Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.