Kant, thinking for oneself, etc. (continued)

If you haven’t yet read the first part of this post, plesae go back and read it.  This won’t make much sense without that.

So, my thesis is that not only SHOULD mature people, including Christians, think for themselves; they DO–whether they admit it or not.  Nobody thinks for someone else–as much as they might try to influence their thinking.  At the very least the choice whether to believe what another person is saying is one’s own and cannot be made for him or her.

Before I get to the practical implications of my thesis, however, let me issue some caveats and qualifications.

When I say people should and do think for themselves, I don’t mean “by themselves.”  In fact, I would argue few people, if any, think by themselves.  Even Descartes, who shut himself in a stove heated room and tried to think by himself, could not ultimately achieve that.  He was influenced in his thinking by others before him and around him.  He didn’t just begin to think in his isolation in that room (where he discovered he could not doubt his own existence).  We all do our thinking in some social context; that’s simply unavoidable.  That’s a far cry, however, from saying others think for us.  And I would argue we are responsible to decide whether and to what extent it is right and responsible for us to allow others to influence our thinking–especially about important matters in theology and ethics.  But we will never escape such influence.  (Alasdair McIntire is entirely right about this.)

Also, when I say people should and do think for themselves, I do not mean they should revolt against authority.  I do believe we should question authority (as the famous or infamous bumper sticker commanded) but in the right way–not as rebels or iconoclasts but as seeker after truth.  Ultimately only you, only I, can decide what to believe.  Even when we accept something on another’s authority we are thinking for ourselves because WE are deciding whose authority to accept and what pronouncements of that authority we accept.  However, none of this has to imply chronic skepticism or cycnicism about tradition or authority.

Now to the practical part.  What does all this mean practically?  Why am I bothering with it?  I believe there is way too much emphasis in conservative evangelical circles on blind faith.  Often especially young people are told simply to believe and not question.  The Germans have a saying that fits this attitude: “Eat up, little birdies, or die!”  I have personally experienced that attitude from Christian leaders.  Often this is supported with the argument that to think for oneself is sinful because it places the self over the Bible (which usually means over some pastor’s or teacher’s or theologian’s or tradition’s interpretation of the Bible!).  In fact, however, even the leader demanding that his or her followers submit to authority thinks for himself (or, in some rare cases, herself). 

I remember when in college some of us students were asking too many questions teachers couldn’t answer.  They were honest questions asked sincerely, but the college didn’t like questions; we were only to accept whatever our teachers and administrators said without questioning.  So the administration brought in the pastor of one of our denomination’s largest churches–a man who was also on the board of the college.  He preached to us in chapel about “God’s chain of command.”  (I think he had been attending a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts seminar or something.)  He told us we, as students, had not right to question anything those above us in God’s chain of command said or did.  Ironically, because of my connections in the denomination, I knew HE, the speaker, had been a premier questioner in college and continued to be a thorn in the side of the denomination’s leaders.  Soon after that he took his church out of the denomination.

Instead of telling maturing young people to have blind faith in authority, perhaps we should mentor them in how to ask good questions and how to think for themselves reasonably.  If what we want them to believe can’t stand up to their inevitable questioning, then so much the worse for it! 

Maturing, responsible adults, young or old, will think for themselves.  It’s not a question of whether but how.  Will they think well (humbly, reasonably, critically but constructively) or poorly (cynically, destructively, pridefully, rebelliously)?  We are much more likely to hold onto our young people if we encourage constructive free thinking than if we try to control their thinking. 

Now, having said all that, obviously, there are people who try hard to let someone else do their thinking for them.  They sacrifice their intellects and hand over to someone else the right to think for them.  Two things about that: 1) They are thinking for themselves every time they decide to believe what they are told, and 2) This is a recipe for fanaticism, cult mind control, spiritual and possibly physical/sexual abuse, and lemming-like self-obliteration.

What about handing over all our thoughts to Christ?  Doesn’t the Bible encourage that?  Again, deciding to do that is thinking for oneself.  Also, our relationship with Christ is always mediated–by Scripture, by church, by tradition-community, by family, etc.  Somewhere along the line we have to decide what Christ is saying to us.  Not every spirit that says “Lord, Lord!” is of God.  So, even when we make up our minds to allow our thoughts to be captive to Christ we are deciding to submit to his authority (and thus thinking for ourselves) and also deciding which of many “Christs” is the real Christ.

