I know nothing about medicine (only recently I heard for the first time about “coeliac disease”). I should have had enough “general knowledge”, after eleven years of tertiary studies, to recognize the symptoms of my own heart-attack some years ago. My ignorance almost killed me.
I would love to have been a lawyer, a barrister in fact. I became a theologian and know nothing about Law, Common or otherwise (Canon Law excepted), and have to depend on legal experts like Thom to defend my rights. (Our Thom, indefatigable commentator of this blog, was as an adolescent, like me, in a Junior Seminary, but unlike me got out in time to learn something useful. He became both an engineer and a lawyer.)
I once built a play-house for my kids in our backyard in Bennington, Vermont. But I know zilch about building (as my creation proved), nothing about carpentry, electricity or plumbing, which many professionals and even amateur handymen who never finished High School master perfectly. Engineering, Information Technology and Rocket Science and most of the other subjects on University curricula are foreign to me. I am a theologian. All I know is what other theologians have said and written about religious beliefs, in particular the ones I inherited from my family and the Sacred Book and traditions which are their foundation.
You don’t argue with your doctor about his diagnosis. You might seek a second opinion, but from another doctor, not the lady next door. When you need expert advice, you go to a pro, an expert with the necessary credentials which establish his expertise. You may express your opinion on multiple subjects, from politics to literature to economics to cinema to the breeding of cocker-spaniels or the sexual behavior of snails in New Guinea. If you are talking with an expert on one of these subjects, the value of your opinion does not measure up to his. Sometimes the “expert” is out of his depth, unfamiliar with the details of the subject being discussed, or simply mistaken. But one tends to acknowledge and respect the “expertise” of the expert, whose education, sanctioned usually by academic degrees, or at least his track-record, confirm his credibility. If an historian tells me that Napoléon died on Saint Helena on May 5, 1821, I accept what he says, pending proof to the contrary. If he asserts that Montholon poisoned the Emperor over a long period with small doses of arsenic, I take his opinion seriously, but in view of the dissident opinions of other experts, I do not equate it with established fact. Even experts can disagree among themselves. But at least we recognize them as experts.
“Experts” in Religion and Theology are unique in that people with far less education, erudition and even intelligence feel perfectly qualified to dispute and disagree with their opinions. The theologian may have spent his life studying the sacred texts and immersing himself in the literature they have spawned. But the man on the street or in a public arena feels comfortable contesting his dogmatic assertions, and he is perfectly right to do so, because his opinion is as good as that of the theologian, who like me spent years acquiring credentials that prove only that he is more familiar with the subject than most. He – and I – know just as much (i.e., as little) as you do about God or the “after-life”. We may know a lot more facts about religious belief and practice and the literature which we can quote chapter and verse, but none of this knowledge gives us authority to defend – or in my case, attack – articles of faith. Creeds state not facts but beliefs. Whether you accept them or not depends not on credentials but credibility. I know. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I’m glad I crossed over. If you’re still a believer but beginning to have doubts about some of your beliefs, I hope this blog – written by an “expert” – will deepen those doubts and motivate you to recognize your credulity, and abandon your creed – not because of my “credentials” but because what I have written, I hope, makes sense. You don’t need to have my degrees to share my opinions. In matters of faith we are all equally (un)qualified. I hope you make the right choice.