The etymological roots of the word “curiosity” are “care” and “cure;” curiosity seeks to cure, to care, to heal. Every person on the planet has a seed of curiosity planted deep within them. It has been believed that formal education is the best way to feed and nurture this seed, giving it food, water, light, and cultivation — to a point. Learning and thinking are not always the same thing; I have been taught many things that required very little thought. And in some respects, I was taught information, but not encouraged to think at all.
I realized young that my mind worked differently than a lot of other people’s; not better, just different. I have an insatiable curiosity and when something catches my interest I leap in and totally immerse myself in it. In school, I remember three occasions when I “got the fever” and the rest of the class moved on while I remained fixated and focused on a new passion. This happened in history class when we got to the Civil War. My junior year of high school, I read over forty books on the Civil War, while the rest of my classmates covered the remainder of the 19th and all of the 20th centuries (up to 1975, when I was a junior). I got all A+ grades on my Civil War projects but a C- in the class. I wasn’t clear on how many World Wars there were or why the Depression was Great; I was still reading about Gettysburg. I turned in a 71 page research paper on Sherlock Holmes my freshman year. The teacher told me it was one of the most impressive papers he had ever received, but he had to give me a D because it had nothing to do with the assignment. I saved a copy, turned it in as my senior English project, and got an A+; I was just a few years ahead of my time. I had to take an incomplete in Introduction to Philosophy my freshman year at Ball State University, because I was buried under my own reading and research. I remember sitting up at the Perkins Pancake house (open 24 hours) reading Descartes, Derrida, Russell, Plato, Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Schleiermacher until 3 or 4 in the morning. I have yet to complete the course, however, I believe I could teach it competently.
Smart phones, tablets, and computers are changing both reading and researching habits; there is more information at the fingertips of the privileged and tech savvy than ever before. However, there is more misinformation at our fingertips as well. Reading trends in the United States are somewhat alarming, and they challenge my first tenet of true critical thinking grounded in curiosity: READ. Read widely, diversely, eclectically, intentionally, and regularly. Reading is one of the best and easiest ways to tone our mental muscles. But consider this, while 73% of the U.S. population read at least one book in 2019, only 36% read more than one book (and the most popular book read in 2019 was a crime/thriller title, with romance a close second). About 30% 4 or more books; 11% read 12 or more books, and 3% read 20 or more books. I read an average of four books per week, so this is absolutely incredible to me, but I know I am a book freak and not good for comparison. But, come on! A quarter of our population only reads online, newspapers, magazines, or nothing at all. There is a stunning correlation between non-readers and those addicted to 24-hour news channels. I would imagine there is also a strong correlation between non-readers and reactive and unreflective thinking, as well.
When we teach information instead of thinking, when we limit perspectives to one text book or one example, we inhibit natural curiosity. In fact, we often unintentionally constrain curiosity through testing and grading protocols. Most colleges and universities encourage higher thinking processes, but often those who have not been well prepared in middle and high school find themselves disadvantaged if not lost completely. Critical thinking, systems thinking, complexity thinking, expansive thinking does not happen naturally to the vast majority of people. It must be nurtured, cultivated trained, conditioned, and continuously practiced. What an amazing opportunity for the church!
But organized religions jumped the rails in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Throughout most of our history, clergy were among some of the most educated and learned leaders in our community organizations, and not just in theology and preaching. Most U.S. Americans first heard of the geological dating of the earth, evolution through natural selection, astronomy and physics, philosophy, and Freudian psychology from the pulpit. Biblical scholars and theologians of the nineteenth century did not see science, medicine, philosophical inquiry, psychology or government as threats to religion, but understood that all aspects of physics and metaphysics were developmental and evolving. The most progressive thinkers looked at ways to synthesize and integrate the best of human learning with the understanding of the sacred and divine. Then we hit a bump in the early twentieth century. Too much learning, too much new knowledge, too much THINKING, caused a counter movement – an anti-intellectual, anti-freethinker push back. Early Pentecostalism was a prime example of reactive, unreflective thinking that wanted to eliminate the ambiguous, confusing, and fear-inducing curiosity. Science OR religion, sacred OR secular, faith OR knowledge became nails constantly hammered by people who felt things were changing too much, too fast, too far. And it appealed to a populism of the less educated and a hunger for the simple. And Christianity has never recovered. While science, technology, medicine, psychology and sociology have continued to progress and advance, a growing and widening gulf split the church. Talk to most graduates of academic seminaries and you will hear the students lament that they cannot teach what they learned in seminary in the churches they serve. Integral forms of theology and biblical interpretation are anathema to reactive and unreflective thinkers; the complexity that engages curiosity and leads to critical thinking is no longer welcome in many churches.
And look at the result. Mainline Christianity is in decline – a decline that corresponds closely to the close of World War I and has resulted in the splintering of the Christian faith into factional denominationalism across the country. The lack of critical thinking which only allows for “either/or” thinking means we can no longer disagree in healthy ways. If one side cannot have its way, it will go start a church of its own where it no longer has to deal with ambiguity. Problem solved.
No, actually, problem exacerbated. Our witness to the world is that short-sighted, reactive selfishness is normal, that unreflective credulous thinking is the standard for Christians, and that when faced with complexity, we would rather run away than find a way through it together. For so many in our culture, the church has lost credibility, trust, respect, validity, and integrity, all because we choose the easy way out and refuse to live in the real world with all its messiness, complexity and chaos. We no longer have a relevant word for the world. Our hope is an empty hope if we choose to park our brain at the door.
So, where do we go? Next blog is a vision for a resurrection of spiritual formation and Christian education grounded in critical thinking – God’s gift to faithful disciples that equips us to fulfill God’s transforming work in the world. What would happen if we transplanted a thinking brain – the very mind of Christ – into this body in decline? I wonder.