What follows arose up within me in the wake of yet another soul-crushing example of the disturbing ignorance that passes for insight or knowledge in Christian Middle Earth. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m referring to a tweet that orgasmically exalted in finding the divine name vocalized in Hebrew manuscripts as “Yehovah” instead of Yahweh. While I’ll be posting a brief response video to that silliness, I wanted to post something positive. Here’s my best try.
I often get asked what I think is the best evidence that the gospel is supernatural and true. My answer is “the Church — because it should have imploded a long time ago and hasn’t.” What I mean here is that the Church is riddled with bad thinking and sophistry presented with the veneer of scholarship. There are so many people who have been taught — and believe — false teaching (and, less sinister, just deeply flawed ideas) that it’s miraculous the Church is still here in such force. God must be in it.
I know … doesn’t sound too positive. I’ll start my transition now. That was my set up.
I present my answer with humor, but I’m serious. It troubles me that so many good people who want to learn are led astray or (again less sinister) distracted with such ease and such frequency. If I beat that drum often enough, I’ll come across as a bully. I don’t want that to happen since I despise argument from authority (as opposed to data). People would think that I think I’m right because I have a PhD. That isn’t the case. Having a PhD doesn’t mean you’re smart (defined here as “clear thinker” not “someone who can memorize lots of stuff”). Trust me when I say I’ve met people with PhDs who really don’t think well; they can’t see the forest from the trees that made up their dissertation chapters. Conversely, I’ve met people without degrees who convinced me in minutes they were clear thinkers. More on how I’d describe that below.
So what does earning a PhD do? What does it say about someone who earned one? (I do not include honorary degrees in this — they are fake doctoral degrees, sometimes deserved for service or contribution, but they are not earned like real ones — and so they don’t mean what real ones mean).
Here’s how I’d describe what earning a PhD means …
1. It means you’ve been forcibly exposed to the broad range of knowledge of a given field. Not in a “mile wide and an inch deep” way, either. Try a mile wide and a mile deep. Whether you like it or not, a real PhD program forces you to gain deep and wide exposure to a discipline. It measures that exposure by do-or-die (as in you’re out of the entire program at the end) exams before you area allowed to begin your dissertation. And yes, it happens — people get eliminated after years of work and debt at that juncture. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s tragic. The pressure is severe.
2. It means you’ve been orally roasted by field experts in class and via other examinations on various aspects of your domain knowledge. Think of it as a two hour interview that may just forestall death (written prelims come later). In short, you have to have reasonable command of what you’re talking about. If you say goofy things that aren’t data-driven, you’re gone. It’s always about data, not stroking your professors. I know that firsthand, as several of my papers and my dissertation took minority positions on things. But I had data and didn’t just parrot what had been said by the minority for centuries. Being innovative didn’t eliminate me. Many experts like to think about new things (or old things in new ways).
3. It means you have allowed your work to be evaluated by field experts. As an example of an expert, I’ll use my adviser. His primary academic focus was Wisdom Literature. He knew a lot about other fields, but when it came to wisdom literature, it really was the case that he’d read everything in the field that mattered going back decades, and even centuries, and thought about it. You have to do that when you’re writing commentaries and other books that are supposed to be the field standard for the next few decades (among other wisdom lit books he authored, he wrote the two volumes of the Anchor-Yale Commentary on Proverbs and edited the new Proverbs volume for the new edition of the Hebrew Bible known as Biblia Hebraica Quinta). He was also pretty versed in Israelite religion, which is why he became my adviser. But we got help outside the department, too. I solidified my own topic after a conversation with someone known as an expert in that field who teaches at Harvard (when he couldn’t answer a question I had about my topic — and he told me so — I knew I had a good topic).
By way of summary, this is what a PhD (a real one) gives you: domain knowledge and the guidance that comes with peer review / interaction. It doesn’t mean you know everything or will always be right. But it does mean you know a whole lot and won’t be wrong with the staggering frequency that people without the PhD experience will be.
This helps explain the reason I cringe at so much of what passes for “digging deep” in Christian Middle Earth: its “thinkers” overwhelmingly lack domain knowledge — they literally don’t know what they don’t know — and have never (and would never) submit their teachings to the review of experts. They might be good thinkers, but they are hamstrung by the lack of domain knowledge and peer review. They not only don’t know why their idea is wrong, but they may not even be able to grasp the reasons it is due to lack of domain knowledge. As the old saying goes, they know enough to be dangerous, and some of them are. To be fair, most would not want to knowingly lead people astray with flawed thinking. But in some cases they would and do. They want to be the big fish in a small pond. They want the adoration. One of the reasons I abhor that sort of thing is that I’ve seen it up close several times in life and, to be honest, it’s utterly contrary to the example of Christ. It also helps that I was raised old school. I didn’t have the best environment as a young believer in my teens, surrounded by unbelief and some hostility, but I did learn important character lessons. Not tooting your own horn was one of them. Craving attention also reflects bad theology. The only difference between me and anybody else is time, interest, and the will of God. (I’ve noted before that I’m not a prophet!)
To wrap up (these flow-of-consciousness posts can just go on and on) in my experience, it doesn’t take long to learn if someone can think clearly — they can take apart a problem, creatively evaluate the pieces and their relationships, detect omissions or oversights, and then come up with something better or more plausible. Their conclusions may not be coherent because they lack what a PhD can give you (domain knowledge and peer guidance). But they’re still really smart — they think well. I love to meet them, and they are out there in churches and Christian Middle Earth. My fear for them is that they either won’t get good content and get bored with the faith, start teaching nonsense as though it was doctrine, or (worse) succumb to hubris and become false teachers themselves. The solution for the second and third items is not to go out and get a PhD. Rather, it’s to be emotionally secure enough to take criticism and correction from field experts and keep learning. Field experts do that, too (it’s why we go to those conferences and read or listen to papers). What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. No one knows all they can or should know about things that interest them. That’s only a problem when you convince yourself — or others — that you do.