Sunday, December 19, 2010

Critical Thinking Christians - Part I

“Critical thinking is skilled and active interpretation and evaluation of observations and communications, information, and argumentation.” (Fisher & Scriven, 1997, p. 21) [Fisher, Alec. Critical Thinking: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 2001, 10]

Two things can be said about critical thinking: it requires something of the person who endeavors to undertake the task and some event or object outside of the individual as its focus. Based on the definition above, critical thinking requires skilled and active interpretation and evaluation. Interpretation and evaluation can require additional education and training unless one is born with the natural ability to think critically. And even then, formal training and study in critical thinking is always valuable. There are at least four things in the definition that are to be skillfully and actively interpreted and evaluated: observations, communications, information, and argumentation.

To be sure, there is no such thing as a tabula rasa where the practice of critical thinking is employed. Moreover, the idea that the principles that serve to corroborate the art and science of critical thinking are neutral should itself be subjected to the highest degree of critical examination. All human reasoning has a starting point. All critical thinkers bring a specific point of view to the subject at hand. There is no neutrality in the practice of critical thinking. Like everything else, we should critically examine our starting point, our presuppositions that serve to underpin how we engage in the practice of critical thinking.

Critical thinkers are often terribly misunderstood. You see, critical thinkers can come across as people who are just looking to win argument. Indeed, this is one of the sinful tendencies that critical thinkers must be concerned with. Critical thinkers can also have the tendency to wear people down, exhausting them mentally. Critical thinkers, or those who are more prone to think critically, ask a lot of questions and examine the minutest details. As a result, some may think that these individuals are just being nit picky. For the most part, that is not the case at all. Critical thinkers have a very specific way in they approach situations. They have a strong interest in understanding the subject matter and they utilize a very systematic method to ascertain the validity or truthfulness of their observation. This is not a bad thing. However, since we live in a culture where critical thinking is rarely encountered, when we do interact with it, it can create unintentional tension. The temptation for critical thinkers is to bully others about intellectually. The temptation for others is to judge individuals with a higher propensity to think critically as pugnacious and pugilistic. Both, those who are prone to critical thinking and those who need to improve at the practice must humbly submit to God and recognize their own sinful proclivities and mortify the deeds of the flesh accordingly. (Rom. 8:13)

The ethical component of critical thinking should never be over-looked. This is especially true when one comes at the subject from a strictly Christian perspective. Of all the people in the world, Christians should be the most adept of critical thinkers. Paul commanded the Corinthians to be mature in their thinking. (1 Cor. 14:20) The Greek word used here for mature is teleioi and it means, when used in this context, adults. But in order to understand what Paul is driving at we need to get a better sense for the broader use of this word. After all, Paul is not literally telling the Corinthian Christians to grow up. He is addressing a problem with their thinking skills. So he corrects them directly, commanding them to move their thinking skills to a higher level. The Greek word teleioi means, pertaining to meeting the highest standard, when speaking about people, it means adult, things, it means perfect, of morality, it means to be fully developed in a moral sense. The word has a sense of completeness. The Greek word used for ‘think’ in this text is fresin and it means the process of careful consideration, thinking, or understanding. Paul is explicitly commanding Christians to be skilled in the practice of critical thinking. In other words, Christians are commanded to be critical thinkers. However, the sad truth is that Christians, rather than having a reputation for being some of the most skilled thinkers in the world, often times are characterized as being radically uncritical in their thinking. This is a very serious dilemma and the Christian community must come to grips with it sooner than later. N.K. Clifford wrote,

“The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society.” [Noll, Mark. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 12-13]
I was recently able to chat with a person who was completing a Ph.D. in a particular subject within the field of science. This person asserted to me that she was an atheist because she did not believe in anything that could not be proven using the scientific method. She did not realize that her faith in the scientific method itself was incoherent because the scientific method cannot be demonstrated to be valid when restricted to validation by the scientific method. J. P. Moreland says it like this,

“For one thing, the statement, “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true” is self-refuting. This statement itself is not a statement of science. It is a philosophical statement about science. How could the statement itself be quantified and empirically tested? And if it cannot, then by the statement’s own standards, it cannot itself be true or rationally held.” [Moreland, J.P. Scaling the Secular City, 197]
Indeed, when I asked the Ph.D. candidate if she believed in logic, she answered in the affirmative. And when I followed up by asking her what it looked like when a scientist proved that logic exists using the scientific method, she was speechless. Believe it or not, she was initially tempted to attack logic. Ethically speaking, she wanted to hold so dearly to her atheism that she was on the brink of destroying the very system that governs all human cogitation. As Christians, we need to be informed of the art and science of critical thinking so that we can honor God in our thinking and understanding of Him. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with our entire being and that includes the human mind.

Browne and Keeley write,

“Listening and reading critically – that is, reacting with systematic evaluation to what you have heard and read – requires a set of skills and attitudes. These skills and attitudes are built around a series of related critical questions.” [Browne & Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, 2]
John says it this way, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn. 4:1) Quite simply, the word John used for test is dokimadzw and it means “to make a critical examination of something, to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine.” It is used 22 times in the New Testament: once by Peter, once by John, twice by Luke, and eighteen times by Paul. It is interesting that this word is used in the LXX 28 times, and in 22 of those instances Yahweh is the subject and humans are the object. G Schunack writes,

It is significant that the testing corresponds to “intuitive” knowledge and perception rather than being mediated through activity, experiment, or demonstration.

Notice that the testing is cognitive and therefore involves thinking skills. This indicates that one cannot possibly overvalue the NT stress on the practice of critical thinking among Christians. Because there are so many points of view that seek to contradict truth, the practice of critical thinking is even more important. We live in a culture that seeks to nurture every behavior we can that detracts from the need to think critically. When one examines the foundations of pluralism, cultural relativism, moral relativism, unbridled tolerance, political correctness, it is no wonder that people do not see the point of taking up the hard task to think critically. Critical thinking implies that something can be understood correctly and this inversely means that something can be misunderstood. In other words, conclusions about observations, communications, information, and argumentation can be accurate or inaccurate after all. If someone makes an argument for homosexual marriage, critical thinking, using Christianity as its starting point of view, will make very definite conclusions about that argument. Hence it follows that critical thinking is less important in a society where unbridled relativism and religious pluralism seem to dominate the day.

Critical thinkers must constantly be reminded to submit their intellect to Christ and love their brothers and sisters just as Christ loves them. Browne & Keeley write,

“As a critical thinker, you have the capacity to come across like an annoying warrior, constantly watching for ways to slay those who stray from careful reasoning. But learning is, in important ways, a social activity. We need one another for development; we need one another to share conversation and debate. None of us is so gifted that we can stand alone in the face of the complexities we encounter.” [Browne & Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, 205]

Paul says to critical thinkers, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Col. 4:6) In closing, Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp comment,

“In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought reconciliation in two fundamental ways. Jesus reconciled us to God, which then becomes the foundation for the way he reconciles us to one another. As C.S. Lewis said, Christ restores first things so that second things are not suppressed but increased! When God reigns in our hearts, peace reigns in our relationships.” [Lane & Tripp. Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, 13]

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