Feeling Dumb, Acting Smart




Those of you that follow me on a regular basis, know that my classes at Yale began last week.

Yesterday, however, was my first full day of classes. I had three of them. One in patristic theology, another in Judaism during the time of Jesus, and a third in the history of American evangelicalism.

So far, I love my classes.

Part of the reason for that is because I’m a nerd and love being in class. The other reason is that I am in awe of the expertise my professors have in their given area.

For example, the professor for my class in Judaism in the time of Jesus is John Collins, a former president of the Society of Biblical Literature and one of the world’s leading experts in Old Testament studies.

Within just a few minutes of his lectures you become keenly aware of the depth and breath of his knowledge of the subject.

Needless to say, in comparison, my ignorance of the subject left me feeling pretty dumb.

Between my undergraduate and graduate studies I’ve spent the better of a decade studying  theology and the Bible, but as I listened to my professors lecture over the first few days of class I’ve been keenly reminded of how little I really know, how much there is still left to learn, and that no matter how hard I try theology and the Bible are far too broad of subjects for me to know everything about them.

In other words, going to class has been a very humbling experience.

As I sat in class this week, feeling dumber and dumber, I also became more and more amazed by how arrogantly so many of us denounce the thoughts, opinions, and interpretations of others, including theological and biblical experts, even though our “expertise” is limited to Sunday school classes, sermons we’ve heard, and/or pop theology books that we’ve read.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with those things. In face, for the most part, they are very good things, important parts of discipleship.

However, none of those things give us the theological or Biblical expertise we speak with when we tear apart our opponents on blogs, in social media, or even at church.

There’s a reason why amateurs don’t build rockets for NASA. Rocket science is a complex and difficult discipline. Mistakes in either design or construction, more often than not, costs lives. Yet, as we witnessed in the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, even when the experts manage ever detail of design and construction, mistakes are sometimes still made and people die.

Bad theology can be just as harmful.

In the extreme, we have only to recall the tragedy of 9/11 to see the very real danger of bad theology.

That’s not to say that “the experts”, people trained in the academy, can’t “get it wrong” in catastrophic ways. They can and they sometimes do.

It’s also not to say that laymen shouldn’t do theological reflection and share their opinions. They absolutely should. All of us are theologians because all of us talk or think about God. And as Christians, all of us should spend time reading and talking about the Bible.

That’s also not to say that experts don’t sometimes get it wrong. If you ask most Ph.D.s, regardless of their field of study, they’ll tell you that the more they learn the more they realize how much there is that they don’t know.

But whether lay or expert we need to engage in theological discourse with humility, understanding that we are not the mouthpiece of God, nor are we simply repeating “the clear teachings of the Bible.”

If the the theology of the Bible was as clear as some of our brothers and sisters would have us believe, there wouldn’t be so many different denominations, nor would there be never ending debates about the meaning of scripture.

The reality of the Christianity faith is that, despite what we may want to believe and profess from the comfort of our middle class lives, it is not such a simple faith.

If you think that it is a simple faith, try explaining to a man dying of brain cancer why the miracle working Jesus he read about in the gospels isn’t performing a miracle for him. Or try explaining to a poor immigrant family struggling to put food on the table why the God who poured out riches and blessings on an immigrant named Abraham won’t do the same for them. Or explain to a infertile woman desperate for children why the God of the Bible who time and time again gave barren, old women babies won’t also give her a child to love.

There are certainly beautifully simple aspects to the Christian faith, but pursuing the God of the Bible is, more often than not, a difficult, complex, and challenging task.

While this is a calling we all share, just as we trust our best and brightest engineers to take us the stars, we need to find the humility to allow the best and brightest among us in the church to direct us towards God.

That doesn’t mean we need a “mediator between us and God”. It simply means that like sheep, we need shepherds to point us in the right direction so that we don’t accidentally go walking off a cliff, dragging others with us.

When it comes to our humanity, we are all equal in the sight of God. When it comes to intelligence, insight, and expertise, the truth is that there are some people, in fact many people, in the world who are smarter than us, who know more about “stuff” than we do, even when that “stuff” is something we hold dear.

I can study all I want, but N.T. Wright knows more about the New Testament than I ever will. No matter how much reflection I do, Stanley Hauerwas will always have a better grasp on Christian ethics than me. And I can spend every waking moment of my life practicing and perfecting my sermons, but I will never understand the art of preaching better than Billy Graham.

And that’s ok.

For me, great men and women like this are gifts from God, sent to guide us lesser mortals towards understanding the never fully knowable God we love so much.

Certainly, we should continue to debate and challenge the great minds of the church. Likewise, we must absolutely continue our own theological reflection and Biblical study, but I believe the time is ripe for an interjection of intellectual humility in the church.

I believe that what the church needs now more than ever is a new generation of believers who, despite having a world of information at their fingertips, are willing to concede that they don’t know everything, and because of that God has gifted some of us to teach the rest of us and that’s ok.

It’s time for the arrogance that spews out so much vitrol online and in the church from those of us who consider our opinions and interpretations to be the final word to cease, especially when there is no real authority behind our words.

Again, that doesn’t mean that we stop sharing those opinions and interpretations.

It means that we need to learn to always do so with humility because we are not the experts we think we are.

It means acknowledging that there are others in the church who understand this Christianity thing better than we do.

And perhaps above all, it means that we stop trying to act smarter than we really are and start trying to act as humble as we have been called to be.


Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt