This blog post will be a little personal in a sense that it will reveal one of the reasons I decided to pursue this doctorate. I had looked at several DMin programs and each one of them had one thing in common: rigid, set coursework. I am confident this kind of learning is effective for some, but I felt this approach, as seems to be the case in the American system of doctorate-granting institutions, would not work for me. Reading anything by Mortimer Adler is super helpful. He was one of the most influential philosophers and educators of the 20th century, and so anything he writes is worth paying attention to and in this reading, turned out to be affirming. Affirming in the sense that it validated my expectations and recent experiences in researching a topic I have been passionate about for some time.
The section I spent most of my time understanding and rereading was the section on “Five Steps in Synoptical Reading” in How to Read a Book. I had to do this because the authors said something quite intriguing and subversive for reasons I still have yet to fully understand. He wrote “…it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.”1 I had a head-scratching moment, puzzled at what I had just read. Did the authors just tell me that I, the lowly learner, would tell the experts what I think they mean by using some of their own terms? I certainly did not expect this and Adler himself mention that this was one of the most difficult steps in synoptic reading.
Even though that point remains unclear, some of what seems wrong turned out to be a welcomed learning experience. I had been preparing for a talk that was scheduled to be delivered this past summer. The topic I studied was on culture based on an understanding of Jesus’ parable of the sower found in Matthew 13. There are many commentators, scholars and preachers who prepare sermons covering the meaning of the seed and the sower, but hardly any mention the significance of the soil. Long story short, I asserted the strong link between soil and culture. This set me off to explore the world of anthropology and sociology. I ended up reading dozens of experts on their definitions of culture. Before long I felt I had mastery over the subject matter and acquired a kind of authority about it, at least enough for a 40 minute presentation. So much so that I imagined myself tutoring these scholars of culture and helping fill in knowledge-gaps in their thinking. Now this may not be true, but it definitely felt like that. And of course, prior experience and familiarity helped but I believe this is as close as I will get in understanding Adler’s admonition to bring authors to our terms.
This new way of thinking taught me valuable lessons:
- One can be an expert of sorts on a particular subject if he or she has read and understood a good set of books on a particular subject.
- Reading between the lines, one can pick up implicit assertions that support and give credence to the topic being studied.
- Not one expert knows everything about one subject. This gives others an opportunity to offer other solutions to problems.
One might think that it would be beneath himself for a philosophical and theological luminary such as Adler to write a practical book on how to read one. But amidst the how-tos and hands-on of reading there is a strong ethical lesson for us to consider. One such lesson is his admonition to be polite when we disagree with an author. An oft-quoted line by Adler is “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgement’”2 This wisdom cannot be overstated. The cultural milieu of today is full of people who are argumentative because they lack the maturity and skills to put together good arguments. We simply do not take the time and effort, as Adler would say, to understand each other. It has come to a critical point that we are numbed by current events and trust in our leaders is at a low point.3 This should not be the case, especially among Christians.
If we are to be good ambassadors for Christ, we must remember to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”4 For followers of Christ it is imperative to consider this as our calling. Our Lord speaks a blessing for peacemakers (Mt. 5:9). Proverbs encourages us to speak for those who have no voice (Prov. 31:8) and Peter exhorts us to engage in discourse with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15).5
As I have stated in the beginning, this DMin program has a personal quality to it. My hope and prayer is that as I go through the rigor of study that I “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!”6
1Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014). 310.
3Orrin Hatch, “Identity Politics Threatens the American Experiment,” Wall Street Journal (New York), May 19, 2018, Opinion sec.
5Tim Muehlhoff, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), XII.
62 Pet. 3:15