Guest post by Mia Langford
It may be true, that men, who are mere mathematicians, have certain specific shortcomings, but that is not the fault of mathematics, for it is equally true of every other exclusive occupation. — Carl Friedrich Gauss
“So much of this is just so far above my head. I don’t think there would ever be much I could contribute.”
My heart sank. This beautiful, earnest elementary school teacher really thought she had nothing to give to the defense of truth. But apologetics is for everyone. As Christians we believe we have access to general and revealed truth, and this truth is accessible to all. Explain the world accurately; that’s the goal. To explain the world as accurately as possible, and to reach that same world as persuasively as possible, we need the entire world, with the varying perspectives, data set, experiences, and gifts it brings to the table.
Why? Let’s look at three reasons.
1.) Sometimes the emperor has no clothes.
We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes by Hans Christian Anderson. The emperor was tricked by a tailor into wearing invisible clothes that ostensibly had the power to reveal the stupidity of any person who was not able to see them, for:
“The whole town knew about the cloth’s peculiar power, and all were impatient to find out how stupid their neighbors were.”
It took the candid chutzpah of a little child to shatter the ridiculous, widespread delusion that gripped an entire population.
Deep divers who spend decades of life dedicated to mastery of a particular subject or craft are invaluable, and deserve the admiration and appreciation of a world benefitting immensely from their dedication. But much like this kingdom, disciplines of any nature – including apologetics and its proximate fields — become insular and prone to wayward theories if they do not receive periodic infusions of data, perspective, and evaluation from other disciplines, as well as laymen.
Let’s take an example from the world of art: the famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci — the Mona Lisa.
Throughout the centuries, a good number of art critics and art historians made it their expert opinion that Lisa del Giocondo — the model for DaVinci’s masterpiece — was only half-smiling. Some even went so far as to call her sad, or even frowning.
Based on nothing more than a ledger from a Florentine convent that recorded del Giocondo purchasing snail water, one theory advances the Mona Lisa’s only “half-smile” at that exact moment is because “she can’t stop thinking about disease, her impending death, and how scary sex is.” The originator of this theory further makes the rather unsubstantiated assertion that there is “something macabre and morbid in Leonardo’s masterpiece” and “if the Mona Lisa is a portrait of someone with a sexually transmitted disease, these hints of death and illness suddenly make sense.”
Let’s keep in mind — experts engaged in speculations and tenuous arguments such as these in order to explain why the Mona Lisa was not fully smiling at that exact moment – a biased assumption.
Yet a recent study reveals non-expert participants found del Giocondo’s expression unequivocally “happy” 97 percent of the time. This astonished researchers, with some going so far as to say given the descriptions from art and art history more ambiguity was expected, calling the common opinion among art historians into question.
Or let’s take an example from the medical field.
Decades ago, many doctors and researchers made the unsubstantiated assumption that dietary fat must be bad for weight gain, and the low-fat diet was born. Millions of tax dollars poured into government-sponsored programs seeking to fight the trend of obesity, all operating on this unproven assumption. Meanwhile, companies made billions on “healthy” products containing empty, processed carbohydrates proudly marked “fat-free.” Patients complied, but in general, also complained the diet wasn’t working.
Despite the horrific failure of these government initiatives and fifty years of trying to prove through research that dietary fat causes obesity we still cannot find any evidence in support of this assumption. In fact, research has supported the conclusion that dietary fat may in fact protect against obesity. Yet it took the medical community decades before they were willing to lay this pet idea aside. One misguided and unchallenged assumption led to decades of flawed research and understanding, leading one researcher to call the historic emphasis on total fat reduction a serious distraction in efforts to control obesity and improve health in general.[i]
Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences. We can avert expensive dead-ends and stagnation by encouraging a discipline’s ideas to interact with the greater world.
2.) It’s the gateway to innovation and discovery.
Like the young Max Planck, young Albert Einstein was told everything worth discovering in physics had already been discovered. This did not stop the restless Einstein from craving originality and the prospect of intellectual adventure. At the dawn of the last century, Einstein found himself working in a patent office. If ever there was a gross misappropriation of gifting, this was surely it. His non-conformist streak and rebellious disposition had not set well in an academic environment. Yet, perhaps this non-academic setting made room for novel angles of reflection, as well as the time and privacy needed to explore them. Einstein got his adventure. While working at the patent office, he published ideas that turned the pet ideas in physics upside down.
Once a certain threshold is reached, advances in specialized fields often become dependent on new information from other contexts and the cross-pollination of ideas. This is because experts are disproportionately familiar with, as well as focused on, the developed knowledge within the prescribed boundaries of their own field of study. New knowledge, then, must often come from the outside. An outsider is also likely to ask questions and tease at new investigative angles that might not occur to an insider.
There is a long precedent for this phenomenon throughout history, with many of our most important discoveries or advances being the result of interjection from practitioners in other disciplines. The Wright brothers — inventors of the airplane — were not engineers; they were mechanics. Marie Curie — pioneering researcher on radioactivity — was a physicist, yet many of her important contributions are to medicine. The list goes on.
These interjections are often viewed as impertinence, but new data merely serves to uncover new possibilities to the brilliant, dauntless mind ready to receive and interact with it. Scholars are students of history, and are likely familiar with this precedent even if they haven’t pondered implications for methodology. The advantages shoot through methodology and continue into dissemination. The merging of aspects from two or more disciplines creates a competitive advantage, allowing one to move between the two worlds, and connect the “tribes.”
3.) It’s biblical.
If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
– I Corinthians 12:17-22 ESV
Yeah. What Paul said.
Perhaps that beautiful schoolteacher has knowledge on how to reach children more effectively with apologetic ideas. Perhaps after reading the work of an apologist she answers the pivotal question of a student who goes on to influence thousands of people. Perhaps that obscure bible verse she has treasured in her heart finds sudden salience in the discussion at hand. Perhaps she can even smell if a tenuous academic theory has become disconnected from reality, its discord with her experiences on the ground of life gnawing at the edges of her mind. Regardless, there is something she brings to the table.
And so do you, for:
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. – Proverbs 15:22 ESV
[i] Fung, Dr. Jason. The Obesity Code. (Greystone Books: Vancouver/Berkley.) 2016.
Mia holds degrees in psychology, biblical studies, and advanced generalist social work, with experience in research, strategy, public speaking, program design, fundraising, and a bunch of other things you don’t really want to know about. She’s convinced this plus her penchant for tangents and shiny things is enough to qualify her for the title Renaissance Woman. She directs the Deeper Roots Conference, manages the Library of Historical Apologetics, is a researcher with the Spiritual Readiness Project, regularly contributes to projectthreesixty.org, and has written for The Stream. She loves pretty much anything nerdy, adventurous, or caffeinated. Follow her on Facebook, or on Twitter @MiaMLangford or Instagram langford_mia where her odysseys are just beginning.