Sunday, November 19, 2017

How To Think

How often have we asked someone, "What were you thinking?" It's meant to question someone's judgment or reasoning faculties. What we really mean is, "Were you even thinking?"  Sometimes we look at our culture and wonder if anybody is thinking.  Of course, more often than not, we find people going by what they feel far more than what they think. Nor do they want to be challenged in their thinking; instead choosing to go to media sites and channels that agree with what they already believe.  Too often we actively avoid questioning and thinking in order to be content with our preconceived notions, our cliches, our prejudices, our assumptions, our ideologies and our own conclusions.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about how the groups we are a part of do two things: bind and blind. They bind us together in a unified belief or cause or particular narrative. We are bound by our similarities in thought (religious, political, ideological). But they also blind us to dissent, other points of view, or alternatives. We do not listen and, because we do not listen, we do not really think.  We prefer not to be challenged or questioned. And we certainly don't want to question because questioning can often be unsettling and can start to chip away at the structures of belief that we have built for ourselves from our past experiences.

Albert Einstein said, "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking." For many, that concept is troubling, disturbing and to be avoided. We don't want to change our thinking and become imprisoned by our own systems of belief.

Alan Jacobs in How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds tells how, "T. S. Eliot wrote almost a century ago about a phenomenon that he believed to be the product of the nineteenth century: “When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not." Eliot could have been describing our age of information overload but a real scarcity in wisdom. We have facts but not truths. Or we have now "alternative facts," which is a creative covering over of what, until now, has been commonly called lies and deceptions.

In our pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with differences. So often we draw our lines, proclaim that you're either for us or against us. Draw our lines, put in our boxes, check on our lists of what is and isn't acceptable. To truly listen and learn from another,we have to let go of our biases. Simone Weil believed, "Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached."

What does Weil mean by detachment?

Russell Shaw defines it this way, "To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one's life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people."

As Christians, how do we hold to the truths of our faith, while, at the same time being open to hearing what others have to say about what they believe, why they believe, and approaching them without judgmentalism or the attitude that we must change them. This requires mutual caring, kindness, patience, and building a trusting relationship. 

But are Christians good critical thinkers?

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, Alan Jacobs (a Christian and professor at Baylor University), answered this with, "Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here. There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin."

This is certainly true of Christians inability to come to terms with science. As Saint Augustine once warned: 

Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.

Jacobs believes, like Saint Augustine, that we cannot put thinking as an opposition to faith.  In Who's Afraid of Postmodernism, James K.A. Smith writes, "We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity." One can see this lack of objectivity and this expression of personal certainty in the interactions on social media, where it is less an exchange of ideas than merely a trying to simply angrily post one's point-of-view and attack someone else's (someone who does not agree with you). Too often, we have lost the ability for reasoned civility. Yet the danger of this is that we do not take into account that, as Alan Jacobs writes, "... all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option."

As Christians, it's not that we can't disagree with someone, but as 1st Peter 3:5 reminds us, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." 

We are called to do more than change people's minds, but to change people's hearts. We cannot do this if we are hostile, belligerent, and angry. We must approach all with humility, gentleness, kindness and wisdom. Certainly we see a good example of this in the Apostle Paul, who understood different philosophies and religious beliefs, and could approach them with both this understanding and the ability to debate without anger or hatred, as Paul did with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17. As verses 32-34 tells us, "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed."

In this polarized age, information-overloaded cyber-world, we could do well to learn how to think and reason and love others.

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