According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Constructive or Critical Thinking?

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking
R.R. Reno
June/July 2011

When faculties meet to discuss the goals of higher education, the scientists want fact-based knowledge while the humanists insist on the more plastic arts of interpretation. The psychologists, economists, and sociologists promote their favorite methods and theories. But at a certain point, everyone almost always agrees: College professors are supposed to teach “critical thinking.”

It’s a consensus that often extends beyond the walls of the academy. Whether discussing current events or moral issues, we quickly slide into habits of mind that focus on social and historical causes, psychological factors, and other layers of influence that shape our beliefs and opinions. We may not have read Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, but these days most of us are masters of suspicion, quick to adopt a critical stance and eager to avoid being taken in.

As a young teacher I was part of the critical-thinking consensus. I tried to inculcate into my students a questioning, skeptical attitude. What are your assumptions? How can you defend your position? Where’s your evidence? Why do you believe what you believe? Why are you so sure?

I wasn’t wrong. It’s good to critically examine your beliefs. The human mind is made for truth, not falsehood, and we do well to understand the cultural forces that shape our minds. It’s a mode of self-knowledge that helps us sift and weigh the evidence and arguments so as to avoid believing as true that which is actually false.

No, I wasn’t wrong, but then again I wasn’t altogether right either, because I wasn’t critically examining my commitment to critical reason. Reading and teaching (which is often the incentive to reread carefully) John Henry Newman helped me see that I was complicit with the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error rather than finding truth is the great goal of life.

Like Plato and St. Augustine, Newman presumes that human beings seek to know the truth. Our hearts are restless, not with fear of error, but with a desire to rest in God, who is the fullness of all truth. The fundamental and fulfilling activity of intellectual life, therefore, is to affirm truth rather than recoil from falsehood. We want to know, not to know that we don’t know.

Newman recognizes the value of critical methods in our efforts to seek the truth. Those methods involve parsing arguments, examining premises, and testing hypotheses. In his sermons on faith and reason, he sometimes calls this use of the mind “strict reason.” It slows us down, filtering our beliefs according to stringent and exacting standards of proof. In this way we are protected from the danger of overcommitting ourselves and thereby coming to believe as truth things that are in fact false.

But Newman also sees the danger of this strict reason. It is critical, not creative. Its methods “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Clear-minded and scrupulous analysis clears the underbrush of error—a very good thing to do—but it cannot plant the seeds of truth; it burns away the weeds but won’t fertilize the fields. To do so we must be receptive rather than cautious. We need to develop the habit of credulity, which literally means the capacity and willingness to accept or believe, for that is the only way truth can enter into our minds. To hold anything as true we have to be able to say, “Yes, I think that’s true.” Critical reason, by contrast, trains us to hesitate, interrogate, and withdraw our assent: “Hmm, I wonder if that’s true. Perhaps it’s false? How do I know it isn’t?” We don’t so much seek as wait—wait for compelling evidence or solid proofs.

Therein lies the danger of our enthusiasm for “critical thinking.” If we fear error too much and thus overvalue critical reason, we develop a mind active and able in doubt but largely untrained to move toward belief, which is, after all, the main work of the mind. A mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions runs the risk of ending up more empty than accurate.

In my experience it’s not just a risk but a reality. Although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is skeptical and cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that their minds can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequence is an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths—facts and theories unrelated to any deeper meaning—because those are the only truths of which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.

In a startling passage Newman writes: “I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt everything. The former, indeed, seems the true way of learning.” Of course we don’t face such a stark choice: believing or doubting everything. But by putting it in exaggerated terms, Newman helps us see that in the intellectual life we invariably lean one way or the other. We tilt in the direction of either believing in order to know or doubting in order to avoid error.

A great deal is at stake, and we are foolish indeed if we imagine, as I once did, that critical thinking offers nothing but advantages. We can rightly worry about getting on the wrong train in the foreign train station whose signs we can’t read. But we should also worry about dithering in the station too long and thus failing to get on the right train, which is the reason we went to the station in the first place. This, it seems to me, is the essence of Newman’s insight. Sometimes the dangers of failing to affirm the truth are far greater than the dangers of wrongly affirming falsehood.

If we see this danger—the danger of truths lost, insights missed, convictions never formed—then our approach to reasoning changes, and the burdens of proof shift. We begin to cherish books and teachers and friends who push us, as it were, onto certain trains of thought, romancing us with the possibilities of truth rather than always cautioning and checking our tendency to believe. Errors risked now seem worth the rich reward of engrossing, life-commanding truths—the truths that are accessible only to a mind passionate with the intimacy of conviction rather than coldly and critically distant.

There are some things that we can know only if we embrace them in love, giving ourselves to beliefs with a seemingly reckless abandon—and this critical reason cannot train us to do. As the ancient Greek translation of Isaiah 7:9 puts it, “Unless you believe, you shall not understand.” It’s a truth that St. Anselm formulated as a maxim, not just for the life of faith but for the life of the mind: Credo ut intelligam, I believe so that I may understand.


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