I’ve got a brain, and I’m not afraid to use it! – The issue of critical thinking in the Christian church.
Mythbusters … I have watched a lot of Mythbusters.
For the last decade and a half, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have been exposing various memes and myths to some TV-science scrutiny, to see if whether these culturally ingrained factoids have any element of truth. My sons love it, possibly because of their innate curiosity, though I’m sure the shows gratuitous use of guns and explosives helps.
Most of the time, the Mythbusters prove that the myths they test really are just myths like we expected. Though occasionally, they come up with some really counter-intuitive results, like elephants really are afraid of mice, that bullets can’t penetrate water, and that a bull in a china shop doesn’t necessarily lead to lots of broken china.
What’s consistently good about Mythbusters is that it shows you can learn a lot by being open minded, and that failure is just as much of an opportunity to learn as success is (sometimes more so). It also demonstrates the value of critical thinking.
There are so many things in our lives that we accept just because other people accept them too. That’s partly because of the way we’re biologically wired, and then socially adapted. While this has its advantages, it’s also deleterious too. Sometimes we do things in ways that are actually wasteful, or accept second best because “that’s the way its always been”.
Because it consists of fallible humans, the church is not immune. If anything, the church is more prone to simply accept what we’re told rather than taking a different point of view and considering issues from alternative perspectives. For example, the push for same-sex marriage caught many conservatives and the church by surprise, partly because the church has been unwilling or unable to engage in public discussion on same-sex marriage without it degenerating into disgust and derision. This has left the arguments against same-sex marriage with holes big enough for spelunking, and has made opponents of same-sex marriage look like a laughing stock (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-0u9Ad886M).
What follows is a discussion on critical thinking within the Christian church. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Actually, I hope that someone will be able to definitively disprove some of my later observations. Right or wrong, I hope to start an open dialogue on the way the church engages with critical thinking, because it’s a discussion that’s long overdue.
So first, just what is critical thinking? “Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” (http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php)
Is critical thinking Biblical? I propose it is. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt be critical thinkers.” However, Acts 17:11 talked about those in Berea who searched the Scriptures daily, to see if what they were hearing was true to God’s Word. John and Peter both warned of false teachers, and Jesus said they may come to us in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1). John said our duty is to “test the spirits.” Paul said: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Is critical thinking being too self-reliant or denying the role of faith? I don’t think so. We don’t expect God to miraculously make us float around from place to place … we walk. God gave us legs, and using them does not deny our faith or God’s sovereignty. In fact, we’d look pretty silly if we sat still and prayed for God to move us around. It’s no different with our brain. God gave us a brain with the capacity for high-level thinking. Using our brain for high-level thinking doesn’t deny either faith or God their rightful place. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13) and he will guide our thinking if we have the faith to believe.
Is critical thinking necessarily critical? “Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.” (http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php)
So why don’t we engage in more critical thinking within the church? This is a simple question that requires a complex answer. I’m going to venture a few suggestions, but this list is far from comprehensive, and is more opinion than solid fact. If you disagree, or want to fill in some gaps, please leave a comment to add to the discussion.
1. People in general don’t have critical thinking skills
Critical thinking skills are sadly lacking, not just in the church, but across our society as a whole. Look no further than at the sheer volume of factoids and memes that go viral on social media. The average person accepts large numbers of baseless statements and passes them on to their friends in the mistaken belief that they hold some basis in truth.
There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I’d suggest that the main reason is that critical thinking is not taught in most schools, vocational training, or even at a lot of universities. Teaching critical thinking skills takes time away from teaching exam strategy, which is counter-productive for schools NAPLAN ranking. Since the world cares more about comparing themselves with others rather than actual intelligence, NAPLAN coaching is much more important than letting a child think for themselves.
Most work places actively discourage individual thinking too. Subservience to the system or to organizational rules makes for a much better workplace even if that means it’s full of mindless drones.
2. Christians don’t use critical thinking
The typical Sunday sermon, if it contains any scripture at all, is spoon-fed to the congregation without additional thinking required. It’s obviously difficult to have time for Q+A after a Sunday service, and for the vast majority of Christians, this is where their teaching for the week finishes.
There’s a small percentage of Christians that will go to small groups, but depending on the leadership of the small group, there may not be much opportunity to delve deeply into the text or subtext of the previous weeks sermon.
Then there’s a smaller number of Christians who have a habit of a daily devotional, though many of those will choose to be spoon-fed with a devotional text of some form.
Those who simply read the Bible think critically about the text and what it means will be a very small percentage of the Christian church.
3. Pastors don’t encourage critical thinking
When was the last time a you were at a church and the topic of the sermon was how to delve deeper into the Bible – how to understand the original Hebrew or Greek to enrich the meaning of the Biblical text? I’ve been in churches for more than 30 years, and I don’t recall a single sermon like that.
Perhaps it’s because pastors don’t think people would be able to understand. Or, perhaps it’s because they feel it would erode their position as experts? Perhaps they don’t understand themselves?
4. The church values the appearance of unity over critical thinking
In church-life, a high value is given to the concept of ‘unity’. Discouraging critical thinking helps to maintain the appearance of ‘unity’. If someone did happen to have a thought of their own, they would tend to keep it to themselves since everyone seems happy when everyone’s in agreement.
When someone does speak out, it’s seen as ‘disunity’, even if their concern is legitimate. Continued non-conformity is treated as dissension. Sure, it’s couched in a thick layer of Christianese – that person’s taken offense / isolating themselves / is a troublemaker / out of God’s will / unteachable / unfaithful / has a critical spirit, etc
While that might very well be true, sadly, any non-conformity is treated the same, warranted or not. Either way, legitimate discussion is shut down, and homeostasis returns.
The solution is to use our brains. The church needs to openly accept and engage critical thinking rather than encourage diminutive homogeny and pretend they have unity.
Just because Jesus is our shepherd doesn’t mean that we should always behave like sheep, just mindlessly following the rest of the flock. God gave us a brain, we should not be afraid to use it.
Post-script = In an upcoming blog, I’ll do an idiots guide to critical thinking. It’s all very well and good to say we should think critically, but that won’t happen if we don’t have the skills.
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