On the importance of balanced critical thinking

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Q: I feel like I’m not encouraged to use my mind in our culture at Church. I get the sense that if I question things, I’m seen as being heretical or something, and that I am doing something wrong. If it’s so wrong to think critically, then why did God even give us a mind?
– Frustrated

Response:

“The simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going.” (Proverbs 14:15)

Dear Frustrated,

I hear where you are coming from, and I will not deny that there are those with that mentality. It has its pros and its cons, but certainly we are not called to be mindless believers. Saint Paul asks us to be transformed by “the renewing of your mind” – not by the sleep of your mind!

Let’s look at the issue from the perspective of Christ, and the early church. Then, let’s look at some considerations when thinking critically and how to go about doing it honestly.

1. Our Lord set an example that He wanted us to think critically.

So there’s a scenario where the Lord heals someone on the Sabbath. The Pharisees freak out about it, and they’re up in arms about how on earth could He dishonour the Sabbath. Now, what you might not realise in reading the passage, is that the Pharisees had set up their own traditions of how to honour the Sabbath. The Commandment said what to do but not with full details of how to do it. What was the Lord’s response?

He challenged them to think critically!

And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?”

He challenged them to use their minds and think about what they’re upset about, and see if it makes any sense given what else they do in practice, not theory. That’s one example.

Another example is when our Lord even encouraged them to think critically about their thoughts about Him:

” …what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Keep in mind that these verses come out of a long monologue. Nobody said anything at that point that would trigger our Lord to say something like that. He knows the mind of man and He knows what could be an obstacle for them, and He addresses it. He enters into their minds and thinks critically out loud on their behalf – in modern English, “Think about it, folks! Who would be so mean to their own kids? Why would you think that God, as the truest Father, would do that to you?!”

In this example, He even is encouraging us to ask tough questions that some might be shy to pose or challenge at God.

Another example is when He asked the disciples to tell Him who they think He is, after asking what others thought. He was inviting them to also think about a really tough question. Was He, in their view: a man? the messiah? the son of God? It’s not an easy question! It’s definitely not a question that you could have given a Sunday School answer to at the time. It required them to stop and really meditate, think, and struggle.

The list could go on: His challenge to Nicodemus as a Pharisee not understanding things, His interactions with the disciples, their arguments and doubts…there are so many examples. We’re supposed to think.

2. The Church Fathers never taught us a spirit of being ignorant.

I won’t give long quotations here, but as an Orthodox Church, we care very much what the early fathers said. We care because they received the faith from Christ Himself, or the Apostles – they were the eyewitnesses and early founding fathers who knew God and the Church so intimately in its infancy. Knowing their mind is knowing the mind of the whole early church.

When you look at how they wrote and what they wrote about, they were not afraid of questioning or thinking critically.

Saint Athanasius in his piece on the Incarnation, asks questions that he feels anyone who is thinking should ask: why the Cross? Why did He have to be Incarnate instead of just divinely “fixing” things without any death? Why couldn’t someone else have done it? Why couldn’t He have come and just died normally? He asks all of these!

Clement of Alexandria, was originally a Pagan! His critical thinking led him to Christianity, and he never stopped using it.

Master Origen goes through the Bible and is so swift to point out things he feels are inconsistent or puzzling and does not shy away from saying that he has issues, then he works and struggles through to get to an answer – when there is one!

Saints Cyril and Severus do the same, they take things that people were saying and consider it and then they ask the hard questions: is this true? if so, what are the implications? is this consistent with what we received and what the gospels say?

They dig deeply and never shy away from anything. That’s why there are volumes of writings from these fathers on countless topics, many of which are controversial! These fathers loved and embraced philosophy and knew all the philosophies of their time and of the ancient times. They even learned to benefit from pagan writers where appropriate. They also knew when the answer was, “I don’t know” or “it’s a mystery” because sometimes that is the answer.

So our Lord and the early Church are not against the use of our minds, and so we should not be afraid to use them either.

3. The warnings

a) The warning is about using your mind with humility: recognising the limitations that you have, and still seeking the truth. Many of us are wrongfully overly confident that we know things. We mistake our intelligence for omniscience. Don’t let pride motivate a pursuit for knowledge.

b) Next, many of us when we start to think critically or to question things, lose the line between asking a real question and wanting a particular answer. Others have pre-formed conclusions simply because they do not like something. That’s not honest and it’s not even real critical thinking, that’s simply attacking without wanting answers.

c) Sometimes people are sarcastic about a teaching because it seems ridiculous to them, but that’s not being a critical thinker either, it’s being sarcastic. It’s not seeking the truth to simply laugh at a stance and say “it’s unreasonable”. Try to actually think critically and look beyond your personal convictions and views of the world to a broader one in which you might find out that you are mistaken. You may also turn out to be correct. The only way to find out is to investigate!

