02/22/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Outfoxing Hedgehogs

It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't. The person who said this was making the point that things (and people) are always more complex than they may appear at first glance.

And yet there always seems to be a ready market for reductionism, for experts and pundits trying to persuade us that their latest bumper-sticker philosophy of life will unravel the interminable knots of tangled human existence. How many times have you been told that particular churches are growing because they offer people "The Answer"?

A few years ago, Tom Long, professor of homiletics at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, preached a sermon in which he observed that the greatest heresy of our age is not atheism, but superficiality. I've quoted Tom's line enough that one of us owes the other a lot of back royalties.

Orthodoxy has sought to maintain the deep tensions at the heart of the Gospel (such as Jesus Christ, "fully divine, fully human") and has steadfastly resisted reducing these tensions to simple either/or statements. Heresy, on the other hand, inevitably loses its hold on one or the other opposing affirmations that only together can lay claim to the truth and, thereby, violates the integrity of the mystery of faith. In fact, heresy by definition loses the tension at the heart of faith. Think for a moment about the way the big heresies (for example, Arianism, Pelagianism) all do this.

Of course, the heresy of superficiality is not restricted to the church. It infects society at large. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times on research presented by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Tetlock's book, "Expert Political Judgment" (2005), found that the predictions of the most well-known experts -- on whatever subject -- tended to be correct only slightly more often than totally random guesses. (Kristof said this was "the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.")

Fame follows over-simplification. The more famous the expert, the less reliable were his or her predictions. Famous experts tend to get famous because they get airtime representing clear, simplistic, easily remembered, sometimes inflammatory, but consistently "black or white" points of view.

In explaining Tetlock's analysis of this research, Kristof makes a distinction between "hedgehogs" and "foxes" (drawing on the late Isaiah Berlin, once professor of political science at Oxford University). Berlin uses a passage from the Greek poet, Archilochus, to launch his essay. The passage reads: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."[1] In the rarified world of experts, according to Tetlock, hedgehogs are those who "tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning..." Foxes, on the other hand, "are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance." Kristof continues, adding, "while foxes don't give great sound bites, they are far more likely to get things right."

(If you like Kristof's comments, be sure to read Tetlock's " Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can we Know?" for yourself; it is a brilliant and imaginative study.)

With some regularity I am told by church or religion "experts" that lay people demand simple answers, black and white responses to the complicated moral and spiritual issues arising in this fast-paced world. It is more important to be interesting than accurate, one such expert told me. However, with considerable regularity I also teach classes and preach in congregations around the country, and the lay persons I meet in these classes not only read magazines and papers like the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and other print and online media, they also run businesses, work in the fields of law and medicine and education, and are not only apparently able to whistle and walk simultaneously, they also crave a deeper, more complex engagement with Christian faith. They are looking for a faith that is true to the challenging lives they lead. I've said this before, but in the face of a culture that demands reductionism as a price for admission, it bears saying again and again.

We don't have to treat matters of faith dully in order to preserve the complexities, let alone the mysteries, of faith and life. And we certainly don't have to dumb-down our presentation of the Gospel and of the Gospel's intersections with life in order to stimulate the interest of our audiences.

A friend related a story about advice he received from an expert in Christian publishing. The expert told him that he needed to eliminate the nuances from a piece he had written for a lay audience. My friend responded with something that would drive a hedgehog crazy, but that is music to the ears of every fox: The really important stuff has to be nuanced, or else it isn't true.

That won't quite fit on a bumper sticker, but it's worth remembering.

[1] Isaiah Berlin's essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History," has appeared in various collections, but is also available as a monograph (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ltd. 1953; reprinted by Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago, 1993).