Have you ever been frustrated at the prevalent disregard Americans show toward experts in fields that laypeople otherwise know nothing about? Joe Average who thinks he knows as much about the political system as the most educated person on Capitol Hill, Betty Bologna who refuses to listen to anyone on a subject now that she has read one blog post about it, or Conspiracy Corey who posts 15 obscure Facebook links a day from random corners of the internet – sure that he’s discovered the secret nobody else knows?
Well, Tom Nichols became frustrated enough that he wrote a book about it. The Death of Expertise is an important book which tries to tackle the issue of not only of why Americans can’t seem to dialogue anymore, but why we actually despise those who have expertise in fields that we do not. The argument is relatively simple: we don’t respect people who have more expertise than us anymore. As Nichols says it, “Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be equal to anyone else’s (p. 5).” Despite all of the advancements we have made as a society, “the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else…we now live in a society where the acquisition of even a little learning is the endpoint, rather than the beginning, of education. And this is a dangerous thing (p. 7).”
I agree. And as I set out to read the book, I couldn’t help but be struck at how accurately Nichols describes the predicament of American churches and Christians. There is an increasingly nasty disposition American Christians have toward one another, especially those who claim (rightly) a better understanding of the faith than they do. This is not only true of lay Christians toward pastors, leaders and scholars, but it is true between lay people themselves. The older and wiser saint no longer carries the respect of the youth which Scripture says is good and necessary for the health of the church (Leviticus 19:32, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, etc.). Trained leaders are despised for their instruction, rather than being honored for the position and charge God has given them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Timothy 5:17-18, etc.)
One section of Death in particular has struck me in how much it applies to the state of the American Church, and that is the chapter on American higher education. It is in this chapter that Nichols attributes much of the “death of expertise” in America to the higher education system. As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but find parallel after parallel between the problems besetting higher education and the American Church. I want to focus on three for the remainder of this post: The Sold Experience, Over Saturation, and Over Inflation.
- The Sold Experience
Although higher education was originally a place for the select few privileged people who could both afford the tuition and compete academically for their place in the school, “today attendance at postsecondary institutions is a mass experience (p. 71).” It is now the expectation that most people will – and everybody should attend college. Whereas obtaining a college degree once separated those with educational achievement from those without, this is no longer the case. The reality is however, that not everyone can or should make the cut to attend a college or university. But as higher education has become a product for the masses, it no longer guarantees a “college education” but instead a full-time experience of “going to college” (p. 72).
In other words, there is an increasing commodification of education. Students are not treated as such but instead are treated as clients. Those schools which know that they can’t compete for the highest tier of students instead focus on giving people what they want: a four-year getaway complete with apartment-style housing, state of the art recreation centers and Four-Star dining.
With remarkable similarities in many so-called churches in America, Christianity is no longer a system of beliefs and truths to know and be internalized but instead it has become an experience to share with others. Those churches which do not trust in the God-given means of conversion and growth (the preached Word, Sacraments) instead turn to selling an experience to attract the masses.
I recently went to the website of one very popular mega-church in my area to see what they believed and taught. It was extremely difficult to find a page that lists the church’s beliefs, and when I could, it was so generic and ambiguous that I could hardly distinguish it from a self-help center. Instead, the main page flooded me with information about their live-streaming services and the friendly, convenient experience I could have from the comforts of my own home. The “About Us” page contained testimonials – dare I say user testimonials – about how their life had changed since they bought the experience the church had sold them. I wasn’t quite sure if I was on a church website or something for essential oils (these days it seems like it could be one and the same).
Or consider the pamphlet I found in my mailbox for another local “church” which offered me a free week pass for my kids to attend their amazing indoor playground and recreation center. If I would just attend their church, my kids would have so much FUN while I would be ENERGIZED by the experience I’ll have. What does the church actually believe? Who knows, but at least I’ll have fun, right?
