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How to Cultivate Epistemic Virtue

October 11th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Joshua Heavin

Bonnie Kristian. Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking our Brains, Polluting our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022. 225pp, $24.99.

Over the last decade, many of us have found ourselves increasingly unable to relate to the world inhabited by our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members. It is not merely that we are reacting to the same events in different ways, or holding conflicting opinions about the same events and ideas. Increasingly, through digital media we have come to inhabit ever-increasingly niche information ecosystems apart from one another. As Jon Askonas skillfully develops in a series in The New Atlantis, watching Tucker Carlson on FoxNews and reading The New York Times is not merely an encounter with two different spins on the same realities, but instead offers a glimpse into two completely different realities.

Many of us have encountered chaos in our churches, families, and social relationships left in the wake of algorithm-fueled conspiracy theories and social media addictions. How should we understand this phenomenon, and what are better or worse ways of handling it?

Bonnie Kristian is a seasoned journalist who was recently the acting editor-in-chief at The Week, having written often for Politico, Time, CNN, Christianity Today and more over the last few decades. I first became deeply appreciative of Bonnie’s writing as she has covered the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Yemen over the years. Her 2018 piece in The Week about the United States-supported and Saudi-led war coalition leading to child starvation and suffering, and her 2019 “It’s Not Too Late to Do the Right Thing in Yemen” in The American Conservative, are representative of the moral clarity and courageous testimony that has characterized her writing. Consequently, I was excited when I first learned that Bonnie had written a trade book about the malaise of contemporary Western epistemology and media ecology, and her Untrustworthy did not disappoint.

The ten chapters of Untrustworthy guide the reader through the contemporary knowledge crisis afflicting contemporary Western society writ large, and Christian communities in particular. Kristian’s tone as an author is inviting and her prose is accessible, interspersed poetry and Christian theological reflection on our present dilemmas.

Kristian’s introduction offers three anecdotes that illustrate our societal epistemological issues at a personal and relatable level: the futility of trying to argue a former coworker out of a conspiracy theory, seeing a friend unwittingly share QAnon memes on social media, and the pain of a church split over any number of contentious contemporary moral controversies (3–10).

Chapter one articulates the challenges of reflecting on epistemology – that is, how we know what we know – “which feels a bit like looking at a mirror instead of the reflection in it” (12). Political spin, a biased press, and moral relativism are nothing new, as Kristian notes from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; a propagandist’s dream has always been a people “who believe everything and nothing, that everything was possible and that nothing was true” (17). But with the advent of digital media, “we too often fail to scrutinize the quality and meaning of what we read and spread,” but not only that – often our quarrelsomeness is related to a pervasive loneliness and “the breakdown of thick community bonds” that have been in decline in American life over the last century (23). Because Christians are called to be people who know and love truth, and know and love one another, Kristian explores epistemic failures in Christian community as a failure of discipleship (27–28).

Chapter two focuses on our consumption of news media and is perhaps the strongest in the book, identifying how profit, entertainment, and speed distort our epistemic environment, while lines increasingly blur between journalistic objectivity and social activism in reporting (31–52). Kristian furthermore identifies four ways that social media fosters epistemic confusion: “first, it encourages distraction and uncritical content consumption, presenting a trivializing mix of serious content with memes, ads, and personal posts from our family and friends”; “second, we fail to realize or remember the extent to which the content we encounter on social media is tailored by algorithms to set our lizard brains on fire… and this ignorance encourages us to drift with the algorithm, to share misinformation and fail to identify content designed to take our money or rile our anger and fear”; “third, social media radically modifies existing types of real-life social network interactions”; and “finally, our use of social media solidifies our views and makes us partly responsible for the views others adopt” (53–55).

Kristian notes how, according to Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times, “we become susceptible to the latest groupthink because our thoughts are dictated by trending jargon and viral hastags” (51). In sum, “responsible and humane use of language in public is a skill that requires cultivation” and social media stifles and distorts, far more than it cultivates, that craft (58).

