Intellectuals and laypersons in science and religion

When scientists have more in common with priests and theologians

Re-Assembling Reality #27g, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

In Re-Assembling Reality #27f, we noticed that there can be a tension between the counter-intuitive intellectual objects created by religious intellectuals, and the experiences and perceptions of regular religious people.

We also noticed that the same tension exists between the counter-intuitive intellectual objects created by scientific intellectuals (scientists), and the experiences and perceptions of regular people who use the products derived from the intellectual objects.

In many ways, the intellectuals (religious or scientific) have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the laypeople, be they religious or scientific.

But the same person might be an intellectual specialist part of the time, and a layperson another part of the time.

Statisticians spend their day at work carefully analyzing Gaussian distributions, but then 80% of them reach for standard heuristics when they get home, just like any other lay-person. A theologian may spend their day at work carefully interpreting Romans 8, but then when they get home, they might fall back to a superficial interpretation that’s no different from that of any other lay person.

A technologist (intellectual specialist) has to get their head around some deeply counter-intuitive ideas (like why most of the air in jet engine is fed around, not through, the turbine). They are aware of the controversies in the field (like whether the reduction in fuel consumption with winglets due to reduction in turbulent flow or more efficient vortex shedding.) A passenger (layperson) neither knows nor cares about such controversies. They also do not need to have an opinion on their solution in order to be able to fly. They need to know where to get on and sit where they are told. A heavier than air object lifts them off the ground: that is quite counter-intuitive enough, and they can’t even explain that.

Theologians have to get their head around counterintuitive issues (God is both transcendent and immanent). They are aware of the controversies in the field (Is God’s perfect knowledge of the future compatible with human free will?) A Christian in the pew might not know nor care about such controversies. They also do not need to have an opinion on their solution in order to be able to pray. They need to know how to light a candle, and kneel at the time they are told to. The creator of the universe cares what they think: that is quite counter-intuitive enough, and they can’t even explain that.

The cockpit crew of a Boeing 737 operating the controls on a commercial flight from Oslo to Munich. Photo credit: John Christian Fjellestad via Wikimedia Commons

A pilot needs training in developing a skill. Reading out the dials and controlling the plane is not intuitive. Developing the ability takes skill. The skilled practice of a pilot is not the skilled knowledge of an engineer. The engineer may be bookish and never step foot near an actual plane. The pilot may have a superficial understanding of aerodynamics (to understand the principles of lift and thrust and the like) but they need not be bookish. Rather, they must immerse themselves in the practice of flying a plane.

A religious pastor needs training to develop a skill. Hearing and understanding the voice of God is not intuitive. Developing the ability takes skill. The skilled practice of a pastor might not be the skilled knowledge of a theologian. The theologian may be bookish and rarely, if ever, pray or set foot near people who pray. The pastor may have a relatively superficial understanding of theology (to understand the principles of ecclesiology and soteriology and the like) but they need not be bookish. Rather, they must immerse themselves in the practice of leading a church.

Just now we have compared bookish intellectual knowledge and practical skill, and how these can be similarly contrasted in both scientific and religious contexts. Whether in science or religion, it’s possible for the same person to combine both intellectual knowledge and practical skill — even though, in reality, they are often different persons. Let’s consider the implications of this by comparing how scholars objectify cosplayers and gods.

Alice is an anthropologist. She has attended cosplay conventions (to observe them) but has never actually put on a costume. She has studied Ya Ya Han. She has read books about her, and even written books about her. Her anthropological knowledge is extensive, though it is an outsider’s perspective. She relates to cosplayers primarily as an intellectual object, not as persons.

Yaya Han’s book on cosplay

Bob is a scholar of theology. He has attended many church services (to study them) but hardly ever actually prays. He has studied God. He has read books about God, and even written books about God. His theological knowledge is extensive, though it is an outsider’s perspective. He relates to God and Christians primarily as intellectual objects, not as persons.

Cindy is a cosplayer and knows all about cosplay. She thinks about it all week, and goes to conventions every weekend. All her friends do it. She knows Ya Ya Han personally. She never wrote a book about cosplay, and doesn’t want to write a book about it. Her knowledge of it is extensive, but not scientific (or anthropological), because she has never objectified cosplayers or codified her thinking in a book.

Bob is a Christian and knows all about Christianity. He thinks about it all week, and goes to church every weekend. All his friends are Christians. He knows God personally. He never wrote a book about Christianity, and doesn’t want to write a book about it. His knowledge is extensive, but not theological, because he never objectified the God of Christians and never codified his thinking in a book.

Ephraim is a cosplaying anthropologist. Every evening he hangs out with his cosplaying friends, sharing their excitement as they make costumes together. During the day, he reflects on his own cosplaying experiences, reads books by others about cosplay, and codifies his thinking into academic papers. He (usually) has no difficulty moving back and forth between them: at one moment he is intimate and treats his friends as friends; at the next moment he is distant and treats his friends as objects of study. (That said, even when he studies cosplay, the passion for it is always there). He finds his personal relationship with Ya Ya Han is intensified from his theoretical knowledge that helps him understand the wider context of her actions.

Felix is a Christian theologian. Every evening he hangs out with his Christian friends, sharing their excitement as they pray together. During the day, he reflects on his own religious experiences, reads books by others about Christianity, and codifies his thinking into academic papers. He (usually) has no difficulty moving back and forth between them: at one moment being intimate and treating God as his Lord; at the next moment being distant and treating God as an object of study. (That said, even when he studies Christianity, the passion for it is always there). He finds his personal relationship with God is intensified from his theoretical knowledge that helps him understand the wider context of His actions.

crosswalk.com

We’ve looked at several scenarios in this essay. They show us that (1) religious and scientific intellectuals (scientists, theologians, pastors, etc.) have more in common with each other than with laypersons, but that (2) it’s possible to alternate between the roles of intellectual and layperson. How that plays out depends on the person’s passion and commitment.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

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I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.