d) It may happen that the truth is something way bigger than you, so the warning here is to be careful not to overcomplicate things, or to get hung up on particular points that might not even be big points. As you get into thinking about something, you may not know the whole scope of things, and you can get caught up in a detail that is actually very irrelevant. Let’s use an arbitrary example. There might have so much evidence that a particular person committed a crime: his fingerprints are everywhere, people saw him at the scene at various times, and tons of other real and hard evidence points at him. Yet, one witness claimed he drove away from the scene in a green car, while another person says red. If you get caught up on the green/red issue because some witness is apparently colour blind or something, then you can miss the big picture and hard facts. I’m not saying this example is flawless, I’m just trying to make the point not to get hung up on a mistake here and there. Identify the hole in the story – no problem – but that hole is not the reason the conclusion is not true.

e) Don’t be selective in what you “critically think” about. Some people choose to think critically about some things and not others, based on convenience, opinion or some unknown reason. This is dishonest. If you’re going to ask why on one thing, then ask why about other things – even things you like – but don’t stop because the one is inconsistent with something that you happen to have feelings about that day. Open your mind.

f) Don’t scorn the simple. Don’t be sarcastic about people who are content as they are and don’t feel the same need as you to question as strongly. There is a critical thinker who finds God through this, and there are others who see what they need to see in simpler ways, and they are no less intelligent for this. We often think that others must challenge as we do. It’s one thing to encourage critical thinking and another to disdain those who are sure of things from a different means.

g) Be aware that sometimes there isn’t an answer. Sometimes a question leads to more questions. So don’t in your critical thinking be upset if there isn’t an answer that seems obvious. Sometimes we simply do not know. There are numerous quotes from the Fathers where they were able to stop and say, “I’m not sure” or “There is no answer” or “there is a mystery here”.

4. Proper Investigation

a) When you’re investigating, you need to do due diligence in your search. Don’t start with an answer and look for confirmation of your answer. Just ask the question and look for answers.

For example, I got an e-mail from someone who wanted quotes from the Church Fathers that show a particular point that he believes. This is not critical thinking, though it’s noble that the person cared what the fathers thought. Rather than have a conclusion and wanting proofs of it, the person should ask, “What did the fathers say about this?” If it’s different than what the person thought, then he has learned something and his understanding has broadened. If it’s the same, he can now have conviction about it and understand why it is the right answer.

b) Sometimes when we feel strongly about a particular matter, we don’t ask certain people a question because we feel sure that we know what answer that person will give. That’s not a good reason not to ask that person. If that person believes something different than you think, even if it’s predictable, ask them why they think what they think! If you want the truth, you can’t find it by being selective and/or judgmental of people.

c) Go to the experts. In big issues, I’ve noticed that some people shy away from discussing their topic of critical thinking with people that appear to know a lot about an issue. For example, I know some people that when wanting a particular conclusion don’t speak to someone they know is eloquent and speaks with conviction. This to me, is very bizarre. If you actually want to come to an informed conclusion (which is what critical thinkers are supposed to want), then why are you shying away from the person who knows their stuff? This is someone with whom you should want to speak.

d) Never stop seeking the truth. Don’t turn off your mind because you think you found the answer. Look at how many cases of people that have been convicted in court and yet end up being released later when they realise that a piece of information changed the case! Keep your mind open.

e) Don’t use ‘norms’ or ‘outliers’ as conclusive evidence. Both of these can be misleading. Just because many people do/say/think a particular thing does not intrinsically make that thing true or false. On the flipside, outliers are outliers and should not be used to cast judgment on an entire group or of truth. For example, if many Christians don’t think critically, it does not mean that Christianity teaches that we ought not to think critically. At the same time – the mainstream thought might be right, and the outlier might be right – so the question is: what is right? Critically think, don’t jump to conclusions and generalisations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list or article on this subject, but I fear this may be too long already. So, in conclusion: use your mind, but use it with humility. Worship God, not yourself.

“It is not good for a man to be without knowledge, and he who makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Proverbs 19:2)

4 thoughts on “On the importance of balanced critical thinking”

  1. Very informative! A father once said “Think and question all you want, as long as you take the stance of a student rather than a teacher”

  2. Love this article Abouna! As a role model of mine often says, “If Christianity is true, then it’ll stand up to all sorts of questions. If it isn’t, then we’re better off knowing.”

    Also, just thought I’d leave a nice little quote from the little-known (I’ve only recently discovered that he existed!) Coptic father, St. Isidore of Pelusium:

    “If everything in life was obvious, where would be the use of our intelligence? There would be no chance to seek things out. If nothing were unknown, then we would be completely lost: there would be nothing to discover.”

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