Is Expertise Needed for Wisdom?

[Note: Ask John has a fresh question answered, featured here too.]

Q. I ask you questions because I’ve studied with you. Other people, I assume, ask you questions because they have heard you speak, or read something you’ve published, or seen you interviewed. But why do so many of us reserve our questions for such dubious, if not scandalous, “authorities”? How do so many pop religious figures–who have little in the way of credentials, whether academic, professional, moral, or experiential–get so popular? And among smart people, too, who I think ought to know better?

A. Believe me, I’ve wondered about that, too. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be as well-informed, well-spoken, and well-what-a-nice-guy as I can be, and then I find that the Reverend Herr S. See has a pop religious bestseller, while Mr. Big Teeth has a rave TV show, and Ms. Not-Too-Bright is packing them in to arenas to hear her spiritual “teaching.”

Stackhouse’s Rule of Odd Behaviour: When clearly intelligent people do clearly unintelligent things, it’s not about intelligence. And people like me who tend to over-value intelligence–indeed, who overvalue particular, restricted forms of intelligence (the kind valued in the academy instead of, say, the kind valued in entrepreneurship or in the care of small children)–can be pretty stupid about realizing how appealing other qualities can be in a spiritual advisor. Transparency, humility, honesty even about failure and regret, enthusiasm about positive possibilities and even miracles, indomitable hope, and all of it put simply, vividly, and with emotional punch–doesn’t sound much like a professor, does it? But boy, do we all pay attention to someone like that.

The problem, of course, is that answering some questions really does require expertise. You can have the world’s most honest, sweet, and convinced financial planner advising you, but if he doesn’t know a stock from a bond or an insurance policy from a retirement fund, you just have to look elsewhere, don’t you? In fact, some questions primarily require expertise, which is why certain specialists (surgeons, car mechanics, lawyers, plumbers) can have terrible affects and still do quite well in their businesses: because most of the time they are simply right.

So I find that how someone construes religious questions makes all the difference as to whom they will consult. If a religious question is a matter of basic human competency–like knowing how to break up with someone properly or knowing how to deal with a taciturn teenager or knowing how to survive deep disappointment–then we ought to look for certain basic human qualities, and forget the Ph.D.’s and the “Reverends” and the like. But if a religious question is a matter of special knowledge and skill–like knowing how to diagnose and treat a disease, or knowing how to analyze and respond to a market shift, or knowing how to find the way along an obscure path to a remote destination–then give me an expert, and I don’t care if she’s winsome or not.

What, then, are religious questions?

I think some are of the first sort, hence the testimony of religious traditions around the world that wisdom can be found in people in all walks of life. And some are of the second, hence the testimony of religious traditions around the world that wisdom on these matters can be found only in adepts, scholars, elites. And some, to be sure, require both kinds of wisdom, and must be sought from those special people who are authoritative on both counts.

So perhaps what we need more of in our religious, spiritual, philosophical, and political conversation is conceptual clarity as to what sort of question we’re asking. Only then can we determine what authority we ought to consult. And if we make a mistake on the former, as I think many people do, we will then consult the wrong people and get the wrong advice. And isn’t there a lot of that around nowadays!

John Stackhouse

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