While these stories are anecdotal, we all know that these kinds of examples aren’t hard to find. When congregants become consumers, the Christianity they drink from is a watered-down and tasteless variant. The difficult task of confessional and Bible-teaching churches is to convince these people that even though they’ve shared in some generic barely-Christian experience, they haven’t yet tasted the real thing. This is often harder to do than just giving people the real thing in the first place.
Tell such a person that what they’ve bought into is unhealthy – often not even Christian – and the response is one grounded in experience and not Scripture. “My faith has grown tremendously through this, doesn’t that matter? People come into the faith through this, so who are you to say it’s wrong?” Well, if by faith you mean an ambiguous pseudo-Christian experience that they now sort of share with you, then I suppose you’re right. But if you mean an acceptance of the truths of the Triune God, the historic work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, the depths of our sins, and an application of Christ’s benefits to us – then I’m afraid you’d be terribly wrong.
After all, none of these things matter so long as you’ve bought into the shared experience of the “Christian” product of the masses.
- Over Saturation
If you can’t win people with their need for a robust and intense education, then you can certainly win them with a four-year getaway with their friends. If you can’t win people by preaching and singing the truths of the Scriptures every week, then you can certainly win them by promising they’ll have fun. Most of the time.
However, as the experience is bought up by the masses then the population becomes saturated with people who think they’ve obtained something they actually have not. Nichols points out how small state colleges and schools try to sell students into believing they’re paying for something that is actually a higher-tier product. They offer degree programs that they really aren’t qualified to teach – not only at the undergraduate levels, but at the graduate and doctoral levels as well. The problem here is when underqualified schools offer courses and degree programs as though they are equivalent to their better-known counterparts. Although there is a large quality gap between a competitive university and a “rebranded” smaller school, the student with the lesser-quality degree believes they have actually achieved the same degree as the student from the competitive university. If two students from two different schools have the same degree (even if it is in name only), how could your degree be better than mine? My view and opinion is just as important as yours – we have the same degree…even if my degree was from an unqualified and (perhaps) unaccredited program (p. 92).
The American Christian experience is facing a relatively similar phenomenon. Is every church the same? No. Does every church believe the same things? Not at all. Are all churches as rigorous for their demands from members or the education of their leaders? No. Yet, more and more, just because someone bought into the generic Christian experience they believe their opinion counts just as much as anyone else’s. The person who attends a non-denominational and entertainment-driven church once a month and who barely reads their Bible flaunts their opinion even more strongly than the 65-year-old woman who has attended church every Sunday and has studied the Bible daily under the tutelage of her pastors for generations. The individual who only knows enough out-of-context Scripture from the Gospels to proof text his or her views on social issues knows just as much about Christian ethics as the individual who could outline and quote extensively from numerous books of the Bible. The non-educated and untrained pastor believes their interpretation to be as valid as the pastor with two advanced degrees simply because they share a similar title.
This is absolutely ludicrous, and yet, it makes sense if one judges being Christian not off of beliefs held but an experience that is shared.
- Over Inflation
When college becomes an experience to be sold rather than a degree to be earned and the population becomes saturated with individuals buying up the product, then the business needs to carry to the client. At the university level, this means the student is always right – even when it comes to their grades.
As Nichols points out, as the cost for the college experience goes up, so too does the demand for better grades. Students who graduate with a high GPA no longer reflect their level of education or intellectual achievement. A study of two hundred colleges and universities through 2009 found that A was the most commonly given grade. Grades in the A and B range now account for more than 80 percent of all grades in all subjects. In 2012, the most frequently given grade at Harvard was a straight A. At Yale, more than 60 percent of all grades are either A or A-. High grades are now rewarded not for academic achievement, but simply for course completion (pp. 94-95).
And so, in similar fashion, as the Sunday church service becomes an experience to be sold and the population becomes saturated with individuals who have bought into a shared experience, the business starts to cater to the client. Give the people what they want – fun, entertainment, positivity. Tell people how good they are in a bigger, louder, faster and sleeker fashion. Stay away from the stuff that turns people away – sin, consequences, repentance, and divisive topics.
