In Praise of the Generalist I: The Problem

One of the things that marks the world today, particularly the academic world, is the importance of specialisation and expertise.  We all tend to trust the experts because who are we, poor mites, to question what somebody who has spent a lifetime studying a particularly narrow area says about a given field? One obvious example doing the rounds in cultural circles at the moment is evolution.  Everywhere we are being told that to reject evolution is simply an egregious act of willful ignorance.  Yet how many of us are really qualified to judge the arguments?   I have not read a science book since I left school and so I am really qualified neither to argue for nor against the idea.  I know that a majority of respected scientists hold to some form of evolutionary theory; but I also know that many of them disagree on matters that are more than simply incidental details, disagreements upon which I am even less qualified to opine than the general question.  I am also aware that some scientists and philosophers have profound problems with evolution and, to put it bluntly, that scientists have been wrong before.  In addition, many of the pop journalists who tell me I must believe this or that are probably no more qualified than I am to assess the issue but are simply jumping on the bandwagon; and that bandwagon is driven by a wider culture has bypassed Popper and now uses the language of unequivocal  fact and truth where `theory' or even, for the most hard core evolutionists, `best available theory to fits the facts' would surely be more somewhat modest and appropriate. As Albert Camus pointed out over fifty years ago, scientists have become a kind of priesthood, hijacking language and demanding the same kind of uncritical capitulation from others as the older, more openly religious priests did in the past.

Of course, it is not just science but academic studies in general which have come under the sway of the specialist, theology being no exception.   In an era where we are drowning in a sea of information and where there are exponentially more PhD students than there will ever be proper academic jobs, the pressure to specialise is intense, from thesis proposal to article and manuscript submission with academic publishers.   

In my own field of church history, I generally encourage students not to do PhDs on, say, Luther because there have been so many done on him in the past that we are surely reaching saturation level.  `Luther's attitude to toe-nails' is, perhaps, the only topic not yet covered.  Yet Luther's output on a monthly basis was probably as large as the New Testament, and NT studies shows no signs of running out of topics.  All that happens is that the topics become narrower and more arcane.  This has little to do with the intrinsic nature of the New Testament and much to do with the need to find a dissertation topic and then to publish.  no-one gets published for saying what's been said a million times before and in the same hackneyed way.  It needs to be a new topic, or at least a novel presentation of an old one.

This kind of behaviour creates in turn what one might dub a vortex of specialisation: as academics know more and more about less and less, the possibility for an overall synthesis becomes increasingly impossible not only to realise in practice but even to conceive of in theory.   It is hardly surprising that the resulting academic culture emphasises diversity instead of unity, and the kaleidoscopic philosophies of postmodernism are able to flourish -- whether as causes, effects or elective affinities, who knows?.  Indeed, as Kostenberger and Kruger point to the sociological predilection for diversity that provides fertile soil for the reception of the kind of work produced by Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, one might further add that the very structure of the Biblical Studies scholarly guild(s) makes it virtually impossible to do anything other than the kind of work produced by such writers.

Ironically, this cult of the specialist has arguably been enhanced by some of the attempts to dethrone it.  Take those strands of postmodernism that sought to expose truth claims and specialist guilds as masks for power bids and manipulation.   On one level, such criticism often had a certain validity to it: experts can sometimes operate as little more than a playground bully with PhDs, using qualifications and institutions to  throw their weight around willy-nilly; but at another level, the postmodern critics were vulnerable to two obvious criticisms.  First, perhaps more than anyone else, they developed their own highly technical vocabulary and barbaric prose style which served to do little more than obfuscate and confuse those outside the circle of  the illuminati and keep themselves beyond the type of critical scrutiny to which they so mercilessly subjected others.  Second, in relativising everything, they ironically left everything exactly where it had been before: the people in charge were still in charge, since relativism provides no solid foundation for revolutionary change.

The implications of all this -- the cult of the specialist, enhanced as it is in an ironic twist by postmodern impotence and intensified by the deluge of information and the pressure to publish in academic circles -- poses an acute problem to the church: how can we respond?     My belief is that part of that response needs to be the reassertion of the importance of the generalist, both in the church and in the seminary.    One does not necessarily have to be a Milanese fashion designer to see that someone in the street is badly dressed, or even completely naked.

In the next post, therefore, I want to argue that being a generalist is, especially for pastors and elders, both a biblical imperative and a theological possibility.