I am a trained and experienced researcher and have taught critical thinking skills for over 30 years. I am just establishing my bias and perspective up front. Through years of working in the church, with academia, community organizing, board leadership and training, and global systems, I find that most people have a “fight or flight” reaction to critical thinking. At the most basic level, people fear being wrong. They fear that their core values and governing beliefs might be flawed or faulty. Ignorance might not be bliss exactly, but it is safe and comfortable. If we don’t learn anything new, we never have to change. My play on words from “fear mongering” to “fear wrongering” shifts focus from intention to ignorance. Critical thinking is fundamentally and essentially about learning with the greatest integrity and authenticity. It challenges biases, inferences, assumptions, sloppy thinking, irrationality, superstition, and prejudicial opinions. It cuts through all the fog to bring clarity to complex, confusing, and often controversial issues.
Knowledge is power; ignorance is weakness and it is dangerous. Every person has a right to believe whatever he/she/they want to, but collectively we need to make sure we progress at the highest possible level rather than along the path of our lowest common denominator. Critical thinking follows the metaphor of a chain – we are only as strong as our weakest link. When we bring strength, durability, and integrity to even the weakest link, we are all better for it.
I am going to be writing on this for a few more blogs, but I want to introduce an illustration I have used since way last century. My lament is that I haven’t needed to adjust this model in all that time. I would love to say there has been movement upward from simplistic, binary, and polarizing thinking toward complex, polymorphous, and inclusive thinking, but alas (yes, I used alas in a sentence), I cannot do so.
Thinking is not just one thing, nor is there one way to think. Everyone thinks, but there are levels of thinking from the most simple and reactive to the most complex and responsive. Reactive thinking is basic in all of us, and is the most subjective form of thinking — am I safe or threatened, comfortable or uncomfortable, hungry or satisfied, tired or energized? And how do I feel about it? Do I like it or not. Reinforcing thinking surrounds the individual with people, places, and ideas that make the person feel comfortable, safe, and content. At this lowest level, everything is either/or, and the individual is greatly distressed by ambiguity and anything new, strange, or foreign. This level of thinking tends to be very provincial and protective – the person cares for self and immediate family and tribe. For the most part, reality outside of the individual’s sphere of thinking is dangerous and threatening. Individuals learn as much as they need to to function with the belief that they are safe, secure, and protected. At this level, things are true or false – what I believe that allows me to live comfortably and safely is true, those who think differently or who challenge my comfort and security are false/wrong.
I once watched a Ted Talk on brain function that fascinated me (and I wish I could find it again, but try as I might, I have never relocated it) because the speaker said that our brain is not designed to deal with ambiguity. Whenever we are faced with complexity and ambiguity, our brains automatically attempt to simplify, categorize, and move us to a definite decision. We may acknowledge that there are grey areas in our lives, but something deep in our psyche pushes us to “black” or “white.” “Either/or” thinking is the concrete floor upon which all other thinking is built. We never stop “either/or” thinking, and our brains are designed to move us away from ambiguity, but higher brain function and developed thinking skills allow us to tackle every expanding levels of complexity. However, higher levels of thinking require hard work, practice, and development. The vast majority of people in our U.S. culture are unreflective thinkers — we take things at face value, trust those who agree with us and support us in our opinions and beliefs, we tend not to look into deepening our understanding of other perspectives. At this level, the individual acknowledges that not everything is “either/or” and that sometimes things are confusing and convoluted.
The human brain is designed very differently from most other mammals, and yet most researchers in neuroscience believe that we underuse the equipment we have. Our brains are capable of amazing function and performance, but mainly we use only a small portion of the power and potential we possess. However, brains can be toned and minds can be improved – there are hundreds of thousands of examples, yet we still are faced by a simple mystery: if the brain is designed to be a high end computer, why are we content to use it to play solitaire and surf shopping sites?
Okay, I won’t belabor this at this point. I am going to write more about complex thinking and the value it could have for our church and our country, but I will pause here to make an observation and ask a couple questions: our church has been deeply impacted by a culture that has become suspicious of intellectualism and progressive thinking. At an unconscious level, fear of being wrong, fear of having to change, fear of knowing more about the unknown is crippling us and leading us to destructive division and unnecessary hostility. Is this the best we can do? Couldn’t the church cast a witness and vision of expansive and polymorphous thinking as a GIFT FROM GOD? Couldn’t bringing our best thinking, reasoning, research, understanding, and meaning to our reading of scripture, our theological reflection, and our witness to the world reveal the true will of God? I believe reactive and unreflective thinking is killing us by inches, as a church and as a country. We can do better, but we have to want to try, and unless we engage in a radical curiosity, we will stay mired in our simple-minded disagreements.