“Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.” Aristotle
“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” SocratesWhen it comes to the practice of critical thinking, there is so much material to cover that it is difficult to know where to begin. Should one begin with the elements of thought? Should something be said about metaphysics? Or should one begin with a word on epistemology? Flip a coin I suppose. However, the reason I titled the article “Critical Thinking Christians” is because I wanted to talk about the elements of thought from a distinctly Christian perspective. Critical thinking is not without presuppositions. There are foundational presuppositions that are necessary to engage in the practice from any perspective, but then there are specific points of view that serve to narrow the playing field if you will. For example, a critical thinking atheist will start their thinking from a very different point of view than a theist. For instance, both the atheist and the theist contend that logic is the science or system that governs all human thought. In short, logic is ordered thinking. Logic provides the rails upon which the train of cogitation travels. Both assert the unavoidable necessity of logic for all predication. Hence, logic is a necessary aspect of critical thinking regardless of one’s point of view on the more narrow issues. Without logic, thinking is cogitative chaos. Norman Geisler defines it this way,
“Logic is a way to think so that we can come to correct conclusions by understanding implications and the mistakes people often make in thinking.” [Geisler, Norman. Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking, 13]Neutrality and Critical Thinking
Since critical thinking involves elements of thought that entail different assumptions, the question of neutrality should be given some attention. It is my contention that critical thinking is possible because God, the Creator of all that is, made it so from the beginning. Prior commitments are impossible to avoid. A created being must bring prior commitments to every conversation to one degree or another. The fact of prior commitments invalidates the proposition that one can achieve a status of neutrality when approaching a subject. The modern mindset however vehemently takes issue with this view. Alfred North Whitehead asserted, “In philosophical discussions, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” But doesn’t this statement itself indicate that Mr. Whitehead is quite dogmatically certain of his view. Indeed it does. Hence, the on-going need for critical thinking is easily demonstrated even in the writings of some of the most educated and skillful philosophers of years past. As Greg Bahnsen writes,
“Because of man’s fall into sin, the world is inherently hostile to the Christian faith. From the time of the fall, enmity is the controlling principle separating the believer and unbeliever. (Gen. 3:15; John 15:19; Rom. 5:10; James 4:4) [Bahnsen, Greg. Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg Bahnsen, 13]The noetic effects of sin make every behavior humans engage in a matter of ethics. Our claims to knowledge, morality, and metaphysics are as much ethical claims as they are anything else. Hence, it follows that the practice of critical thinking is also an ethical undertaking. As believers we are entirely committed to the truthfulness of God’s revelation in Scripture and sworn to uphold the Christian ethic. Therefore, it follows that we are committed to thinking in a very specific manner. It is not noble or honorable to abandon one’s most basic commitments in order to engage in a practice that is ultimately designed by a holy God who has prescribed the very parameters that are to govern the practice. Such dismissive behavior on the part of Christians represents a real problem in the Christian community, and without fully intending the pun, reflects a lack of critical thinking on their part that is fully submitted to honoring Scripture. And this is the whole point of an article addressing the “Critical Thinking Christian.” Oswald Chambers writes,
“Never run away with the idea that it does not matter much what we believe or think; it does. What we think and believe, we are – not what we say we think and believe, but what we really do think and believe, we are; there is no divorce at all.” [Chambers, Oswald. Biblical Ethics: Ethical Principles for the Christian Life, 221]How do we know what we really think and believe. We know what we really think and believe by what we do. James says, you have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:18) James is saying that we show people what we believe by how we live. Saying we believe something while living like we don’t is useless in James’ words. The word James uses for useless describes someone who idle or unemployed. In other words, an unemployed worker is an oxy-moron. A worker who does not work is not a worker. A worker works. Peter tells us that if the qualities of godliness are found in us they will make it so that we are not useless or unfruitful. (1 Peter 1:8) The list of qualities Peter outlines concern behaviors that are clearly visible in the life of the believer. Hence, thinking is a behavior that is subject to the Christian ethic the same as any other behavior.
