Critical Thinking: A Lament And A Remedy

Critical Thinking

There is ample evidence all around us that when it comes to faith issues many have a tendency to throw critical thinking to the wind. In doing so, they prove themselves to be disagreers rather than critical thinkers. A mere disagreer lacks some of the essential qualities a critical thinker has worked hard to cultivate. For instance, a disagreer looks at individual statements and judges these solely against the backdrop of his own beliefs. In contrast, a critical thinker reads and listens, as the case may be, to everything written or said so as to determine the argumentative structure, diligently looking for statements that justify believing what others are saying. Instead of judging another’s main thesis in isolation and evaluating it on the basis of one’s prior beliefs alone, a critical thinker is not only open to another’s point of view, even when he initially disagrees with what is being said, but receptive to having his viewpoint changed by another’s arguments. Unlike the mere disagreer, the critical thinker is willing to be persuaded by the cogent arguments, if such are produced, of his opponent. Critical thinking, then, involves looking at the reasoning on which a point of view is based and then judging whether such reasoning is strong enough to justify accepting that point of view.

When integrity is added to this mix, it will demand that we not only think of ourselves as willing to change, when the evidence demands it, but that we believe this to be the attitude of our opponent as well. Civil discourse and effective Bible study demand such a disposition. Unfortunately, in this day and age, many have forgotten these critical differences. As mere disagreers, they view any discussion as a means of “winning.” When they think they can no longer win, they turn their attention elsewhere, fleeing the scene much like an assassin trying to make his escape. All of these things evidence a lack of faith in the critical-thinking process. Such was manifested by the words of one who disagreed with me, when he said, “How could we argue with such conviction if we were actually prepared to abandon those convictions?” Clearly, my opponent didn’t even believe in the process. With him, it was a mere contest of wits and not an opportunity to improve his or my set of beliefs. How sad!

Critical thinking makes us uncomfortable. It is, therefore, far too easy to choose the position that is most comfortable or self-serving rather than the one that is the most reasonable. And contrary to what some think, preachers are not the only ones who occupy this self-serving comfort zone. In truth, the tendency affects us all. To override it, we must work very hard at developing our critical thinking. This means that when we learn, through a process of critical thinking, that we were mistaken about something, we must be willing to admit that until then our understanding had been defective. But, and here’s the rub, this is an excruciatingly difficult thing for most of us to do. We don’t want to change our beliefs or learn from someone else, as we already have something invested in being right. But continuing in this attitude will hold us at the level of being a mere disagreer. This is where many folks seem most comfortable. But not me. I believe critical thinking, if I learn to do it well, will permit me to engage in replacing, when necessary, less adequate beliefs with more productive ones. As I’ve already said, I believe this process is most beneficial when I engage in it well. This means that the critical thinker is like an athlete effectively engaged in the activities of his sport, while the disagreer is like a bodybuilder, taking pride in the static features of his body and not in how his body actually performs.

Some think the solution is that we all just love one another, which certainly isn’t wrong in and of itself. In fact, God commands it. However, I’m sure that most of the participants in discussions of this sort believe themselves to be operating under this principle. However, it is sobering to recognize that no one but God has the corner on love, and it really is impertinent of anyone to think otherwise. In order to disregard disagreements, some make a “unity in diversity” plea, which argues, at its core, that truth really doesn’t matter, and it is for this reason that I reject most unity in diversity pleas.

The great apostle Paul “reasoned” with those with whom he disagreed, “explaining” and “demonstrating” the necessary things as he “persuaded” them (Acts 17:2). Should we not try to follow the same pattern? Therefore, when someone who disagrees with us follows this time-honored pattern, let us not see it as an insult, but as the compliment it truly is.

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