Fortunately, this is where the similarities end and we find a major difference between the American church and university. Church leaders and pastors may believe they’re able to come up with new and ingenious ways to grow churches and sell the Christian experience, but ultimately all of these means will fail. We may try to do what we think is best to grow numbers and get more people into seats, but ultimately it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Christ builds his church, not the “wisdom” of man.
So, perhaps, if we want more people to share in the faith which we hold, we should stop selling them some generic notion of a common experience. Instead, let’s give them the full and wonderful truths about our God, about ourselves, and our glorious savior which the Bible so beautifully lays out for us. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).”
But then again, what do I know? Your opinion is probably just as good as mine.
Recently, one of my non-Christian friends asked me a provocative question: “What are your thoughts on the evolution of the feeling of the presence of God?” As I re-type this question, I’m reminded of just how much of a mouthful it was for me to understand. If you’re anything like me, this question throws you a little bit off balance. I have thoughts on evolution, and I have thoughts on what it means to feel the presence of God – but trying to understand the two together? Fortunately, I was in a situation where a few other people were able to respond to the question before me so I could develop a somewhat intelligent when it was time for me to contribute!
This friend of mine introduced me to the work of computational biologist John C. Wathey and his book, The Illusion of God’s Presence. In this book, Wathey investigates the trans-cultural phenomenon of what it means for an individual to feel the presence of God. What he endeavors to show is that this “illusion” of God’s presence can be attributed to neural circuitry that evolved to strengthen the mother-child bond. In other words, infant humans grew accustomed to crying out to their mothers for nursing and comfort. As humans evolved and aged, this genetic instinct for a child to cry out to a mother grew into an instinct for an adult to cry out to an even higher being. Wathey argues that religion and the presence of God fill an emotional and cognitive hole left over from infancy.
Now, I’m still working through the fullness of Wathey’s argument to understand it better. However, I do know that Wathey points to numerous evidences to make his case. Some of these evidences include patterns of infantile imagery across religions, as well as studies of the brain in individuals when they claim to “feel the presence of God.” All of these evidences are used to make the case that this feeling of the divine presence is a product of natural evolution in human beings.
In no way do I think Wathey is necessarily anti-religion or anti-God, nor do I think that is the motivation for his research. However, his work does communicate a certain assumption that is made in our culture today; that if we can prove a supernatural phenomena by natural means, it is no longer supernatural. Let me explain.
There is an increasing polarization between science and faith today. On one side is a line of reasoning which emerged in the early/mid 20th century from evangelical fundamentalists. Their views on science and faith heightened God’s supernatural work in the world to the degree that his involvement in the natural order was downplayed and almost dismissed entirely. However, on the other side arose a line of secular/naturalistic thinking which so greatly emphasized the natural order that the supernatural was no longer necessary. I like to think of these two views as either “extreme supernaturalism” or “extreme naturalism.”
It is my estimation that Wathey – and others like him – fall more into the second camp. This group will use research like what is put forward in Illusion to make the case that since we can now prove why a given supernatural phenomena exists, all supernaturalism is simply a byproduct of evolution. We may not be able to explain all supernatural phenomena at this time, but the fact that we can explain some means that we will eventually be able to explain supernaturalism away.
However, both of these extremes ignore a very crucial and significant point. You see, Christianity is built upon the foundational idea that the Supernatural become natural; that the eternal Son incarnated himself in the form of a man (John 1:14, Rom. 8:3, Phil. 2:6-8). This Godhead has now united us to himself forever by his Spirit (Rom. 8:9, Eph 3:17, 4:22). The God-man now lives in the form of both the supernatural and natural; in addition, he has united the natural man to himself supernaturally through the Spirit.
So you see, Christianity is neither extreme supernaturalism nor is it extreme naturalism, instead it is a kind of natural supernaturalism. The trajectory of history is one of restoration, as God supernaturally restores and reconciles the natural order unto himself (Acts 3:21, Revelation 21:1-4).
Many Christians are troubled when they hear of research which seems to explain divine actions or activity. However, we not not fear such scientific discovery – we should embrace it. The reason for this is because given the inseparability of the supernatural and the natural in Christ, we should expect to find natural explanations for God’s work in the world.