In chapter three, Kristian profiles contemporary epistemic challenges related to shame, cancel culture, and online mobs in view of the Christian obligations of reading others charitably and offering forgiveness. Chapter four profiles how conspiracy theories in general work, and how they particularly afflict contemporary Christian communities. Skepticism is a valuable tool when used rightly, but a conspiratorial mindset, with its own self-validating logic for any evidence that might undermine its claims, can ravage people’s lives and have vast societal consequences.

Kristian’s three counter measures against the epistemic problems of a conspiracist mindset are to first listen, rather than argue. It is unlikely you will disprove a conspiracy theory amongst its true believers, but “you can prove yourself a trustworthy friend, and compared to a good friendship, an absurd story about a faraway politician may lose its pull” (95). Second, look at the fruit of how conspiracy theories such as QAnon exploit lonely people whose relationships and decency disintegrate the further people get swept up into it; and third, people should not seek a false sense of security about life, the world, and the future in conspiracy theories that only God can give us in Christ (96–99).

Chapter five outlines an irony of modern life, that more than any other age we are reliant upon expertise for daily life – for instance, in sophisticated public water systems, washing machines, automotives, working traffic signals, and more – while mistrust of experts and expertise is growing. Kristian’s nuanced discussion notes recent examples of experts misusing the public trust, in trying to tell “noble lies,” in rank hypocrisy, or in simply making mistakes; an appropriate degree of scrutiny and dissent towards expertise is warranted, and people can be harmed by uncritical acquiescence to authorities. However, that appropriate degree of scrutiny is a hard-fought skill. Instead, increasingly our culture is resembling the book of Judges, when there was no king in Israel, and “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Utter havoc and catastrophe can ensue from the delusions that we are each just as competent as anyone else to understand and act on any number of complex challenges in our time.

Chapter six offers a nuanced account of how emotions are both vital to, and a great liability for, epistemology because “feelings are an important part of us that God created, united with our reason, made subject to redemption, and wants us to use to his good ends. But feelings are transient. They can be difficult to handle rightly, and dangerous to ourselves and others if disordered or disconnected from reality” (132). Chapter seven, on experience, offers a particularly incisive critique of identity politics on both the left and the right. Kristian notes Matt Bruenig’s critique of “identitarian deference” as the outlook “that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression”; the problem is that ID demands that oppressed people tell you who oppressed people are, but “you still have to first know who the oppressed people are,” creating an impossible circularity of independently identifying oppressed groups and then demanding deference to them (136).

As a constructive alternative, Kristian appreciatively commends Esau McCaulley’s proposal in his book Reading While Black, which aims to bring the insights of black Christian experience and perspectives to the church catholic, in “a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (144). In other words, there are perspectives and angles on the truth that we will miss without a dialogue where people speak from particularly situated perspectives, none of which in themselves can demand deference over all others because what is sought therein is “God’s truth,” and not merely our own (146).

Chapter eight marks a turn from the descriptive to the prescriptive in Kristian’s book, where she encourages readers to cultivate “practical wisdom” for our contemporary epistemological crisis, particularly by cultivating the virtues of humility, studiousness, intellectual honesty, wisdom, love, and obedience. However, habit-forming practices are needed in order to cultivate virtue, so ch. 9 develops a plan for such formation.

Chapter nine opens with the amazingly grim and insightful lyrics of Bo Burnham’s “Welcome to the Internet: A Little Bit of Everything All of the Time.” Kristian offers a poignant word of intervention to the reader: “you’ve had the iPad since you were two. We all know you’re not leaving. You like it. Or maybe you hate it, but you want it. You don’t know how to want something else” (168–169). Kristian strongly commends that Christians be pro-active about their decisions to use technology and the internet, giving a nod to Andy Crouch’s Tech-Wise Family. If we are going to use social media, consume news media, subscribe to newsletters, own a smart phone, and more, we must resist uncritical use of these tools – we must avoid being used by them, designed as they are by powerful tech companies to be as addictive and profitable as possible. Instead we must “aim to become the sort of people who love the truth and seek it well, people who cultivate epistemic virtue to push back on epistemic crisis, people who can offer a breath” (186).

