Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Discipline of Critical Thinking: Phronesis

It is now time to take the five steps involved in Critical Thinking and put them into practice. Perhaps the best approach in demonstrating how the Discipline of Critical Thinking is to be worked out in day to day life is to use an example that most people can relate to.

A good example to conduct an exercise in critical thinking, in my opinion, is the recent election. Current President Barak Obama ran on the promise of two key words: Hope and Change. He stated during his campaign that he was going to fundamentally change the Armerican system, and that this change would serve to usher in a new hope. In the years leading up to this promise the American people had experienced a devastating terrorist attack which threatened our very way of life. And just as this experience was being put behind them, they experienced a financial crisis, the like of which had not been felt since the Great Depression. Within 7 seven years, Americans experienced a shattering of their confidence to the very foundation. They experieced fears that had previously been written off as impossibilities. The culture was ripe for anything that promised a return to the secutiry and confidence it had once taken for granted. Enter Barak Obama and an electrifying message that was all too easy for desperate hearts and uncritical minds to latch on to.

Proposition: If elected President, I will fundamentally change the American system!
The proper response of a critical thinker is to ask the question "what kind of fundamental change are we talking about? Do we really need fundamental change? Can you really deliver on your promise, assuming we do need this fundamental change? But too many Americans were so upset with the circumstances to pause, and apply these preliminary questions to the situation. Aristotle said that if we are to be succesful, we must first ask the right preliminary questions! How many Americans really stopped and ask these questions before they made their decision.
Secondly, what reliable and valid evidence did Mr. Obama provide in order to support his proposal of fundamental change? Did he propose economic models that have been tested elsewhere? And if so, how have those models held up in good times and how are they holding up now? Are those models insulated from the economic crises we find ourselves in? How is the healthcare system in those models?
Third, are there alternative ways of interpreting what Mr. Obama means by change? Are their alternative ways of interpreting the evidence that has been provided which he claims suggests that the old model of capitalism has failed? Can one really assert that a system that has been around for centuries has finally failed only a few months into a crises? Could it be that the capitialism is dead announcement is politically motivated more than the result of an actual assessment of the system itself? Wasn't it a bit early to make such a pronouncement? And couldn't one really say that such a profound and startling view was irresponsible given the timing of when it was made?
Fourth, what additional evidence is being offered, or is available for examination and evaluation? One can look very closely at the historical background of Mr. Obama in order to understand what his worldview is and from there deduce where this ideology is taking us. One could also examine the experiment of other countries to determine if similar models are working. Finally, one may examine the economics of the program to determine if it is affordable and perhaps what it would take to pull it off in terms of cost. The point here is not whether you agree or disagree with the President's philosophy. Rather, the point is that you are willing, able and ready to think more critically about what you are being asked to believe.
Fifth, based on all the questions that have been posed and the evidence that has been presented, laying aside all personal biases, what is the most likely outcome of your assessment of the proposal of change and hope that you have been asked to believe? Far too often people put on their blinders and hold true to one party or one man for all the wrong reasons. And for others, they have become so accustomed to just accepting their favorite party's offer that they don't even bother to determine if it is the best thing for the long term health and growth of our nation. In the end, the discipline of critical thinking is exchanged for mere convenience and the path of least resistance. There is an unjustified optimism around the supposed infallibility of our country and lifestyle that is built upon an arrogance, the like of which is unmatched by any generation preceding it. At least other generations had to prove themselves through hard work, sacrifice, suffering, wars, market collapses, etc. But this generation remains confident for no other reason than that it "is." The lack of critical thinking skills may not be the sole cause of the collapse of western culture, but it will certainly be one of those most fundamental characteristics that will do its part to contribute to the collapse.