Now, I don’t buy into Wathey’s conclusions – I think they’re largely an interesting theory. However, I would argue that any true conclusions which come from his research only make sense from a Christian worldview. It is only there where we find a consistently rational explanation for supernatural occurrences in the natural world. What a time to be alive in redemptive history, when we are able to discover more about God’s activity in the cosmos through the natural means he has given us!
Like its 2013 predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is full of Christian/religious undertones and themes. Throughout the film, we see shots of characters praying, language surrounding angels and demons, and Superman being consistently portrayed as a savior figure. Even the classic epicurean problem of evil plays a role in the movie’s dialogue.
One of the most frequent themes in the movie is this question of who exactly Superman is. Is he a god? Is he a man? Is he somehow both? Is he the savior of humanity that people have been waiting on? This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the audience, because we even see this theme in the trailers for the film. In one scene of the film (from the trailer), we see Lex Luthor exclaim, “If man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!” In describing the battle between Superman and Batman, Lex again says, “The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world. God versus man. Day versus night!” Yet at the same time, we know there are references to Superman’s humanity. In another scene from the film (also from the trailer), we see Batman looking to Superman and asking the question, “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.” While Lex is fascinated by the apparent divinity in Superman, Batman is driven by finding Superman’s human weaknesses.
This question over Superman’s identity echoes a familiar debate from church history. In AD 318, a man named Arius began teaching that Jesus was not God at all, but that he was merely some sort of heavenly servant of the true God. The one Most High God was the only almighty and transcendent God, Jesus was merely a created servant. Arius in particular wrestled with how Jesus could be divine if he exhibited emotion, grew and learned, and ultimately died. He thought his teachings had precedent within the church, for in the prior century Origen had been teaching that the Father was due glory and praise that the Son was not. Arius’ teachings were simply the next logical step in the line of Origen.
In 325 the council of Nicaea was summoned. This council met to deal with the issues that Arius’ teachings had introduced. Who was Jesus? Was he divine? Was he created? Was he merely a man? These were the issues facing the council. Ultimately, they ended up expanding the language of the Apostles’ Creed (ca. 140) by detailing the relationship between Jesus and the Father – in particular Jesus’ divinity. The Nicene Creed proclaims that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made.” These were all expressions used to communicate that Jesus was as much God as the Father was. The final lynchpin in their argument for Christ’s divinity was the expression that Jesus was “being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Through this language, the Arian view was rejected and the council declared that the Father and the Son are both God in trinity.
Why does this matter? Today is Good Friday. It is the day we solemnly remember the sacrifice that Christ paid on our behalf. It was on this day that all of creation hung its head in sorrow at the death of its creator. Christ was not only willing to stand in our place, but also to face the separation from God that comes through death.
But this is also a day that gives us confidence, for only the God-man Jesus Christ could be our true Savior figure. The sacrifice must have been man, for humanity deserved death (Romans 3:23). Yet the sacrifice must also have been God, for only a perfect sacrifice could have done away with our penalty (Galatians 4:4-5, Hebrews 2:9). Only the Creator could undo the brokenness of creation. Christ became the second Adam so that those who were in bondage under the first Adam could be set free (Romans 5:12-21).
What this means for us is that we can have confidence on even the most solemn of days like Good Friday. We know that when we look to Christ for salvation, we are looking to God himself. We know God because we know Christ. Although his body was laid in the grave, we celebrate that God raised him from the dead for our justification (Romans 4:25).
Who is this Jesus? He is our risen and living King, our friend, our brother, our mediator and advocate – our Savior!
Below you will find audio, handouts and articles I used for three of the eight weeks in my class entitled “Fear, Anxiety and Depression.” I hope they will be useful for you.
1. Introduction and Personal Story
2. A Biblical View of the Person and How it Impacts our Depression-Anxiety Care
3. The Place of Psychiatry and Medicine in Depression-Anxiety Care