Ruler of kings and the cult of the expert
Or, how should a Christian intellectual be different?
Here is a sort of thought that has been in my head a lot lately:
Free Mind IRE @ire_freeLook at these fluent Irish speakers cutting turf. This is the beautiful Irish tradition the greens want to ban while China continues to build coal plants https://t.co/RFf4m4DUfh
Now when I wrote that, I was actually thinking more about the idea of subsidiarity - that country folk decisions should be made by people in the country - than I was thinking about the “cult of the expert”. But those are related issues.
Or, today’s post is not about this book, but I have also been reading (and quite quickly) Fed Up by Danielle DiMartino Booth, a book about the inner workings of the Federal Reserve (she herself was advisor to the president of the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve system). One thing you learn from that book (and a constant frustration for Booth) is that the best economic insights and economic predictions often came from people who were not economists. The many PhD economists on staff at the Fed primarily cared about publishing in esoteric journals and being respected for their supposed erudition by other economists. They had few “on the ground” connections to actual in-operation businesses and weren’t particularly interested in developing any.
And they all largely came from the same few Ivy League schools too, used the same models, and largely thought the same about everything. When reading, I kept thinking about the operation of public health during COVID - same mass groupthink, same lack of concern about whether what we’re doing actually works as long as we’re all doing the same things and all patting each other on the back about it.
Ruler of Kings
But today’s post is actually about this book:
This is Ruler of Kings: Toward a Christian Vision of Government by Joseph Boot. I heard it highly recommended by James White, the Reformed Baptist apologist, as the book needed for our time… and I’m quite enjoying it so far. It’s dense, it’s one of those books that is going to be hard to summarize because you are highlighting every other line.
I know many readers here will appreciate two emphases of the author. One, the gospel has implications for all of life, including our vision of government. Inasmuch as the American church made Christianity about “get ‘em saved and then we’re done”, it erred. And two, if you want to have a good government, that government must exist under Christ. Your “neutral” secular state relying on worldly wisdom is generally going to get worse and worse. Of course it is.
Today, though, I just wanted to summarize (with some of my own thoughts mixed in) the argument of the first chapter and perhaps whet your interest. I am quoting from it rather extensively below, which bothers me a bit… but it’s only chapter one, and if I prompt a couple people to buy the book the author will be happy.
The cult of the expert
The argument proceeds roughly as follows.
One, ideas matter. The proposals of philosophers get applied in real life and have real life consequences (see Marx for a horrifying example of this). Or, I was reminded, as the song ends (quoting Keynes):
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood... Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
“Today”, our author Boot says, “we live in an era of perpetual revolution manifest by an intense intellectual activism in all cultural and political life”. How should the Church respond to this activity, and the crisis it has generated?
Two, as Christianity has declined in the West we have seen the reemergence of what is actually a very old phenomenon - the self-anointed elite class, the intelligentsia, the pastors and priests of the secular world (for every culture needs its pastors and priests). Although this secular elite often professes its love of “the people”, in more honest moments it regards the great masses as idiots who need to be led around, thus explaining the affinity for dictators and other authoritarians historically often shown by the intelligentsia.
Three, he remarks, “it is a regularly observed phenomenon that many otherwise brilliant people appear utterly bereft of wisdom or judgment in the vital affairs of cultural and political life”. Why? Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. They may have intellect, which he defines as the ability to grasp complex ideas. And they may have intelligence, which he defines as the capacity to understand the implications of ideas for a given area of thought. But as for wisdom… he quotes Thomas Sowell from Intellectuals and Society:
…wisdom is the rarest quality of all - the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding. Wisdom is the fulfillment of the ancient admonition, ‘With all your getting, get understanding.’
Four, thinking about matters political and cultural proceeds from the assumptions we make about the world. Since the Enlightenment, the Western intelligentsia has largely rejected the idea that there is a divinely given order for creation. Rather, “contemporary trends… that now dominate our culture hold to a social construction theory of reality - we can create the world we live in by our thought and language”.