There is simply no responsible, healthy escape from thinking for ourselves.  The church’s (and teaching institution’s) job should be to model and teach how to think for oneself, not to exercise mind control through shame and manipulation.

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  • Roger, I am always amazed at your ability to say concisely things that I have been thinking for many years. Amen! Somehow, we need to recapture the notion that patient, careful, searching inquiry — thinking “for oneself,” within a framework of prayerful reflection and community — is a vital aspect of Christian discipleship.

  • Blind faith isn’t always so evidently blind. When, for example in a popular book I am now reading about why we shouldn’t delete our beliefs about hell, the author says he is going to tell you what God says about hell, not what we want to believe about it, that has powerful rhetorical and persuasive appeal (it is, after all, what God says, not what this particular author says). Were someone to take that at face value (“this book is about God’s beliefs about hell”) and think they were developing an informed faith, I’d call that blind faith.

  • There is a difference between asking questions to learn, and asking questions to challenge. I have always answered my students (sometimes poorly, I admit) whenever they ask because they want to learn. But whenever I perceive they’re trying to second-guess the teacher, or otherwise challenge authority for the sake of exerting their own, I pull the “I don’t owe you an answer” card. Probably looks a bit like the Bill Gothard “umbrella of authority” idea, but that’s not my intent. Classroom discipline is.

    I don’t know if that’s how your school perceived your fellow students’ questions. Seems so. Still, that would have been a teachable moment to define the difference between questions asked in the right spirit, and questions asked in the wrong one—instead of declaring them all wrong and the students in rebellion. Sometimes God’s correction comes out of the mouths of students, and the last thing I’d want to do is cling to my authority—or “anointing,” if I can use the Christianese—so tightly that I miss it.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, of course, there are times when someone asks a question only to disrupt the conversation (or lecture). But that’s not what I was writing about. There are far too many Christian contexts in which sincere, open wrestling with sacred cows is not only discouraged but punished. That was my experience in college and rarely since because I stay as far away from such places as possible. However, I was also thinking of one Christian university where I taught for 2 years because I had no alternative. I escaped as soon as possible. The university was run by an evangelist. Everybody below him was fine; I had no problems with them. The administration was great (with maybe one or two exceptions). The faculty was wonderful. I had tremendous students and encouraged them to ask any questions. But questioning the evangelist always had one predictable result, no matter how sincerely it was asked–punishment. One of my students dared to ask the evangelist about a negative report in the press; it was a pretty damning article about misuse of earmarked donated funds (being diverted from student scholarships to a pet project of the evangelist). The evangelist had my student picked up bodily by his body guards and carried away. That day he was expelled from the university for no other reason than daring to approach the evangelist with his question. Several of his teachers (including me) went to the provost and begged that he be allowed to stay and finish his senior year of college and graduate. They relented but only if he would undergo a series of “counseling” sessions to learn how to be an obedient and submissive student. That was just one experience I had there like that. I saw many people come and go like through a revolving door and usually they left because they ran afoul of the evangelist who brooked no disagreement (except from his wife).

  • Excellent posts, this one and the one previously. Yes, this is what education and educators are to be about. I recently had a chance to recall the great gift I received in my liberal arts college education when I went back to Samford University and heard a presentation from alumnus and former professor, Wayne Flynt. His talk of how his world was opened up by his college education reminded me of the treasure I also received there. At first, the learning was challenging, having to question and explore new ideas, but my instructors ware caring guides.

    Thank your Dr. Olson for treating this subject on your blog. It is one that anyone in education needs to understand, and one that you obviously have clear view of.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    I believe you put your finger on a most important attitude here: to be a truth seeker. Some years ago the (then) Swedish Lutheran archbishop published a book entitled “I don’t have the truth – I seek it”. It sent shock-waves in the fundamentalist camp (myself included). How could a bishop “not have the truth”? Even though I still don’t agree with much of the book’s liberal content, I find the title voices a a good approach to theology and Bible study.

  • A. Rose

    Dear Roger,

    ‘Maturing, responsible adults, young or old, will think for themselves. It’s not a question of whether but how.’

    I think you make an extremely important point here. A few people will grow up being comfortable with believing whatever they’re told to believe; the vast majority, however, will want to probe and test, and add deeper understanding to their faith. This will either happen under the (watchful) guidance of the believing community, enabling a deeper, more stable and intellectually rewarding faith, or it will happen outside of this context, with the inevitable result that young people end up losing their faith.

