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When Christians Talk about “Critical Thinking”

July 25, 2013
Title page of Richard Simon's "Critical H...

Title page of Richard Simon’s “Critical History” (1685), an early work of biblical criticism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it ever possible for “Christian” and “critical thinking” to be linked?

I think I’m about as skeptical of “Christian critical thinking” or even “critical thinking as a Christian” as anyone.  Yet I do identify as a progressive Christian.  And I work hard at being a critical thinker (without being constantly critical or cynical).  I believe there is a lot of value to trying to follow Jesus specifically (with appropriate descriptions of that) and to faith-based communities generally.

Now, honestly, my first impulse regarding my own question above, once I formulated it, was to focus on the “no” side. That is, the situations in which I don’t see critical thinking being employed by Christians, really… at least not broadly nor on matters where it does matter.  

On second thought, here is some of the “yes” side first: There seems to be an increasing number of us who try to think “critically” (that is, re-examining things, compiling and comparing data, challenging assumptions, etc.) who still identify as Christian… and that thoughtfully, not just as a survey “place holder,” or because we are not atheist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc., so we must be Christian.   We have some similarities to the largely-prior “liberal” Christians but a deeper, broader critical thinking is one of our distinguishing marks.  (BTW, I’m quite aware that surveys and the “standard wisdom” suggest liberally-oriented Christians are losing ground increasingly to conservatively-oriented ones, but several authors lately have pointed out why this may not be the case, or at least is too simplistic, and I agree!)

Another “yes” point is that there are many Christians, even relatively conservative ones (generally orthodox), who have careers that involve a lot of critical thinking and require skill at it.  I’m thinking of scientists in particular, but also people in literary criticism, philosophy, the human sciences, etc.  Of course, if you’ve read much theology, you know that theologians are critical thinkers, but theirs is a special case in terms of our question, so I’ll set them aside for now.

As to scientists in particular, what I think they are often doing (this would be on the “no” side of our question), whether Christian or of another theistic religion, is excluding their religious beliefs and the grounding “data” for them (mainly the Bible for Christians) from the analytic processes they use in their jobs.  Orthodox Christianity revolves around the belief that there is “revealed” knowledge that has been given to us in a distinctly different way than other means of discovery by observation, scientific method, etc.  

One common way of describing this distinction is that “special revelation” came to only a select few, resulting in the Bible.  “General revelation” is that which we all can readily see, digging out further information from via science and other study.  Accepting the first requires faith; the second, other forms of learning.  In other words, many scientists and other very intelligent, thinking people “bracket” their faith in a separate category, such that they do not really subject it to critical analysis.  Or else, they may do some analysis without going to the real core or founding assumptions… which are just that: assumptions or speculations, for most people, including some brilliant ones.

So what prompted me to write about critical thinking today? I’d been seeing the term crop up here and there, used by conservative Christians – individuals and institutions – calling on Christians to do it, or learn how to.  So I’m thinking, “Is this sleight of hand (as it were), or is there something genuine about the emphasis and the implication that even traditional Christians can truly be critical thinkers?”  

I have some further ideas, which I will probably write about later, but what are your thoughts? 

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