Right now, in my home office, I have material about the Crusades all over the place. It is a paradise to me. I have notes and random thoughts scribbled on various pieces of paper, DVDs, self-made maps, and my precious notebooks which, in theory, contain the most articulate expression of my teachings – before it all gets transferred to PowerPoint for the didactic finale. It is a mess, but I love it.
As with most of my studies, I have a lot of people I rely on to get the information I need. After all, I was not present at the Crusades, so my job is to find the best sources to tell me exactly what happened. My favorite source has been Thomas Madden. He is a modern writer on the Crusades and he is easy to follow. He also seems to write objectively. But I have other sources as well. Of course there is Jonathan Riley-Smith, who is a standard-bearer in this field. As well, Thomas Asbridge provides great work that reads like a novel. Then there is Maalouf’s work which helps me see things through Muslim eyes. And there are others. But all of these are modern writers. We call these “secondary sources.” In order to be more objective, one should also consult “primary sources.” These are works from writers who were actually there. For this, I have an excellent work called The Crusades: A Reader. This is a compilation of dozens of first-hand accounts of the Crusades from Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim sources. I even have on my Kindle is a biography of Alexios I, written by his daughter, called The Alexiad.
Here is a picture of some of my sources (please note: I do not endorse all of these works, but most are very good):
I have been at this study since I started teaching on the Crusades a few months ago. Yet, I am far from an expert on the Crusades. In fact, were I to keep this up for the next few years, expert status would still be far off. I will never be an “authority” in this area. I don’t have the brain power or the time. Therefore, I will always rely heavily on others for an understanding of the Christian Crusades, and I am content with this.
In every area of study, we all lean heavily on others for our studies. Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are not individualistic. No one is really that smart. Most of us are filled with referred intelligence and conviction. We all have to rely on other sources in our studies and we need to learn to be comfortable with this. So many of you are like me and want to become an expert in everything before you feel qualified to teach on any particular subject. But this will never happen. We have to come to a place where we are comfortable standing on the shoulders of others who know more than we do. Our conviction about so many things rests on the scholarship of others. I call this “referred conviction.” It is not that the conviction is not our own, it is just that we have to source this conviction from a trusted community of scholarship.
Here is a list I often use to evaluate scholars:
- Do they have a reputable education?
- Are they balanced?
- Are they overly dogmatic?
- Are they overly non-committal (i.e., “academic agnosticism”)?
- Do they recognize and bring to light the difficulties with their own positions when debatable?
- Are they prone to demonize those who don’t agree, or do they speak to them with a humble, respectful tone?
- Are they recognized and/or endorsed by others whom I deem to be reliable?
- Does their position ostracize other positions solely due to their associations (i.e., “this can’t be right, it is held by Catholics”)?
- Have they recanted or admitted when they have been wrong before (this is a big one, as it shows the scholar is not “in it” to hold a fort, but to discover truth)?
- Do they know when to quit?
- Do they know when to be quiet?
- Is their identity found in and tied to a particular institution, denomination, or ministry which demands certain conclusions?
- Do they know and promote the difference between essentials and non-essentials?
My library is filled with books from sources I trust. From New Testament background commentaries to histories of the Reformation, I have to rely on others’ research to fuel my own. No matter what your field of study, no matter what your IQ, the point is not whether you stand on the shoulders of others, it is whether or not those shoulders are trustworthy. We should not refer our conviction blindly to anyone, but we do have to concede that we need others. Knowledge is a community thing. Therefore, conviction is ultimately going to involve community. We need to learn to source this community responsibly.
The Proverb says “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15).
Therefore, in a rather odd blog post, I encourage you to be more comfortable and responsible in outsourcing your knowledge from those who know more than you about any particular subject. While no one is that smart alone, together we might make a small dent in understanding what we need to understand to responsibly learn and teach others to the glory of God.