I was leading a group of men through a study of a particular passage in the Bible a few years back, and I made a tangential point about the U.S. Constitution. The particular passage we were in affirmed human depravity especially at a geopolitical level, and I thought the U.S. Constitution was a decent rubric to prove that the Founders assumed this same human depravity the Bible did. In my mind, without referencing this in the study, I was thinking of Federalist Paper #52 (written by James Madison, Framer par excellence) where Publius affirms that checks and balances are needed in the three branches of government because "ambition checks ambition." Because men were prone to power, I assumed, men were prone to depravity. If the Constitution recognized this fundamental flaw of humanity, and created a system to where no one's individual ambition could rule the day, I imagined this a good way to deal with the depravity of humankind at a governmental level.
This comment was not received well. Not well at all. The flow of the entire study was interrupted and a gentleman in the bible study said that the Constitution said nothing about depravity, and I was wrong to superimpose my religious beliefs into the world's oldest still-standing body of law. He clearly didn't connect the dots that I did.
Ultimately, our disagreement came down to his misunderstanding of what I meant by depravity (and indeed the Calvinist understanding of total depravity, which is distinct from utter depravity- that humans are as bad as we can be). Our disagreement also came down to his misunderstanding of what I claimed the Constitution actually says. Notice, I said, the Constitution assumes depravity. I did not say it claims human depravity as a theological disposition. Nay, it merely presupposes that human depravity is a reality to navigate in order for effective government to occur.
In our disagreement, he tried to correct me. He even told me he respected me as a theologian but that I knew little of history and therefore wasn't qualified to comment on it (this despite the fact that I studied history intensely in undergraduate school, and continue to read widely in history).
The issue crystallized a larger issue though: what can a pastor credibly comment on? What can any of us credibly comment on? Do I need a degree or an advanced degree to opine upon any matter of liberal arts? Can I comment on anything at all if it doesn't have to do with the Bible?
These are difficult questions for someone who's favorite writer- or one of- is G.K. Chesterton, who commented on nearly every matter of human existence during the time he graced planet earth.
These are also difficult questions for someone who admires humility, even epistemic humility. It is indeed a matter of great care when someone acknowledges what or how much they do not, in fact, know. What to do?
Academicians often call this the question of intellectual jurisdiction: what can an academician credibly comment on without going outside their bounds of personal knowledge and authority?
For instance, I grow mad when Bart Ehrman attempts to discredit the historicity of Jesus when his arguments have been disproven for decades in the fields of archaeology and biblical history (Holy Week alert: some major media outlet will utilize Ehrman this week, I'd gamble). Ehrman, despite posing as an authority, steps beyond the bounds of his intellectual jurisdiction. But does the misuse of knowledge outlaw the entire venture for unified knowledge completely? I don't think so.
In our narrowing intellectual climate- where dissertations in biology are written about some random strain of a strain of a virus (okay, I have zero intellectual jurisdiction in biology)- true knowledge grows ever more fragmented. Dissertations in New Testament are written about some esoteric piece of theology that won't matter for anyone except the one who gets awarded the Ph.D.
Furthermore, we live in an era characterized by philosophical postmodernism, which is skeptical of every meta-narrative claim (ie "all of life is about _____"). Fragmented knowledge is already our mileau, and further fragmented knowledge is where we are headed.
I'm left wondering, even in our epistemic humility, if the project for related, inter-related, and expansive knowledge is still worth it? I think it is. Despite the hazards it causes me in the occasional bible study, I will pursue knowledge and truth. All forms of it. Though I'm finite, I won't allow someone to outwit or discredit me simply because he or she is an "authority." I will simply learn on my own, even without the credential.
Intellectual jurisdiction is important, but overrated.