Christian Criticism and Bill Nye
A recent “article” was released on the Christian comedy site The Babylonian Bee calling into question Bill Nye’s credibility as a scientist. This is the second such article from The Bee, the first playing on a Halloween theme. While funny on a level, I think the modern Christian criticism of Bill Nye as “not a real scientist” is actually quite detrimental to one of the primary goals of Christian community. But, more on that in a moment.
I want to begin by emphatically stating that I do not agree with Bill Nye the Science Guy on a number of significant issues. First and foremost, his acceptance of and adherence to pure naturalism and naturalistic processes is unacceptable to me. I am a Christian. As such, I affirm whole-heartedly the first line of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Regardless of the in-house Christian debates about the “how,” the “what,” and the “why” of Creation, Christianity at its essence is not “purely natural.” It, by definition, includes the supernatural. I could spend the rest of this blog post delineating all the ways I disagree with “the Science Guy,” but that is not the point.
So what is the point? Here is the point – the Christian community regularly derides Bill Nye for “not being a real scientist.” We don’t agree with many of his public points on certain scientific principles, so we scoff at him. In the technical world of philosophy, this is known as an “ad hominem” argument. It is an argument against the person, rather than the ideas of the person. How does this look in the Christian world toward Bill Nye. It usually goes this way: “Bill only has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering. Why is he talking about biology, astronomy, or climate change?” OR, “Bill only played a scientist on TV. He doesn’t really know what he is talking about.” On and on the dismissals go. He isn’t an “expert;” therefore, He doesn’t have anything worth saying.
I think such a perspective is a flawed criticism, particularly coming from the Christian community. Here is why…
Christians As Lifelong Learners (aka – Disciples)
Bill Nye, for all that I disagree with him on, has spent his life learning (and teaching) science. True, he has not earned advanced degrees beyond his degree in Engineering (which, by the way, is a science and math based degree). He took the essential tools he learned from that degree, applied them to other areas, studied and evaluated materials on his own, and subjected himself to a larger community of other learners and “experts” to gain a progressive knowledge that he then applied in the ways he saw proper and fit. Along the way, he has had a part in some meaningful engineering ideas and designs, has a few patents, and has received some pretty significant awards from those in the scientific community. These awards include six honorary doctorates (one from Rutgers and one from Johns Hopkins). He has also been appointed by the larger scientific community as the head of the Planetary Society.
Now, regardless of whether or not you agree with Nye’s findings, conclusions, etc. (again, I mostly do not), you cannot really downplay his personal effort over the past several decades at attempting to improve on his craft, better himself, and continue a rigorous process of lifelong learning. At least, I hope no Christian would downplay this. Surely, no one that promotes the idea of Christians as lifelong learners would dismiss or disregard the place of an “untrained” believer from speaking truth into the lives of others in areas in which “they might not be experts.” Heaven forbid. But, for clarity sake, let’s turn the tables.
How many of you reading this are, by society’s standards, experts in politics? Or in theology? Or in Church History? Or in anything, for that matter? Do you parents have Masters and Doctorates in Early Childhood Development and Education? Do you married couples have advanced degrees and years and years of experience in relationship development, conflict resolution, and communication? Do you Sunday School teachers have advanced degrees in hermeneutics, biblical exposition, biblical Greek and Hebrew, classical training in formal theological structures, rhetoric, philosophy, logic, etc.? For that matter, how many of you pastors reading this have those credentials? Does the absence of your own personal expertise mean that you have nothing of value to say about the above listed subjects? Are you disqualified as an educator of others in these areas because it isn’t your formal field of expertise?
OF COURSE NOT! What is it that Christians believe about growth, about knowledge, about discipleship? We believe that a person takes their natural gifts, combines them with their spiritual gifts, and works diligently to cultivate both, all under the direction and guidance of a larger, wiser, more knowledgeable community around us, and this leads us to growth. I don’t have to have an advanced degree in Political Science or have that be my field of personal work and expertise to be able to meaningfully and intelligently come to conclusions about politics in America. The same is true of any area.
For the fun of it, let’s take a real life example from the Christian community of the past: the ole’ Prince of Preachers himself – Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon, by the standards of his day, had very little formal education. He never received a university degree. He began a preaching/pastoral ministry in his teens, well before many (then and now) would have deemed him to be qualified. Yet, he eventually taught at a seminary/Bible college level. He even founded what would become Spurgeon’s College. Why do so many in Christendom give any credibility to him? “Come on, he wasn’t even university trained, let alone seminary trained.” It sounds fairly ridiculous in this context. Apart from the unique work of the Spirit in Spurgeon’s life, what did he have? A strong desire to study hard on his own, to place himself in a community of experts (both living and dead), and strive for a strong understanding in fields in which he was not formally trained. Is this not what we encourage all members of our churches to do? Do we not challenge and encourage one another to stretch ourselves, to grow, to learn, to become as well informed as grace, time, gifting, and ability allow? Does it diminish the contribution of any one of us, if these efforts are done outside of “formal credentials?” Is this really the message we want to communicate to other believers, or even to the unbelieving world? Do we really want those in opposition to the gospel message responding to the faithful in our congregations in the same manner that we have been responding to Bill Nye? I can hear it now – “Why do I have to listen to you? You aren’t a real theologian.” (Or – ethicist, or philosopher, or political scientist, or counselor, etc…). Do we, as Christians, really want the validity of public arguments to be solely based on the presence or absence of professional or academic credentials? I certainly hope not.
So, stop it with the “Bill Nye isn’t a real scientist” shtick. Challenge his methods, challenge his ideas, challenge his conclusions. But don’t challenge his efforts to learn and grow. We Christians, above all others, should applaud any effort we see at lifelong learning. Let us remember, in humility, our “…calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Virtually none of us are “experts.” But each believer has something valuable and worthwhile to speak into society, and each believer can become more knowledgeable and capable in the craft of speaking that truth. As we challenge others, let’s not unintentionally disqualify ourselves with the arguments we are making.