Beware of Word-jugglers

by Phillip Brown

“But these word-jugglers are back at it again: ‘The knowledge of various branches of learning’ they say, ‘was especially added to human nature so that with their help he could use his mental skill to compensate for what Nature left out…’”

Erasmus, Folly1

     When Erasmus wrote this passage in the 1500’s he was, at least partly, speaking out against the leaders and the institutions of learning of his day, albeit satirically. His frustration with the arrogance and corruption of the intelligentsia and political leaders of his time led him to write an entire treatise mocking their behaviour and their self-righteous views about their own importance. What I find most interesting about Erasmus’ feelings is that they still seem to be relevant today. At least from where I sit as I write this article. We encounter word-jugglers every day. Almost every time that you turn on the news, you see a politician, or an expert of some kind, or another telling you what is right and what is wrong, what you should do and should not do, and even what and how you should think. These well-practiced speakers use both intelligent sounding and emotional language to convince all of us that they are people who we should listen and give credence to. I believe that we should be very careful about how much trust we put in these people.

     Part of what Erasmus was driving at when he wrote The Praise of Folly was that the motivations of leaders and academics, or experts, should be called into question. Perhaps he was asking, in a sense, just where their interests really lay. Are they really interested in the betterment of society, or are they just interested in making themselves look good and engineering a situation such that they would always appear to have authority? Folly is a bitter and cutting piece of writing and perhaps a bit overboard, but it shines a very bright light on the important issue of blindly following someone’s advice simply because they have been given a position of authority, or a podium to speak from.  We always need to think critically about what we see, read and hear, regardless of the source. Even this article should be read with a critical eye.

     A doctor who becomes an elected official or, say, becomes a director of public health, or some such position, is no longer a doctor, at least not a practicing one. They have become a politician. The same goes for an expert who has been asked to publicly speak about a political issue concerning their area of study. They are no longer just, an epidemiologist, or a climatologist. Their interests and motivations, whatever they were before they were put in that position, have now necessarily changed. There are now pressures on them to meet party expectations, or to represent their academic institution well and in a politically savvy way, and to try to avoid raising the ire of the listening public. They effectively become word-jugglers.

     The pressures that they are suddenly under leads them to change their behaviour, sometimes dramatically. Often, for people in official positions, or who are required to make some statement which will go on public record, it becomes difficult to speak the whole truth of a given situation. It seems to become necessary to come across as being particularly intelligent, articulate, and as being one who has authority, as opposed to just speaking plainly. And those people seem to feel the need to internalize their belief in their importance and essentialness to society. I want to address this with, at least a bit of, compassion. The stakes are higher when what you say and do are under public scrutiny. Experts, who are usually academics of some sort, are subject to more than just public scrutiny. They are also subject to scrutiny from their peers who are also experts in their field. Their academic reputation could be riding on what they say in an interview, or at a press conference. It should be mentioned also that the interests of the institutions which they represent may be placed ahead of epistemological integrity in such public situations. An expert may feel compelled to omit certain important, but not politically expedient, pieces of data from their public statements in an effort to ensure that their institutional standing is not affected by what they say. Politicians, it seems, can get away with being less responsible. They only answer to the public and their credibility seems to be more fluid. For a politician, credibility can be lost and regained under the right political conditions. And so long as they are not indicted with any particularly grievous crimes, when they are no longer in the public’s favour, they can just fade away into, usually, a comfortable private life. Discredited academics stand, on the other hand, to lose everything.  In any case, one can at least understand the less than particularly honest and forthright behaviour that these public individuals display in light of the above mentioned pressures.  

     Now none of this means that I am giving our leaders and public experts a free pass. Dishonesty and deception are still very wrong and as such is the case, we should be holding these people accountable for their actions. And on the Christian view, they will be accountable to God in the end. But what should concern us most about this is that, in any given case, without access to enough data—and the ability to interpret the data—we are in a situation where we have little choice, but to trust what public officials and experts tell us. This is potentially very dangerous. And if the increasing secularization of society is any kind of indicator, it is certainly, at a minimum, pernicious. Rarely do our leaders profess the Gospel, or believe that we should act in accordance with what scripture says. And academic institutions, and academics broadly speaking, are behind the public policies that our leaders put in place. That said, it should be made clear that there are many excellent Christian scholars who publish very regularly in respected academic journals and who do their best to express the truth through their work. For that matter, there are many more Atheist and Agnostic scholars who are honest and try to be as objective in their work as possible. To that end, I do not mean to contend that every statement made by a politician, public official, or expert chosen to speak publicly on a particular issue is intentionally misleading people, or intending to attack Christian sensibilities. It is more likely that, in this day and age, Christian beliefs are not even considered where public policy is concerned. 

     It seems to be the case that, by and large, when it comes to public policy, political expediency and secularist agendas are what tend to prevail. We are often told by leaders and experts that we need to listen to them for our own safety. And we are told that we need to be “diverse” and “inclusive” and that all “hate”is to be eschewed. On the surface, this seems to align very well with the Gospel. Matt 22:39 does tell us to love our neighbour like ourselves. And that certainly means putting hate aside. But when we consider things more and take into account our current socio-political setting, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Tim 6:3-5 says:

“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a sick craving for controversial questions and disputes about words, from which come envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between people of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain…”

NASB

Now, the socio-historical setting for this passage is likely that early church members were sometimes divided on what teachings to follow because there were some who preached Jesus’ “message” and used Jesus’ name for their own gain, but did not really know what Jesus actually taught. Also the Judaizers, who Paul mentions in Galatians, were likely a constant problem for early Jesus followers. Even though the current discussion concerns modern politics, public officials and public policies in the 21st century, the same warning still applies. The problem is one of false doctrine. And we are fed false doctrine daily. Our leaders and experts regularly espouse ideas, which are in direct contravention to the Gospel. From views about marriage, to biology, to what broadly constitutes morally acceptable behaviour, the clear teachings of scripture are thrown in stark relief against a background of secular values which are pushed by political and popular academic figures. Through well-polished, carefully prepared and publicly proliferated statements we are slowly, but surely, moved towards a false doctrine that is, not just different from, but actually hostile to the Gospel. 

     Now I recognize the apparent accusatory nature of what I have said in this article and it certainly is just that, accusatory. But it is also the way that things seem to be. From the perspective of a Christian apologist who is simply trying to be honest and who believes that not speaking the truth and tending towards being ashamed of the Gospel would be a clear display of a lack of integrity, I think that it is important to speak out against false doctrine. Having said that, I want to make it clear, that I am not advocating for any kind of wide-spread dismissing, or violating of policies, or laws simply because they do not conform to Christian beliefs. My goal, perhaps much like Erasmus’ was, is to make whoever may come to read this aware of what I see as a glaring socio-political issue in our society, namely, that the word-jugglers of our day should be approached with caution and their words held up against reason and more importantly, against the Gospel.   

1Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Trans. Clarence H. Miller. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.