to engage it at a level that might not otherwise be perceived by the secular scientist.
Christians see something miraculous in pregnancy and childbirth, while an agnostic physician sees it as a complex picture of physiology drawn up by genetics. The former see God, and the latter sees natural selection.
It can be problematic because Christians perceive rightly but only partly. We see the truth that the agnostic doctor does not. In the most mysterious realms, there is an Operator. But a problem arises when a mother recognizes that the physician is in error. While she has never herself studied the workings of her baby’s circulation, her picture, in many ways, is the correct one. And this begins to cast doubt on what the physician knows. He tells her that years of macroevolution have enabled her body to produce milk for her child. She politely nods but dismisses his inability to see that this is God’s design.
Over time, this skepticism can become cancerous. We see it in distrust toward vaccines. Whether the disagreement arises over the physician’s reductionist account of human nature or a questionable motive, the expertise is undermined. The physician, of course, is not without fault. He may be dismissive of people with beliefs in God or disparage complementary medicine that his patients have sought out. In doing this, he makes no allies. But we cannot forget that he knows much that we do not.
God works through imperfect means to bring better health to our communities. Whether he milks the cow through the milkmaid or treats ear infections through the physician, we must see his hands operating in all these spheres through different people He has equipped for every task.
Nobody is better
There are additional layers to our suspicion of expertise, both within and without the church. In an age emphasizing democracy and equality, we have confounded ontological equality for a functional one. In its extreme forms, we reduce knowledge to opinion, believing a person’s superior knowledge to be elitist and hence a threat to equality. Or in the lingo of Bible study, nobody’s interpretation is better than anyone else’s. C.S. Lewis, somewhat pessimistically and through the voice of the senior demon Screwtape, viewed this as nothing but a manifestation of envy. We are opposed to the idea that someone is better than us at something.
The Bible addresses this problem head-on in the idea that the church is a body with many members. Hands and eyes serve different functions, even though they are all gifted by the same Spirit. The point that Paul stresses is that the body would not be the body if it comprised eyes or ears solely. There are many parts precisely because the body requires it. And in recognizing that God has so composed the body, we can appreciate that all roles must be filled and mitigate envy. We see God’s good purposes in drawing us together in mutual dependency while recognizing our gifts.
While the gifts God bestows the distinct members of the body are intended to build up the church, the basic idea of a God behind all the varieties of expertise we see today holds. He created all things.
Expertise is imperfect
Certainly, experts are not perfect. They commit abuses and errors just like any other fallen person. Knowledge may puff up and be used for oppressive purposes while increasing specialization cuts off the wider picture. Experts also tend to wield their authority outside their proper domains, and the wisdom of limits can easily be overlooked.
Yet we must be ever mindful of our attitudes and the temptation for contempt. We see experts fumbling about and want to be rid of them. But could we do much better? The situation is constantly evolving, the demand for immediate information is high, and the careful deliberation behind closed doors so necessary for formulating recommendations is a luxury. They are also operating in a fallen, imperfect world.
Expertise is good
We should not reject the idea of expertise on account of faulty applications. The physician who has spent nine years in training knows more than the average Christian on the body and health. Her advice must still be appropriately interpreted through a particular worldview. Yet God has given her much knowledge.
When we consider our work environments or our local church body, we immediately recognize that human capacities are finite. We are insignificant and impotent when considering the vastness of creation. To even surmise that a single person can know all things is ludicrous. In God’s common grace, He has given all people access to understanding the workings of His world, even if the most fundamental truths behind it remain hidden. Expertise, then, is about recognizing human limits in the very structure of God’s world.
This is the stance we must have when we think about expertise in the world. It is a resource from God, given to certain individuals, for the benefit of all people. He gives knowledge to the just and the unjust, and we must be ever thankful for it.