Conservative Theology

Academics vs. Laity


I am often appalled at the way in which many academics treat laity.  Whether it is the way in which academic theologians think about the faithful Bible-believer in the pew who knows only how to read the Bible devotionally or it is the way in which evolutionists think that no other discipline (or especially someone just making use of common sense) might have something to add to biology.

If I've ever treated someone this way, I'm sorry.  It is a bad habit, and it is bred into you in the post-graduate level.  Basically, any thinking like a lay person should be thought of as stupid, and talked down to, rather than addressed seriously.  That is the way nearly every academic professor I've run into has behaved when teaching classes, and so that academic elitism gets transferred to the students by osmosis.

What academics don't realize is that there is a perspective that lay people can offer that is simply unavailable to them in an academic setting.  This isn't to say that lay people are more knowledgeable than the experts.  On the contrary, the perspective that lay people offer is important precisely because they do not know all of the details. 

Think about the view of earth as a fly, a person, an airplane, and a satellite.  Each of them might be looking at the same spot, but each one is seeing very different things.  The satellite will never see the details that a fly does.  However, the satellite may in fact have data, or even a perspective, that would be useful to the fly.

I often challenge evolutionists to try to find something of value in the way in which creationists (not me, but the lay creationists that annoy them so much) are thinking.  They often respond that while they can value the person, there is no way in which they can value such idiotic ideas.  Really?  Nothing?  Can you value the way in which they rest solidly on their faith, even though you might disagree with its content?  Can you value some aspect of the way their worldview works?  I have trouble thinking of any thought pattern which is completely valueless.

But this looking-down-your-nose attitude continues to prevail throughout culture.  And it's not just evolution.  If you hear the way in which theologians talk so condescendingly about people who read the Bible who have no idea of the synoptic problem, but just want to know God better, it is truly disgusting.

The fact is that lay people have, among other things, the following attributes in which academics simply cannot have:

  • A fresh perspective on the issue that is not clouded with the discipline's own history of investigation
  • A view of the discipline only from the perspective of how it interacts with other disciplines
  • A view of the data using alternate rubrics of interpretation and reliability
  • A habit of sorting through the data so as to ignore the unimportant and grasp only the essentails (let me tell you - academics are habitually trained to focus, in a razor-sharp manner - on the unimportant)

Any particular lay person will have additional perspectives which are valuable.  This doesn't mean that academics should abandon their post for a lay-only view of their subject.  But it does mean that people who aren't part of a discipline might have valuable insight that is simply unavailable to the unaided academic community.  If a layperson is incorrect, belittling them is not the answer - but rather a process of both finding out where they are coming from and explaining where you are coming from is the answer.  I've often found that, even when someone is completely wrong, there is a kernel of truth to what they say, and if you find it this kernel will be greatly valuable.

For you lay people, be encouraged.  Just because an academic treats you like mud doesn't mean your ideas are worthless.  It just means that you having gone through the right hazing rituals to be respected by their community.  For you academics - lighten up!  A two-way dialogue is the best way to interact with the lay public, not a one-way lecture.