Finally, the concluding chapter ten sketches what this breath might consist of, on how to practice neighborliness during an epistemic crisis. Given that harboring resentment and attempting to argue various points of fact are futile with people who operate and interpret reality from within different epistemologies than us, Kristian encourages readers to learn how to be people who are skillfully active listeners, who have the humility to show those we disagree with that we care about them by listening (190–194). Perhaps one way to do that might be by counter-intuitively asking our epistemically-divided friends, family, and neighbors for help (195), and by realizing our own limits – ensuring that we are being faithful with the things God has entrusted to us in our local contexts and relationships, rather than neglecting our most immediate obligations and opportunities to love our neighbors (196–197).

Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy is an outstanding resource for equipping Christian communities to relate in more informed and healthier ways to the epistemological crisis that is currently roiling many of our churches, our families, Western society more broadly, and our personal lives. Something I especially appreciate about Untrustworthy is that Kristian well describes the aspects of our contemporary epistemological crisis that are genuinely unique or technologically intensified in our age, without giving a false impression our epistemic problems are utterly unprecedented. At places, Kristian’s line of critique perhaps should have been drawn further. For instance, precisely because of her accurate analysis of how social media by its very algorithmic nature is corrupting, I am increasingly unsure if there is any good use of it whatsoever, or if we would be better served by throwing off the shackles altogether from the Babylonian Captivity of the Church to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

As I read Kristian’s call to patiently, humbly, listen to those who are not navigating our contemporary epistemological crisis wisely, I at times wanted to yell out “no! That is letting them win – the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, etc.” I frankly do not want to undertake the hard, slow, long-game Kristian outlines; there is far more instant gratification in waging a digital turf-war than in breaking bread with my neighbor whose views I find repugnant. However, I know that she is right, and that attempting to argue people out of deep-seated beliefs that are arrived at through unhealthy epistemic practices is often a losing game, and one where using the wrong means can undermine even the best theoretical ends. Becoming a friend and servant, praying for one’s enemies, and being faithful in the local context of the place where God has situated us and given us obligations is a long, slow, difficult vocation, but one that is ultimately worthwhile, even if its fruit is not scarcely seen in our lifetime, if at all.

It is worth adding that our Christian communities will not relate well to the knowledge crisis of our society apart from taking drastic and deliberate measures to catechize church members in the doctrines of the Christian faith, to redress the crisis of biblical illiteracy within our own churches, and by bolstering institutions of Christian higher education that form Christian thinkers, doers, lovers, and servants.

Have the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the basic doctrines of the Christian faith so furnished the moral imagination of the average American parishioner that they have become second-nature to us, at-hand, ready to use in times of need? Have we so imbibed the Word of God, learning how to read Scripture figurally and Christologically, that we are able to easily detect bizarre and politically-expedient misuses of Holy Scripture in our ecclesial and political life? And do our churches even want to have institutions of Christian higher learning – do we, especially as Protestants, want to have experts who write books about the Bible and theology and commend ancient wisdom from generation to generation, or are we so skeptical of expertise and any authority other than our own that we will not support the institutional forms that have historically made theological research possible?

As Christian educational institutions pivot their programs towards online content-delivery rather than embodied communal formation, and Christian theological seminaries are buckling under stark challenges of financial viability, are our churches even concerned about the long-term consequences for Christian formation that our functional theological instructors and Christian public intellectuals are no longer competency-tested clergy and theological writers, and increasingly are talk-radio hosts, bloggers, podcasters, Instagram influencers and YouTube celebrities – despite whatever goods come from increased access to information through the internet and the democratization of voices in these mediums, what is being lost currently, and irreplaceably so?

The cultivation of Christian knowledge, and skilled Christian knowers, can endure the downfall of empires and the worst forms of persecution; the present material challenges faced by Christian writers and educators are not necessarily in themselves epistemic crises, but they portend something awful in decades to come, and that might already be here in many of our churches. Short-term thinking that de-prioritizes Christian learning and foregoes the institutions that make it possible for scholars and theologians to acquire the skills necessary for critically and constructively stewarding the church’s memory will only sweep us further into an epistemic crisis without adequate resources from the past for faithfully navigating the present, with hope for a future of faithful endurance.

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.