Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 24, 2000
The religion of expertise
The Gospels for the second and third Sundays of Ordinary Time this year focus on Jesus' call to 12 ordinary men to be his apostles. That these men were common folk is a matter which continues to be of significance today.
In an essay on the British jury system, G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Whenever our civilization wants a library to be catalogued or a solar system discovered, or any other trifle of this kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects 12 of the ordinary men standing around."
There was a certain sort of populism about Jesus. He was cool to the experts, but trusting of the common person. His, however, was not the degenerate populism we see today which proposes to resolve all "moral issues" in politics - as if there were any other kind - by referendums. Jesus, rather, took these ordinary men - chosen after a night of prayer - and put them through an intensive three-year program of moral and spiritual formation.
It was important that those chosen be ordinary - they couldn't be specialists whose inner sense of morality had been eroded by too great a focus on technique and erudite knowledge. They couldn't be folks who believed that the world's problems are, at root, the result of too little scientific and technological know-how.
Indeed, that is one of the key societal illusions of today. We have been mesmerized by technological advance into believing that more experts, more research and development funding or even different types of experts will solve our most pressing social problems. Poverty, environmental destruction, family breakdown and other crushing problems are technical problems, we believe. They can be solved if we just listen to the experts.
This religious faith in technique serves the ruling powers by narrowing the realm of ethical discussion to what can be quantified. The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was an example of this. A small coterie of experts and decision-makers gathered in a meeting hall, shutting out the voices of those who pointed out that their expert decisions were leaving hundreds of millions of people impoverished.
Many people today do not fit into the system as efficient, well-greased cogs in a machine. To lack relevant technical expertise is to be poor, to be outside the system. When too many people fall outside the system, our rulers respond by promoting population control in low-income areas and more state control of those who are allowed to be born. A society with blind faith in technological advance can only spawn brutality towards the non-experts.
The solution is not to make everyone an expert or to pretend that everyone is an expert, but rather to recognize that each person's main contribution to the common good is their sense of the beautiful and the good. The role of education is to nurture that sense, refine it and turn it loose.
When Jesus called Simon, he renamed him Peter, the Rock. Peter was anything but a rock - he was impulsive, unreliable, and fearful. But after three years with Jesus, he had become the rock on which Jesus' Church was built.
Thomas was the gloomy pessimist who believed nothing and didn't even see the point of travelling to the nearby town of Bethany. After three years with Jesus, he went to India and founded a Church which thrives even today.
Matthew was a tax collector, a traitor to his nation for the sake of a quick buck. After three years with Jesus, Matthew could write a Gospel which shows the greatest respect for the Jewish faith and how Jesus is the fulfillment of that faith.
None of these men were experts. But Jesus took them, built on their inarticulate faith and made them lions. They changed the world profoundly for the better. Likewise, the transformation our world needs today is more likely to come from such a motley group than from any distinguished panel of experts.
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