We must each make decisions for ourselves, but not by ourselves
As I write this The Washington Post is helpfully telling me the world didn’t end. Again.
The end of the world was prophesied for this past September 23. The dark planet Nibiru was supposed to collide with Earth, or do something else cosmically terrible, such that the prophecies in the Bible would come true and bring about the end of the world.
When September 23 came and went, the warning was revised to October 15 … which also passed without incident. November 19 is now to bring Armageddon and, if so, this column won’t be printed. But if you’re reading it, you’ll know what didn’t happen.
End-of-the-world predictions go back to the times of the Apostles – the one generation that could easily be forgiven for being sure the Lord was returning in their lifetime. Many readers will be old enough to remember the stir caused by the bestselling book of the 1970s The Late Great Planet Earth. And younger readers will recognize the Left Behind series of books and films that were, in more ways than one, truly disastrous.
This penchant of many Christians to believe poorly credentialled teachers purveying outlandish ideas came to mind as I recently read Tom Nichols’ new book The Death of Expertise (Oxford, 2017).
Nichols, a professor of security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, surveys the cultural storm in America today in which the wise words of genuine authorities compete hopelessly for attention with the noise generated by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to your blowhard Uncle Jim.
Meanwhile in the Church many Christians think the Reformation’s emphasis on "the priesthood of all believers" means everyone is as expert as anyone else on religious matters. (It doesn’t.)
Yes, Christian preachers and teachers with the best qualifications have sometimes been wrong. So have experts in every other field, proving only that they too are human beings and the world is complex.
The point is not that legitimate authorities are always right. The point, as Nichols puts it, is they are right far more often than you are. So you should trust them rather than yourself – or the fascinating guy on the Internet who "confirms" what you think you know.
In fact, Nichols adds, the situation is not equal for everyone. Something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows "the least competent people were the least likely to know they were wrong or to know that others were right, the most likely to try to fake it, and the least able to learn anything."
(Now you understand your Uncle Jim a little better – and perhaps the last church committee meeting you left muttering in frustration.)
The Apostle Paul tells us, "God has placed in the Church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers" to inform and guide the Church (1 Corinthians 12:8). So how are we to recognize authentic authorities rather than sellers of the latest, greatest apocalyptic hokum?
We’d all do well to remind ourselves of the many effective ways to confirm genuine authorities. I list a set in my book Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford, 2014).
But for now, here’s just one: Look at who else trusts this person.
Is this person commended by others you have learned to trust? Does he or she work in a legitimate organization? Did this person train at appropriate places under appropriate teachers to prepare for the work they are now doing? Do you see his or her teaching published by reputable presses, magazines and websites, or promoted on dependable television channels?
And what does your church say? Entire churches can be fooled, of course, and the New Testament warns churches to identify false teachers and send them packing. But if you enjoy participating in a healthy church, then listen to those who are listened to by those responsible for the health of your church.
We each must decide for ourselves, but we shouldn’t decide by ourselves. For if we merely listen to those who tell us what we want to hear, we set ourselves up to be fooled, as fools (2 Timothy 4:3).
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017).