Friday, August 2, 2013

Critical Thinking at Work in Theology

In my last blog I posited the notion that critical thinking is not the enemy of Christianity, including a robust, confessional version thereof. In fact, a sound form of Christianity actually requires its adherents to employ critical thinking and to grow in it. To paraphrase Socrates, an unexamined faith is unworthy of believing. Thus, critical thinking is not in and of itself an enemy of serious, orthodox Christianity. The real danger is the half-hearted attempt at critical thinking known as cynical thinking. Four centuries ago this truth was acknowledged by Francis Bacon: “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

Before we explore this topic further, let me remind the reader that to engage in critical thinking does not mean that one rejects out of hand what one is studying. Literary critics engage a particular work not because they think it is meaningless but because they believe that it has something to teach us about the human condition and they want to understand better what it is saying. When historians investigate particular battles or events, they usually do not believe that these events never took place and that all previous histories are all bunkum. Rather, they take for granted that these things did occur, but they want to understand them in greater detail and perhaps clear up some confusion. Critical thinking is not just negative thinking about everything, but an attempt to look at a particular matter in great detail and ask important questions of it.

Medieval monasteries not only copied the Scriptures
but promoted literacy and learning in general.
Of course, part of critical thinking does involve examining whether one’s first principles are reliable and true. Thus, a Christian will have to ask why he or she embraces Christianity. No one re-examines their first principles every day or should be expected to, but it is still something that ought to be done from time to time—and Christians should examine why they believe what they do. In addition to confirming the basis for their faith, it also prepares them to explain it to those who want to know more about it. I will not lay out the arguments for Christianity in this post, but urge the reader to consult any number of works that have made the case. Some arguments are philosophical (such as the various proofs for God or the explanations for the Christian understanding of good and evil). Other arguments are grounded in history, such as the case for Christ’s resurrection. But Christians for centuries have made the point again and again: the Christian faith is not contrary to reason and in fact is the most rational of all possible philosophies, ideologies, and religions; moreover, it is supported by the evidence of history, as much as anything else is.

The objection is often raised—by Christians and non-Christians alike—that Christianity is accepted by faith, not by rational argument. That statement, however, misunderstands what faith is. Faith is not an irrational leap into the unknown. We do not believe in something simply because it is absurd or because we wish that it would be true, even though all evidence points against it. Instead, a person believes what he or she deems most likely to be true. Every human being is in the awkward position of being unable to know anything (especially on the most important of subjects) with absolute certainty. As a consequence, every human being has to put his or her trust in someone or something. We do it in small ways and in big ways. We may trust that the person who is giving us directions indeed knows the area and isn’t trying to fool us. We trust that the bank teller will actually deposit the money instead of absconding with it. We may be wrong or we may be deceived, but we would not trust a person whom we believe to be deceitful. Similarly, when it comes to the big questions in life, we look at the evidence and choose what seems most reasonable. Thus, Christians believe in Christ not because it seems foolish to do so, but because it seems the most sensible thing to do.

To be sure, we Christians will at the same time acknowledge that faith in Christ is a gift from God, but we do not thereby imply that the Christian faith is irrational. Instead, we acknowledge that human beings often choose irrationally and that we need help so that we do not blind ourselves to reality. Consider the fact that many people have an irrational fear of flying, even though it is by far safer to fly than to drive. By the same token, we would tend stubbornly to deny the truth of the Christian faith because of our innate selfishness, but God persuades us of the truth. He does so not by overcoming our rationality, but our irrationality.

But once a person has examined the first principles of the Christian faith and found them to be eminently acceptable, the need for critical thought has not come to an end. If anything, it grows. The Christian faith has often been reduced to platitudes, but when it has, it has become unconvincing. Indeed, one thing that I find consistently among critics of Christianity is that they have reduced its content to mere slogans (often wildly inaccurate ones at that), which they then handily dismiss. The Christian truth consists of many teachings that are at their heart paradoxical: God is one divine being, yet there are three distinct Persons in the Godhead; Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human, in two distinct natures but consisting of only one person; we are not saved by our good works but by trusting in Christ, and yet good works must be done; the Kingdom of God is in our midst, and it has not yet come; we are new creations in Christ, and we bear within ourselves the old sinful nature of Adam. When people err, they usually do not deny Christian teaching altogether, but they usually fail to make distinctions within a paradox, or they hold to one side of the paradox and not the other, or they fail to understand which side of the paradox needs to be upheld in a particular context. For example, rarely if ever have Christians believed in a multitude of gods (polytheism), but they have fallen into one or more errors in relating the unity of the Godhead to the distinction between three Persons by sacrificing one or the other. Most of Christian theology, therefore, is making appropriate distinctions, both when examining the Scriptures and when applying them to life.

The Scriptures need to be understood, and they can only be understood if people are willing to do the hard linguistic, grammatical, rhetorical, and historical study. Often a word can have more than one meaning, and the attentive reader has to consider which is the more likely meaning in a particular passage. Sometimes the evidence can be marshaled for more than one explanation, and the decision is not easy. The exegete has to weigh the evidence rather than mechanically count it. The serious exegete also realizes that dictionaries and other scholarly resources may err since they are compiled by fallible individuals. Then there are those passages and words that are unclear or whose nuances are lost on us because we do not have a full grasp of the historical situation or of a word’s historical usage. Consider, for example, how the Greek word for “It is finished” was understood for centuries—not altogether wrongly—as meaning, “It is over,” while records of account balances written in antiquity on papyrus and discovered a century ago allowed us to see that it can also mean, “[Balance of a debt] has been paid in full,” thus adding a theological nuance hitherto unnoticed. Thus, even if one happens to believe that the Scriptures teach the gospel truth and are reliable, as I do, it doesn’t mean that the interpreter is infallible or knows everything about the Bible or a particular passage.

Nathan confronts David. The words non moechaberis
are Latin for "You shall not commit adultery."
But a theologian—and in some sense every Christian is a theologian inasmuch as all Christians think about the Scriptures and divine matters—must also know how to apply the truths of Scripture. And that is also no easy matter. We see how difficult it is when we consider the way that the prophet Nathan treated David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 12. Within a couple minutes of Nathan telling David, “You are the man [who deserves to die]!” Nathan told David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Unless one understands David’s two different states of mind, it will seem rather bizarre to see David condemned to death one moment and then spared the next. The law had to be spoken in its severity to David when he refused to acknowledge his sin; nothing short of death could have woken him from his spiritual slumber. But because God does not desire the death of sinners, He also forgave David and told Nathan to proclaim absolution. Recognizing this distinction of law and gospel—and the situations that call for each—requires critical thinking. Even if one recognizes that the law has to be preached in its severity to admonish unrepentant sinners while the gospel has to be preached in its sweetness to comfort repentant sinners, one still has to determine whether he is dealing with an unrepentant or repentant sinner, and that task cannot be done thoughtlessly.

Every Christian knows that God expects His people to engage in spiritual worship by presenting their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). What people often forget is that part of this spiritual worship involves our being “transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” and “discern[ing] what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). That calls for critical thinking with all one’s power—and then some.