It is now time to elucidate on what a distinctively Christian approach to critical thinking looks like. Since I am working in the field of hermeneutics it only makes sense for me to leverage that work by addressing one of the most interesting methods in hermeneutics in modern Christian culture: feminist hermeneutics. In order to understand what I mean by feminist hermeneutics, some qualification and amplification is useful. What is the central contention of feminist hermeneutics? That is to say, what are we being asked to believe by those who embrace a feminist interpretation of Scripture? Ann Loades writes,
And 'authoritative' here means that by using reason, imagination, historical insight, reflection on human experience and whatever other resources we can muster, the Bible somehow mediates to us a God who enables human beings to be most fully themselves. [Ann Loades: Feminist Interpretation - The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, 81]
Note that each one of these resources mentioned by Loades is located in the human person. She understands interpretation as presupposing that the Bible is still read in an authoritative text in communities of belief. But for Loades, authority seems to be defined differently than the tradition orthodox understanding of authority. In the traditional sense, the authority of Scripture was understood to mean that all doctrinal norms and praxis were to be taken from the authoritative other, namely, the text of Scripture rightly interpretated by the aid of the Holy Spirit who is faithful to instruct sinners and illumine our hearts through faith. Scripture carries the final word. It is not my purpose here to offer an apology on the authority of Scripture or even the nature of authority, but rather to put the assertions of the feminist hermeneutic to the test using the discipline or skills of critical thinking. D. Martin Lloyd Jones wrote,
The authority of Scripture is not a matter to be defended, so much as to be asserted. I address this remark particularly to Conservative Evangelicals. [Jones: Authority, 41]
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said,
There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is open the gate and let him out. [ibid.]
There are two components of Loades statement which merit examination: 1) Her understanding of authority, and 2) her understanding of what it means for humans to be most fully themselves. By relocating authority within human experience, reason, imagination, etc., she abandons the traditional understanding of the authority of the other and in effect, authority in any meaningful sense. Secondly, and key to feminist hermeneutics is understanding how humans should be defined in and of themselves. What does it look like when I become most fully myself? For the feminist it means seeing everything from a strictly female perspective. It means taking up the cause of the abused and oppressed women of years past and cultures the world over and removing this oppression, freeing them to be who they truly want to be! But is being who you want to be and being what God commands or intends one to be the same thing? A man may want to be a millionnaire. In this country he is free to pursue that endeavor so long as he does it within the confines of the law. But just because he is free, according to our culture, to engage in this pursuit, does this mean that God's purpose in giving us the Bible was to remove all obstacles in his way to being who he truly wants to be?

The Feminist Assertion: The Bible was written in order to remove all obstacles that stand in the way of us becoming most fully ourselves. (With ourselves meaning who we are most comfortable being).

What are we being asked to believe? We are being asked to believe that the purpose for Scripture is to assist us in becoming the person we are most fully comfortable being. Is this really the purpose of Scripture? Does Scripture every really assert that this is in fact its purpose? Romans 12:1-2 commands us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. But transformed into what? We are to be transformed into that image which is found in God's perceptive will for us, the church. Romans 8:29 we are to be conformed into the image of Christ! Again, Col. 3:10 emphatically says we are being renewed to a new image, the image of the one who has created us.

What evidence exists to support the feminist's assertion? Basically the evidence is weak and without objective foundations. The feminst assertion begins with where it desires to go and renovates the evidence in order to make it appear that the assertion is valid. For instance, what does it really mean to be most fully yourself? The answer is that it means different things for different people. In fact, it could mean whatever you want it to mean. This is precisely how the homosexual movement asserts that they too, belong in the community of faith. They are most fully themselves when men are allowed to carry out their sexual desires with other men and women with other women. They argue that this is not a behavior but rather  the definition of who they actually are.

Are there alternative ways for interpreting the evidence? Beginning with the relocation of authority to the human person, there is in fact an alternative. The alternative is a theocentric approach to authority as opposed to an anthropocentric one. Authority can and should be located in God, not man. If authority is not located in God, and therefore transcendent, then it, by definition ceases to be authority. Moreover, authority simply becomes he who has the most power when the transcendent other is removed. Authority, by nature, must transcend all human existence in order for it to be truly authoritative. Otherwise it becomes mere social convention. A way for getting by in this life and not real authority. In this case it can be replaced by the philosophy of the next power grab that comes along.