Five, and perhaps the critical difference between secular political thought and Christian political thought - what is the standard that norms human behavior? What makes the final judgment? The secular world proposes autonomy, or self-law, and proposes that human reason alone (curated by the intelligentsia) suffices for and serves as a neutral standard of judgment. It proposes that our rational behavior is self-normed, that the criteria for meaningful discourse can be derived from the participants themselves. But it cannot be, and this neutrality is an illusion - in fact, this supposed neutrality is really nothing but an established consensus among the elites. For any universal normative standards for rational behavior to exist, they must come from outside - and they did, they were given with creation. The Christian alternative, then, is theonomy, the claim that God’s law is supreme and properly norms human behavior.
He quotes Thomas Sowell, again from Intellectuals and Society, who does a great job describing the mindset of the modern technocrats:
Intellectuals do not simply have a series of isolated opinions on a variety of subjects. Behind those opinions is usually some coherent over-arching conception of the world, a social vision. Intellectuals are like other people in having visions - some intuitive sense of how the world works, what causes what… At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are ‘problems’ created by existing institutions and that ‘solutions’ to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals. This vision is both a vision of society and a vision of the role of intellectuals within society.’
Six, for a time the Reformation confronted people with the implications of Christianity for all of life. But religious wars in Europe disillusioned many about the sustainability of the Christian state, and then humanism, as it allied itself with science, became more plausible as an all-encompassing substitute. Revival movements like the Great Awakenings in the US were helpful (and perhaps explain why the US preserved its Christianity more than Europe), but on the whole they focused on personal piety and lacked the comprehensive thought of the Reformation. Quoting H. Evan Runner:
Protestants came to withdraw either into a very restricted world of theological argument and investigation or, pietistically, into their private personal lives of ‘devotion,’ failing to understand that the Word of God was given as light under which man was to live his life by on this earth…
Seven, and an implied endorsement of Christian education perhaps, what is needed now, he says, is the “scripturally rooted development of the Christian mind, and the application of this perspective to all of life”. The Christian mind does not look at the world as a set of basic components to be built up however we’d like per our cognitive efforts. Nor is the gospel to be seen as just another set of ideas that might offer “solutions” to society’s “problems”.
This God-ordained vision calls not for self-anointed experts, but for faithful and Spirit-anointed servants committed to the Law-Word of God for creation and culture and to excellence in each sphere of life for the glory of God.
Christian political thought, and why are secular experts broken?
Eight, the godless intelligentsia, believing in the autonomy of reason, functions today as a substitute clergy in education, the media, and politics. The Christian alternative must be a world-and-life view that mediates the true Word to every aspect of human life.
Nine, because Christians are accountable to scripture, we are accountable to reality as it actually is. As was implied in my comment about the economists at the beginning of today’s post, many experts today are not. Engineers are an exception - if an engineer builds a bad home, it will fall down, and he will be out of a job. He is therefore still accountable to reality. But for many other areas of “expertise” this is not the case. Any failure of critical theory in the real world, for example, is blamed on the public improperly implementing the theory. (After all, the whole mindset is that we create the world we want, there is no pre-existing objective order to be acknowledged that might be hampering our efforts.) The only test that matters for critical theorists is what other critical theorists think of them. This is one reason expertise has gone so badly wrong in our day. Boot writes:
This is because their criteria for judgment is essentially internal, not external - which is to say man must prescribe, not discover and acknowledge, the normative structures of human life.
But ten, and finally, there is a proper place for the Christian expert, or the Christian intellectual. Expertise itself is not bad - done properly, it is good. The Biblical model of Daniel is a good one, a man specifically recruited into an elite school, which school produced graduates to guide society and government. But Daniel understood that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Unlike secular or pagan experts (including those in his day), Daniel therefore apprehended and appreciated things within their true context. And that is the place of the Christian intellectual today. “This makes the Christian mind unique, containing a prophetic power that comprehends creation as an instantiation of the Word of God.”
THUS ENDS THE SUMMARY. I am quite enjoying the book so far and perhaps you will as well.