Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

I did not contribute anything to “On Faith” (Newsweek/Washington Post) this week. Those of us who serve on that internet panel are given a question each week, and we are expected to provide commentary in response at least once or twice a month. So my not contributing this past week is no big deal.

The truth is, however, I don’t know how to answer the question posed in a paragraph or two. The question has to do with the value of engaging in critical questioning about matters of religious belief. In one sense it is a no-brainer for me. In all of my years of teaching philosophy courses, I have encouraged critical thinking. Philosophy, I would tell my students, is thinking critically about what we take for granted in the normal course of our lives. It is standing back and looking at what we ordinarily take to be “given.”

I would often quote John Stott to make my point. Christians must be “conservative radicals,” he once wrote. We must be conservative about only one thing: the truth of God’s Word. That truth we must conserve at all costs. But from that perspective of our accepting revealed truth, we must then subject everything else to radical critique.

I still like that. But I am more inclined these days to keep critical reflection in its proper place. I have come to worry about a pattern of lingering over critical questions as if that lingering were itself the primary goal of the life of the mind. I once heard the sociologist Peter Berger remark that he found most of his secular colleagues taking it for granted that “ecstasy”—in the sense of ex stasis, standing apart from, intellectual detachment—was the most prized moment in the intellectual quest. I must admit that I find that tendency within myself, mainly  because of the ways in which I have reacted strongly against evangelical anti-intellectualism.

But I also know that seeing ex stasis, intellectual detachment, as having intrinsic worth, is not a healthy thing.  My worries about that kind of posture are reinforced by the predictable sorts of answers given by many of the “On Faith” panelists in response to this past week’s question. Faith must embrace doubting. Uncritical acceptance of what we have been “given” in religion is a bad thing.

Steve Evans once wrote a little book on existentialism with the intriguing title Despair: a Moment or a Way of Life? That poses the options nicely. Is critical thinking about religion a moment or a way of life? I cherish it as a moment, as a necessary exercise that at least some of us ought to engage in periodically. But to make it a way of life—that is what postmodernism at its worst is all about.

This has important implications for theological education. Are we educating men and women to be critical thinkers? Well, yes, of course. But the critical thinking thing must be a moment—a necessary exercise—in the service of a larger process. And the larger goal is not simply to produce critical thinkers, but to equip persons who are faithful to the truth of the gospel. Some of us must engage in critical thinking in order to be effective in encouraging God’s people to be faithful, both to the biblical message and to all that is good and worthy in the Christian traditions that we have received.


  1. I like how G.K. Chesterton articulated it (quoted from memory): “the purpose of having an open mind, like the purpose of having an open mouth, is to be able to close it on something solid.” Something like that.

    Comment by Virgie — June 18, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  2. What is it Chesterton once said? “I open mind for the same reason I open my mouth, to close it and chew upon something meaty and nourishing!” Only he said it better than that. Thanks Dr. Mouw

    Comment by Rev. Dave Moody — June 19, 2007 @ 8:13 am

  3. Dear Dr Mouw,

    Reconciling “beliefs accepted on faith” with “critical thinking” isn’t something you normally see within theological environments, so I commend you for your openness and good faith.

    As humans, we tend to hold the truth in self righteousness making the mistake of assuming that, because we believe something, it must be true. Our religious conditionings illustrate this most vividly.

    Critical thinking challenges us to overcome our cultural legacies, belief systems, and social conditioning to openly and rationally reexamine and reconcile the truth with our values and prejudices. Our intellectual integrity and intellectual honesty is at the core of our character.

    The line of logic advanced in your blog, encourages us to think critically on “everything else” but “God’s Word.” Critical thinkers must ask themselves, what makes this version of “god’s word” any different than anybody elses. And, one wonders by whose authority it is best practice to stand back and look at what we ordinarily take to be “given” but not at “the truth” as embraced by anyone’s arbitary acceptance of what a god is alleged to have thought, said, written, or decreed?” Don’t leaps of faith like this imposed into syllogistic logic and into dialectic intercourse — even among the most well-intentioned, objective, and non tendentious among us — corrupt the processes of critical thinking? Isn’t the “ultimate truth,” and the process of discovering it for ourselves across all domains and disciplines, independent of anyone’s attempt to impose it onto us directly or by proxie?

    If critical thinking seeks ultimately to validate hypotheses such as moral principles through which we individually hold and represent truth why shouldn’t theistic assumptions, orientations, and indoctrinations be subject to the same radical critique as “everything else?” Does anyone actually have a “moral right” to impose their beliefs — especially “no brainer” beliefs that have not been critically reconciled — onto anyone else such as this article suggests? And, in a democracy where each of our votes are counted equally but where the degrees of deliberation behind votes vary widely — does any of us have a moral freedom to believe — much less impose — what we have not critically thought about?