What additional evidence would help evaluate the alternatives? Outside of scripture it would be helpful for one to examine the history of Christian orthodoxy to see where the evidence for the feminist hermeneutic leads. In so doing, one can quickly begin to determine how the church dealt with such views over the centuries. A survey of churchmen throughout the history of the church would also help one arrive at an understanding of Christian tradition on this issue. Such investigations serve to help one arrive at the validity of the feminist claim in light of Scripture as well as help us understand how it should be dealt with.

What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations? Based on scriptural teachings, a history of Christian doctrine, and a survey of Churchmen and Theologians of years gone by, it would seem that the feminist location of authority within the human person, and of what it means to be fully oneself is a derivative of a radical feminst philosophy invented by a human desire for autonomy as opposed to the plain teachings of Scripture.

The point of this blog is not to provide an exhaustive review of one's political philosophy, nor is it intended to be a thoroughgoing treatment of a feminist hermeneutic. The point is to sketch out how one should reason or think about these and other assertions from day to day as they seek to love the Lord God with all their mind. While this requires a great deal of effort, discipline, and self-sacrifice, the fruit of such an endeavor is well worth it. What fruit is that you might ask? The fruit of a humble obedience to Christ as one diligently attempts to honor their Lord and Master with their mind, and subsequently, their conduct. After all, thinking is a behavior just like any other behavior. Think about it!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Discipline of Critical Thinking

We live in a culture where postmodern influence has seemingly led to a society that exercises very little discipline, believes the word 'critical' carries only negative connotations, and lets google and wikipedia do all their thinking for them. Before addressing what some may believe is a most contemptuous accusation on my part against the contemporary intellectual state, I think it is important to define these terms so that we may arrive at an understanding of what I mean by the phrase "the discipline of critical thinking." The word discipline means, "training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency." The word critical means, in its strictest use, implies "an attempt at objective judging so as to determine both merits and faults." And finally, the word 'think' means, "to form or have in the mind; conceive." When it is all brought together it looks something like this; critical thinking is an orderly and efficient cognitive examination and evaluation method by which a person attempts to determine the merits and faults of assertions and evidence. Put another way, critical thinking is the cognitive dexterity of exercising good judgment about that which comes before it.  

Consider the five steps of critical thinking. (a) What am I being asked to believe or accept? What is the hypothesis? (b) What evidence is available to support the assertion? Is it reliable and valid? (c) Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence? (d) What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives? (e) What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations? I believe the best approach for thinking through these steps is to walk through them one by one and then apply a couple of examples where critical thinking skills can be brought to bear in order to arrive at the truthfulness of a proposition or evidence.

(a) What am I beoing asked to believe or accept? The very first step in critical thinking is the decision not to just accept statements or evidence at face value. By making an assertion, someone is asking you to accept as true, a specific proposition. People make truth claims every day. It falls to the critical thinker to determine whether or not such claims meet the necessary criteria to qualify as true. Unfortunately, for many in our culture, they do accept truth claims at face value without any attempt to exercise any critical thinking skills. In fact, years of political correct conditioning have left a tremendous vacuum in its wake. An intellectual deficit has been created that cannot easily be reversed. Within evangelical churches the prevailing mentality is that people who dare to question anything have a negative, critical spirit. 1 John 4:1 issues a command that we are to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. The Greek word test is DOKIMADZETE and its basic meaning is, "to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine." The idea that we are not to engage in a critical examination of propositions is contrary to Scripture.

(b) What reliable and valid evidence exists to support the assertion? This requires that one actually begin to do the hard work of thinking through the assertion. Item (a) is the easiest step in the process of critical thinking. But if you do not proceed beyond this initial step, you run the danger of truly fitting the description of a negative, critical person. Unlike the initial step, this step requires that you begin the hard work of thinking and examination. Involved in this step is the asking of more and more questions. One exhausts the reliability and validity of the evidence before it. What is the source of the evidence, for example? Is the source reliable? What sort of reputation does the source bring? The more complex the assertion the more numerous the questions should become. Thinking is hard work! James Dobson once wrote a book entitled, "Parenting Isn't for Cowards." I think somone should write a book and title it, "Thinking Isn't for Cowards."

