Friday, July 26, 2013

Critical Thinking, Cynical Thinking, and Theology

I enjoy blogging, but often do not have the time to do it as often as I should. I’ve had the following essay running around my head for some time, but am only now getting around to putting ink to paper—or keystroke to pixel.

If you ask most people, they would tell you that critical thinking and theology (or religion in general) are mortal enemies. Religious people cannot think critically, it is assumed, especially if they happen to hold to the old creeds. And if one does think critically, it is assumed that no particular religion or dogma will be held dear. But that is because most people have assumed that critical thinking is the same as cynical thinking, which it is not.

There is no lack of cynical thinking nowadays. Name an author from a bygone era, and an educated smart-aleck will tell you that so-and-so held to a particular bigotry or engaged in some delicious vice that was disapproved then but is in favor now. (The sexual indulgences of every literary fop and of every monarch are well known; what they actually did outside of the boudoir, less so.) The point of this knowledge is clear. We learn about their prejudices so that we can congratulate ourselves for being enlightened people who never succumbed to the sort of thinking popular in those dark eras. We learn about the sexual escapades of prominent people in history so that we can herald them for being forerunners of a modern society that has rid itself of all prudery. We take a cynical view on history and life in general largely so that we do not have to think critically about ourselves and our own generation.

Auguste Rodin, Le Penseur
For that reason, most of today’s cynical thinking does not involve critical thinking. Shakespeare is either lauded because he was gay or denounced because he was an anti-Semite. If you ask people why they say those things about Shakespeare, they will roll their eyes. How dense can you be? Didn’t you hear the teacher give that factoid about Shakespeare? But usually the people who toss out such little tidbits of literary gossip cannot defend their statements. Of course, they haven’t read The Merchant of Venice, and even if they had, they wouldn’t know how to evaluate it. It would never occur to them that literature (and especially drama) can be notoriously ambiguous and that the attitudes of its characters—even its principal ones—do not necessarily reflect the author’s beliefs, or else we would have to argue that Shakespeare approved of regicide and parricide because of his Macbeth and Hamlet. Of course, this does not in itself exonerate Shakespeare of the charge of anti-Semitism, but the evidence has to be weighed and evaluated more carefully and in a more nuanced manner than is done by those who merely parrot the charge.

Unthinking cynicism is nothing new, and neither is unthinking cynicism passing itself off as critical thought. By all accounts, Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) was truly concerned to find the meaning of justice, goodness, courage, beauty, and the like. He engaged in critical thinking, asking whether the traditional answers given matched the evidence. He poked and prodded to find out exactly what people meant by what they were saying. But Socrates was not cynical in undertaking this process. He believed that there were answers to these questions, even if those answers were not always clear to him. His student Plato would agree and further develop the notion of Ideas or Forms. He would grant, as he did in his dialogue Parmenides, that there are difficulties with that particular notion, but he would not abandon that thought altogether.

But while Socrates and Plato were engaged in serious critical thought, there were plenty of contemporaries who substituted mere cynicism for critical thought. These were the youth whom Socrates was accused of corrupting, but who in truth loved sophistry and clever argument and were unconcerned about finding the truth. Plato recognized the difference and he alludes to it in many of his dialogues. In The Symposium, for example, he outlines (through the character Socrates) an ascent to beauty that requires a philosopher to look beyond physical beauty and to discern the beauty of ideas, laws, and (ultimately) Beauty Itself. It is absolutely difficult work and requires the discipline of an ascetic. But while Plato commends Socrates’ vision of philosophy, he has the dialogue narrated by unreliable narrators as a word of warning to the reader to take Socrates’ method seriously rather than merely to ape his shoeless style. Apollodorus, the dialogue’s chief narrator, wasn’t present and knows the tale only third-hand. He relies mainly on Aristodemus, who was present but didn’t have the wherewithal to compose his own speech and who had turned Socratic philosophy into mere argumentativeness. With such narrators garbling the story, it is no wonder that Aristophanes dismissed Socrates as a sophist and a crank in his comedy The Clouds. Plato begs to differ, however, and urges us to see the difference between cynicism and real critical thought.

While cynicism has passed itself off as critical thought for a long time, it has become more prevalent recently. The reigning philosophies of the past three centuries have grown rather skeptical about what we can know. Even those that believed in the value of the empirical sciences have tended to dismiss talk about aesthetics, ethics, religion, and ontology as nonsense. With the advent of Postmodernism, the trustworthiness of even empirical science has been questioned. At the same time, modern society has heralded the unshackling of the individual from mediating institutions (such as the family, the community, and the church), even as the individual has actually become quite beholden to corporations and to the nation-state in a way undreamed of in pre-modern societies. It is in the interest of the powers-that-be to have individuals turned into uncritical cynics, who are too cynical to think that anything can be done to right any wrongs and too uncritical to bother to find a way or even to discern that wrongs are being committed.

Not all cynical thinkers are uncritical thinkers, but cynicism can easily take the place of robust critical thinking. And this has often happened as people evaluate Christianity. Christianity is well grounded in history if one cares to look at the evidence. It offers a rigorous intellectual life for those who would follow it. Christian theology does not consist of mere platitudes (although some have tried to reduce it to them), but its dogmas are rich in nuance and require an intellectual regimen to be apprehended correctly. But too often people dismiss Christianity cynically. They “know” that Jesus never lived or that He never said anything ascribed to Him. It isn’t that they have weighed the evidence and found it wanting, but rather they have dismissed it prematurely.

Take, for example, the Jesus Seminar, which has taken the cynicism of the historical-critical method to its absurd but logical conclusion. As Korey Maas points out in a recent article in Logia, the methodology of the Jesus Seminar is anything but grounded in the methods of sound historical investigation. It purports to find the “real Jesus” by ruling out any saying of His that sounded like what a first century Jew or an early Christian might say. As Maas notes, this is not standard operating procedure for evaluating other historical figures, and he illustrates his point by using the example of George Washington. Imagine that historians had to rule out as apocryphal anything ascribed to him that sounded like (1) what someone in the mid-eighteenth century British Empire would have said or (2) what an American in the early years of independence might have said. One would expect that Washington would talk in part like an eighteenth century British subject and in part like a newly independent American. Why, therefore, would we want to rule out the possibility that Jesus, who was raised as a pious Jew, would say things that other first century AD Jews would say, and that, as the founder of Christianity, He would also talk like His Christian followers would?

It isn’t critical thinking that is the enemy of Christianity (including a confessionally robust version of it such as I embrace). It is a cynicism that has deluded itself into thinking that it is critical thought. In my next post I’ll explore how Christians ought to employ critical thinking in theology.