29 November 2016

An interjection: did Randal Rauser do his readers a disservice by co-authoring a book with a layperson?

Over at Debunking Christianity, a blog I once frequented authored by someone I once respected, there's been a controversy over the fact that the book I'm currently reviewing, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, was co-authored by Justin Schieber—someone who has no formal training in theology. The implication is that this makes the book too lopsided, because Randal Rauser is a doctoral-level academic theologian. Was he picking low-hanging fruit by co-authoring his book with a layperson?

First, I'm highly confident from my reading of the book that Schieber was by no means out of his depth, and that Rauser himself would laud the discussion as spirited and thought-provoking. (And, contrary to what my readers might expect, I don't think a clear "winner" emerges from the book.) Furthermore, the book is intended for laypersons, not academics. But the question here is broader: do laypersons have any business engaging academics in the first place?

Everyone is a layperson in some respect. It's worth noting that questions of theology and philosophy do not confine themselves to those fields. They overlap with cosmology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, history, and much more. The most influential book to my own view of philosophy was Philosophy in the Flesh, a book written by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist (co-authored with Mark Johnson, an academic philosopher). William Lane Craig is an academically trained philosopher and theologian, but he regularly engages in debates on cosmology, evolution, cognition, history, and other related subjects. Many of his past debate opponents are people like Sean Carroll, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, none of whom are academic theologians or philosophers. This does not prevent these interlocutors from being widely read on these topics and fully prepared for a spirited, substantive engagement with Craig.

For Rauser's part, his degrees are in theology. He does not possess a formal degree in philosophy, history, or any field of science. But does that mean that he is unable to meaningfully and substantively contribute to discussions on those topics? Of course not. Like Schieber, Rauser is himself broadly read and draws his views from a diverse background that undoubtedly expands well beyond his formal education.

Degrees are certainly valuable, to a point. But a degree does not prove someone a good critical thinker, a skilled debater, or a broadly read autodidact. How many of us could even pass any of our college exams ten years later? A formal education, while a pre-requisite for most academic positions, does not guarantee that one experienced a pedagogy that ensured the breadth of information studied was even retained in the first place, much less to the extent that it could be applied years or decades later. Personally speaking, as a personal trainer by trade I have learned far more from hands-on experience and practically-applied continuing education than I ever did sitting in a classroom memorizing flash cards for over 200 muscles of the human body while I formally studied exercise science. Further, some of the most incompetent trainers I've ever encountered were quite well-credentialed.

There is nothing that prevents a layperson from substantively challenging an academic, provided that both are widely read critical thinkers. Indeed, I feel that in some cases, the queries of an outsider can help penetrate an insular culture among academics. Schieber will not be co-authoring an academic paper with Rauser on (say) theories of the Personhood of the Trinity. Such nuanced musings of theology are the domain of academics in the field. But he proves himself more than capable of tackling the kind of broad conceptual questions with which any reflective layperson should engage, and a perfectly suitable interlocutor for the intent of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar.

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