Nuts and Bolts
To be critical, thinking has to meet certain standards – of clarity, relevance, reasonableness, etc. – and one may be more or less skilled at this. [Fisher, 11] Critical thinking requires questioning and metacognition (thinking about your own thinking. [Fisher, 11] Critical thinking requires skilled and active interpretation. Interpretation requires careful analysis and asking the right questions as one considers several possible alternatives. Critical thinking always begins with a question. When a critical thinker reads a text, they begin with the question, “what did I read?” What is the author saying? Evaluation of the text cannot begin until the text has been rightly interpreted. In the interpretation process there are multifaceted questions that go to the original or intended meaning of the author. Since this article concerns critical thinking that is distinctly Christian in nature, the author rejects the interpretive method known as deconstructionism as a valid means for understanding a text. Once the text is rightly understood, the evaluation process can begin. Is the author’s claim, assertion, or record accurate? It is one thing for us to understand that Scripture claims that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, but it is quite another for us to accept that assertion. In fact, many do not. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day is rejected by many based on their strict adherence to the scientific method. Other’s accept the possibility that Christ really did rise from the dead, but conclude that God was not actively involved at all. They argue that indeed a fascinating event appears to have happened, and that in time, science will be able to figure it out. Critical thinking involves prior commitments that we all bring to the table. And with those commitments, we bring a set of questions in an attempt to understand the object we are observing, be it a text, a person, communication, etc. It is beyond the scope of this article to interact with the numerous presuppositions that undergird the practice of critical thinking. This would require a discussion around such topics as epistemology, metaphysics, and linguistics, not to mention several others. Suffice it to say that critical thinking depends on a number of factors we will assume to be true for the sake of argument. Otherwise, it is doubtful that much progress could be made in provoking thought in such a crucial behavior. And that is the whole point of this article. The aim is, at the end of the day, perlocutionary. The aspiration is that, after reading this article, you become so interested in the behavior of critical thinking, that you will do something about it. Critical thinking is about making a decision about something. It could be the meaning of a text, the observed behavior of a person, or the purchase of an item. On page 163 of his book, Critical Thinking: an Introduction, Alex Fisher creates a thinking map. That map can be very useful in walking through how to make a good decision using sound principles of critical thinking. The questions contained in that map are as follows:
1. What makes this decision Necessary?
2. What is Recommended and on what Grounds?
3. What are the Options/Alternatives?
4. What are the Possible Consequences of the various options – and How Likely are they?
5. How Important are these consequences – for all those affected?
6. When I Compare the alternatives in the light of their consequences, which is best? Is the recommended course best?
7. How can I carry out this decision? (Contingency plans?)
[Source: Fisher, Alec. Critical Thinking: an Introduction, Cambridge, 163.]
The answer for many of these questions is going to depend on one’s ultimate commitments. For instance, take the question of ordaining a practicing homosexual to the pastorate. In such a case, one’s view of Scripture, not to mention their hermeneutic becomes vitally important. While the questions must be answered in this case, two people coming with two completely different positions will work through the same questions and arrive at very different conclusions. While the practice of critical thinking is indispensible to understanding, it does not follow that adherence to these principles is a safeguard against false conclusions. Of considerable import then are the presuppositions that one brings to critical thinking.
The Ethics of Thinking
Human cogitation is a behavior and as such should be subjected to certain ethical questions. For believers, the supreme ethical question is, “Is its primary motive to honor God?” If the answer to that question is no, then we have an unethical behavior on our hands from a Christian perspective. Hence, laziness in any way, shape, or form does not honor God. God hasn’t a lazy component in His being. And therefore, Christians should avoid all tendency toward laziness. Unreflective thinking is lazy thinking.
Unreflective thinking is not only antithetical to critical thinking, but also to Christian ethics. The command that we are to test the spirits because of the presence of false prophets ( 1 John 4:1) is clearly an example of God’s expectations for Christians to avoid the laziness of unreflective thinking. Simply put, unreflective thinking is about taking the cogitative short-cut. Unreflective thinkers jump to conclusions, fail to examine all the evidence, refuse to look at the possible alternatives, and rush to rash judgments. This command also demonstrates the importance of distinguishing between sound teaching and false teaching. Hence, critical thinking is necessary to please God.
The believer’s primary concern is to please God. Genuine believers love to please God. Nothing is more important to the Christian than pleasing their heavenly Father. In order for believers to please God, they must keep God’s word. (John 8:47; 1 John 2:5) The word of God has perlocutionary intent. That is, it seeks to change us from the something that we are, to something else. Our purpose for picking up the sacred Scripture is change. We desire to know God more and to walk more like Christ. Scripture informs us how we are to conduct our lives. But Scripture requires proper interpretation and interpretation requires critical thinking skills. Hence, while critical thinking is indispensible to sound reasoning, it does not ipso facto guarantee that you will arrive at a right conclusion. What it does guarantee is that your conclusion will most likely be a valid one. But a valid or reasonable conclusion is not the same thing as a truthful conclusion. All thinking, and especially critically thinking must be engaged in according to God’s model. We must think God’s thoughts after Him. The only right way to think is to think like God thinks. We are to think analogously to how God thinks. In short, our thinking must be informed by Scripture. Any and all thinking that does not have Scripture as its starting and ending point is idolatrous. Therefore, every critical-thinking Christian takes up these principles with an ultimate commitment to please God by humbly submitting their mind to the sacred text of God’s communicative revelation. Paul writes in Phil. 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
In part three of this series on Critical-Thinking Christians, the principles of sound critical thinking will be applied using a case study in order to illustrate what critical thinking looks like in real life. The appropriation of critical thinking skills is essential to every Christian in the community of faith. These skills will go a very long way in helping us honor God, not only in how we think, but especially in how we live.