    I’m sure you would agree, to think critically, one always needs something to think critically about. A hypotesis of some sort. Theology certainly gives us plenty of essential questions to work with. Yet, its the infinite breadth and depth of assumptions — the bible, the scriptures, those endless arguments by authority, etc. — that we need to get a better handle on. Do you think it is possible for “religous minds” — especially those committed to the “conservative” tradition — to detatch themselves from their visceral commitments, to the outcomes they are so certain of: i.e., what they actually know, from what they only suspect, from what they plain just don’t know, from what they want to believe? It’s difficult enough to get to the “truth” when you aren’t already dead certain of what the truth is.

    The best!


    Comment by hunter finch — June 20, 2007 @ 2:21 pm

  4. Dr. Mouw, your thoughts here leading and culminating in the final paragraph strike me as a very important articulation of Fuller’s missional d’etre, especially for a theological seminary that has historically been criticized as “the ‘logical’ seminary”, is rooted and still seated within evangelicalism, but is still today afraid (or some of its students are, perhaps) to be or be viewed as too academic or intellectual — for the sake of faith and “Jesus” (I don’t mean the Jesus the Savior/begotten of the Father/member of the Trinity Jesus, but the contemporary cipher/totem /”happy” Jesus).
    But I digress from my main response: Your final paragraph is an important “presidential” statement, as important as some of your more outward-directed blogs, and deserves attention and further discussion.
    PS Although I think some even in-house members might differ on the borders of “God’s truth” to which we hold true, so that even that fixed belief is, I think, subject to critical definition?
    Thank you for this.

    Comment by avnerdaphne — June 21, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  5. It’s difficult enough to get to the “truth” when you aren’t already dead certain of what the truth is.

    I found this comment very close to my heart and would like to share my “ truth telling “story . I had to go to the bank last Friday night. A Young lady appraoched me at the traffic stop on Huntington Blvd and asked me if I knew of the nearest bus station. I said no and walked straigtht toward my parked car. Somehow, a little voice told me to talk to the young lady and to find out what her needs are. I returned to her and said to her:“ The nearest one I know of is on San Gabriel Blvd. It would be half hour walking distance from here.“ I actually need to find a metro train station. I thought I can take a bus to get there.“ She responded. The sky started grayded out as the sun went down quickly in the late Friday afternoon. I offered her a ride to the train station in Pasadena after she told me that she lived near down town L.A.

    She took my offer and got into my car. We started conversations to get to know each other. She told me that she move to L.A. from Illinio about a year ago and just had a job interview for a house siting position for a San Marino family. And she expressed her disappointment on how hard it had been for her to make friends in L.A. as our conversation went forward. I told her about the ministry I am envolved with on Friday nights and extended my invitation to her. She pleasantly said yes to me. Somehow, at the dinner table, she asked me if I knew anything about Physic. I was a little irritatted at first due to Public opions about Spiritual gift and misinterrpretation on supernaturals. However, I reliazed that perhaps it would be a good opportunity for me to share the Gospel, the truth with her. Therefore, I showed her couple of scriptures regarding spiritual gifts and how God wants us to use them for His knidom purposes. She accepted first, then rejected my futher approach on this topic. I guessed that I was bit too aggressive and made her unconfortable. So I left her alone and started to focus on praying for her.

    On the way driving her home, I asked her where she lived and she aboslutely had no idea where her home was. Finally, she told me : “about a mile from Union Station, and that is all I know.“ To me, a direction challenged person, her description was the biggest puzzle I had to put together. I almost regretted to offer her the ride home initially. We both falled in silence. “Do you pray?“ I asked her. “ I am not a religioues person, and don’t want to be involved with any of that.“ And she crossed her armed in front her chest and had stoning look on her face. But the truth gave me the courage to continuesly to say to her“ God still hear our prayers even we are not relioues people. Do you mind I say a prayer, you can say Amne to that if you agree with me.“ I started to pray for wisdom on direction and a short cut to lead us to her home safetly soon in the dark evening. I didn’t hear her respnse, but knew that she was anxioues to get home. As I was driving on freeway 101 toward down town L.A., all the suddent, she became so excited and shouted out to me“ take this road, route 26, now!“ I followed her “ instruction“. Once we got out the freeway, she started to recognize her neigbourhood are and we arrived her home safe and sound within 5 minutes. I did not do the “ I told you so“ and simply wished her “good night“. “ By the way, do you mind to exchange phone numbers, so we can go runing together sometimes.“ She asked me softly, and I knew the truth would eventually show her the light.

    Comment by PofP — June 22, 2007 @ 12:07 am