Michael Jinkins: Down with slogans!

"Experts" are wrong as often as everyone else. So should we not drop simplistic ways of seeing the world?

It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. The person who said this was making the point that things (and people) are always more complex than they may appear at first glance.

And yet there always seems to be a ready market for reductionism, for experts and pundits trying to persuade us that their latest bumper-sticker philosophy of life will unravel the interminable knots of existence.

A few years ago Tom Long, professor of homiletics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, preached a sermon in which he observed that the greatest heresy of our age is not atheism, but superficiality. I’ve quoted Tom’s line enough that one of us owes the other a lot of back royalties.

While orthodoxy has always sought to maintain the deep tensions at the heart of the gospel (such as Jesus Christ, “fully divine, fully human”), and has steadfastly resisted reducing these tensions to simple either/or statements, heresy inevitably loses its hold on one or the other of opposing affirmations that only together can lay claim to the truth, and thereby violates the integrity of the mystery of faith.

Of course, the heresy of superficiality is not restricted to the church; it infects society at large. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the The New York Times recently on research presented by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His book, Expert Political Judgment (2005), found that the predictions of the most well-known experts on whatever subject tended to be correct only slightly more often than totally random guesses (Kristof: “the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board”).

Fame follows over-simplification. The more famous the expert, the less reliable were his or her predictions. Famous experts tend to get famous because they get airtime representing clear, simplistic, easily remembered, and sometimes inflammatory, but consistently “black or white” points of views.

Kristof explains Tetlock’s analysis of this research by drawing on a distinction he makes between “hedgehogs” and “foxes” (drawing on Isaiah Berlin). In the rarified world of experts, according to Tetlock, hedgehogs are those who “tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning….” Foxes, on the other hand, “are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance.” Kristof continues, adding, “while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.”

With some regularity I am told by some church or religion “expert” that lay people demand simple answers, black and white responses to the complicated moral and spiritual issues arising in this fast-paced world. It is more important to be interesting than accurate one expert told me. With considerable regularity I also teach classes and preach in congregations around the country, and the lay persons I meet in these classes not only read magazines and papers like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and other print and online media, they not only also run businesses, work in the fields of law and medicine and education, and are apparently able to whistle and walk simultaneously, they also crave a deeper more complex engagement with Christian faith.

We don’t have to treat matters of faith dully in order to preserve the complexities, let alone the mysteries, of faith and life. And we certainly don’t have to dumb down our presentation of the gospel and of the gospel’s intersections with life in order to stimulate the interests of our audiences.

A friend related a story about advice he received from an expert in Christian publishing. The expert told him that he needed to eliminate the nuances from a piece he had written for a lay audience. My friend responded with something that would drive a hedgehog crazy, but that is music to the ears of every fox: The really important stuff has to be nuanced, or else it isn’t true.

That won’t fit on a bumper sticker, but it’s worth remembering.

Michael Jinkins is Academic Dean and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.