Diacritical Ecclesia

Is critical thinking hard? No, not really. Critical thinking is intentional, careful, concise, time-intensive, open-ended, and often demanding, but truly not that hard. Critical thinking is risky. It challenges the status quo, confronts sloppy, reactive, and unreflective thinking (therefore revealing flaws in assumptions and opinions), and demands change through growth and awareness. It expands mindfulness, meaning, and comprehension. It is exacting work, but quality requires commitment. Most people who are not critical thinkers could be with a very little guidance and training.

An example. Let’s say there is, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic. You have identified that the pandemic is happening. You turn to a trusted source to find out more. Facebook, Fox, CNN, NPR offer reports – what it is, how serious, how to respond, what “experts” are saying. This reporting contains a large measure of personal opinion and party-line reasoning. It would be very simple (reactive) to simply agree with what you first hear, or to listen to similar voices from similar sources as a way of expanding your own opinion and perspective on what to believe and what to reject. This grounds opinion and understanding in unreflective/reinforcing thinking. Your opinion is shaped along a fairly narrow track, but it is clear and makes sense as far as it goes. Your understanding is framed in binary terms – the pandemic is serious or not, masking is a good idea or not, vaccines are necessary or not; “our” people say this, “those” people say that. Our people are right; their people are wrong. Those people might even be doing this to us! Opinions polarize around “us/them” oppositions.

But our opinion shapers and trusted sources are drawing their inferences and making their assumptions based on something. What are the primary sources? What are the true experts saying? Instead of listening to pundits and personalities and politicians, what are the scientists and immunologists and doctors on the front lines and health care workers throughout the system saying? What is the evidence that supports the claims? What happens when we stop listening to second-hand and third-hand sources with hidden agenda (ratings, getting elected, corporate support, number of likes and thumbs up) and do some fairly simple research online, in books, journals, and press releases? What happens when we add the Associated Press, BBC, the Economist, and the actual reports (not predigested biased summaries) of the Center for Disease Control, World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the National Institute of Health? I cannot tell you the number of times in the last eighteen months that I have shown opponents to masking and vaccinations actual research and their response has been, “why haven’t we heard this before?” The answer is simple: we have heard it but it is buried in the misinformation and caustic rhetoric that is more concerned with winning the argument than educating and informing the public at large. Our problem is not an absence of information, but too much information that fails to inform.

When I talk about forming “veracity panels,” all I am talking about is getting people stuck in the identification and inquiry phases of unreflective thinking to do some real, honest exploration, engage in some collaborative analysis, and come to a consensus about what they find. Sometimes it makes little impact on an individual’s opinion, but it promotes an integral and informed way of forming that opinion. I have had people quit, angry that their worldview and belief was not supported by real evidence, and I have had people tell me that they didn’t care what the evidence showed, they still believed what they believed and nothing was going to change their minds. But it does change the way we think; it causes us to question, to challenge, and to consider a larger and more complex reality.

What might happen in our churches were we to apply the exploration and analysis steps of critical thinking to spiritual formation and Christian education? For some, this idea is terrifying. What if authentic and thorough study disproved or challenged some dearly held beliefs? This is a risk we would invite people to take. Yet, we know that there is no good theology that comes from reactive or unreflective thinking. Yes, it is widespread and popular, but it lacks integrity and depth. Reactive and unreflective thinking loves to pull bits and pieces of scripture apart, take them at face value, and twist their meaning to fit a twenty-first century bias. As we displace real translations of holy writ with more and more unreflective paraphrases, we foster pastiche spiritualities that are ten miles wide and a millimeter deep. Seminarians lament that the exploration and analysis that is demanded for their divinity degrees is roundly rejected in most local churches, and so we stay stuck.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. While hundreds of millions of Christians are perfectly satisfied with an unreflective and superficial understanding of their faith and scriptures, who avoid theological thinking like the plague, there are still millions who are starving for some real solid spiritual nourishment. Everywhere I have served there have been people excited by the idea of being taught to study, how to read commentaries, how to interpret scholarship, and how to apply simple diacritical reasoning to large and complex philosophical ideas. I think of the UMW Sarah Circle studying together Ched Meyer’s political commentary on Mark, Unbinding the Strong Man, and the men’s breakfast group engaged in a year-long exploration of the writings of Meister Eckhart. I know of a youth group reading and discussing Catherine Keller’s apocalyptic theology. Coast to coast, congregations are engaging in deep reflection on holistic stewardship. The only difference in these communities of faith is the desire to learn and grow and better understand. There is a still, small voice tickling our curiosity, saying that there is more to the story if we only look for it, urging us to enter the complexity rather than fear it.

Of course, this isn’t new (think Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) and the majority of unreflective thinkers are virulent in their resistance to change, but we need to keep sowing the seed (even if it only hits fertile soil a small percentage of the time). Critical thinking is as important today as it has ever been, and we cannot navigate the current damage to church and culture without it. I would just love for the church to model cutting edge critical thinking, reclaiming a seat at the table of progressive and transformative leadership.

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