(c) Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence? There are no brute facts! There are no purely objective interpretations. Each one of us brings some kind of cultural conditioning and ultimate commitments to the interpretive process. It should never be presupposed that our way of looking at the evidence before us is the right way. When we are in the process of interpreting the evidence before us, we should always consider our own biases as well as the effects of sin on our own minds. Alternative interpretations should always be given their fair hearing and eliminated appropriately.

(d) What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives? What else should be examined? This process leads, once again, to a number of questions and can be somewhat taxing on the mind. This step is not for the intellectual sloth.

(e) What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations? During this process you actually begin to reach your conclusion. The amount of evidence is examined along with with the quality and reliability of the evidence. Alternative evidence is examined along with competing interpretations of the evidence. Once you have completed the five steps of critical thinking, you are in a much better position to assess the proposition or evidence before you merits your support.

In my next post I will use both a political along with a theological example of how to put these five steps into practice in ther real world.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Owing The Puritans

Of the Eternity And Immutability Of Almighty God, Denied And Overthrown By The Arminians - John Owen

First, They undermine and overthrow the eternity of God’s purposes, by affirming that, in the order of the divine decrees, there are some which precede every act of the creature, and some again that follow them: so
Corvinus, the most famous of that sect. Now, all the acts of every creature being but of yesterday, temporary, like themselves, surely, those decrees of God cannot be eternal which follow them in order of time; and yet they press this, especially in respect of human actions, as a certain, unquestionable verity. “It is certain that God willeth or determineth many things which he would not, did not some act of man’s will go before it,” saith their great master, Arminius. The like affirmeth, with a little addition (as such men do always “proficere in pejus”), his genuine scholar, Nic. Grevin-chovius. “I suppose,” saith he, “that God willeth many
things which he neither would nor justly could will and purpose, did not some action of the creature precede.” And here observe, that in these 33 places they speak not of God’s external works, of those actions which outwardly are of him, — as inflicting of punishments, bestowing of rewards, and other such outward acts of his providence, whose administration we confess to be various, and diversely applied to several occasions, — but of the internal purposes of God’s will, his decrees and intentions, which have no present influence upon, or respect unto, any action of the creature; yea, they deny that concerning many things God hath any determinate resolution at all, or any purpose farther than a natural affection towards them.
“God doth or omitteth that towards which, in his own nature and his proper inclination, he is affected, as he findeth man to comply or not to comply with that order which he hath appointed,” saith Corvinus. Surely these men care not what indignities they cast upon the God of heaven, so they may maintain the pretended endowments of their own wills; for such an absolute power do they here ascribe unto them, that God himself cannot determine of a thing whereunto, as they strangely phrase it, he is well affected, before, by an actual concurrence, he is sure of their compliance. Now, this imputation, that they are temporary, which they cast upon the decrees of God in general, they press home upon that particular which lies most in their
way, the decree of election. Concerning this they tell us roundly, that it is false that election is confirmed from eternity: so the Remonstrants in their Apology, notwithstanding that St Paul tells us that it is the “purpose
of God,” Romans 9:11, and that we were “chosen before the foundation of the world,” Ephesians 1:4. Neither is it any thing material what the Arminians there grant, — namely, that there is a decree preceding this, which may be said to be from everlasting: for seeing that St Paul teacheth us that election is nothing but God’s purpose of saving us, to affirm that God eternally decreed that he would elect us is all one as to say that God purposed that in time he would purpose to save us. Such resolutions may be fit for their own wild heads, but must not be ascribed to God only wise.

Does Ephesians Five Really Tell Wives to Submit to their Husbands? Responding to DTS Professor, Darrell Bock and Sandra Gahn

With all the rage over feminist issues going on as a result of the #MeToo movement, it isn’t shocking that pastors and professors holdi...