    In addition, you have to wonder about the reasons why people in authority sometimes attempt to prevent theological enquiry and ‘difficult’ questions. Is it perhaps a tacit admission that certain beliefs simply don’t hold up to genuine, truth-seeking scrutiny?

    • rogereolson

      Another target of my posts about this is the ex-president of a well known evangelical liberal arts college who wrote a book about Christian colleges. In it he argued that a faculty member who harbored any mental reservations about anything in a Christian college’s statement of faith should resign. Ironically, right around the time the book was published, it came out that a student (!) had found a serious error in the college’s statement of faith and the college agreed and changed it. Now, one has to wonder what would have happened if a faculty member came forward with that discovery. Was the president’s policy a reason none did? And it was a pretty serious error. I tell the story in my book Reformed and Always Reforming.

  • I fully agree with you about encouraging people to think for themselves and raise questions. Many years ago I was pastor of a church that had church services divided into two parts. We had the sermon in the first hour, took a coffee break to greet visitors and then reassembled for a sharing service in the second hour. After preaching, quite commonly I led the second hour and encouraged people to ask questions about the sermon, especially if they thought I had been wrong or had not mentioned an alternate point of view.

    Here is the interesting thing. That sharing service in which we did question and answer (or dialogue) was by far the most popular of all our sharing service formats. It was invariably well attended even though any other format for our last hour usually meant that some people who had come mainly to hear the sermon went home during the break. I can even recall having people ask me if the elders agreed with my view (in the sermon) or whether another of the teaching pastors agreed with me. It was lively!

    The trick was to make people feel comfortable to raise questions and not make them look bad just because they had not had the blessing (in some cases!) of a seminary education.

    I sure appreciate your approach!


  • Scott Gay

    “The church’s job should be to model and teach how to think for oneself….”.

    If a world-wide survey of institutions that model and teach one to use your own understanding was administered, surely the church might not make the list. Those struggling for ecclesiological change are as important as those with theological, soteriological, or Christolical priorities. Alan Jameson’s “Chrysalis” analogy of Christian growth was not well received. Perhaps because the analogy was stretched too far. Perhaps because developmental ideas of religion are seen as heavily secularly influenced. However, his understandings, in the final analysis, are for ecclesiological change. Webber’s ancient-future worship, emerging attempts at church, and the influence of small group advocates for a more koinonia approach( without sacrificing larger communities) are also skewed more toward ecclesiology, although it is often theology that gets their scrutiny. The focus should be on creating an environment where you are taught and encouraged to question and use your own understanding(check out Jameson and see if this isn’t his perspective). The church is behind the curve here, and that is a limiting factor.

  • Becka Jarvis

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that everyone should be thinking through their beliefs. But it’s certainly not encouraged everywhere, & especially not among women. To be a woman with a high IQ and/or an enquiring mind is to be looked on with deep suspicion by sectors of the evangelical church. All teachers among you please take the time to encourage your female students to use their whole minds & to stretch themselves, even (& maybe especially) if that means they beat the pants off the male students in their classes, academically speaking.

    Loving your work Roger.

    • rogereolson

      Often my best theology students are women.

  • steve rogers

    Good stuff, Roger. I like what Paul Tillich said: “I don’t give any human being, be it pope or preacher or professor of theology the right to tell me how my faith shall express itself and then accept this on authority as my belief.”

    I believe God’s true chain of command flows from the servant-hearted and children upward. No lording it over in the Kingdom, Jesus said.

  • Thanks for this series, Roger. As it happens, students in our Christianity and Western Culture course are (well, should be) reading Kant’s essay for Monday. I hope that these “little birdies” eat up! Then at the end of the week I’ll be lecturing on the Pietists and Wesley, who might (I hope) also teach them a bit not just about asking questions of unquestioned authority, but about listening to other people’s answers.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, just wonderful (and sometimes painful) memories of CWC in 313! Thanks for the reminder. Mostly my memories are good ones. But I’ll share a somewhat funny story about that; you might appreciate it. When someone else was lecturing, I usually sat way up in the back under what used to be windows–so I could watch and correct any students who were reading the newspaper or talking out loud to their neighbor, throwing spit wads, etc. One particularly naughty student was a young man just out of high school. Something checked me from correcting him. Usually, just as I was about to go down to where he sat and talk to him about his demeanor in class, he stopped. That was a good thing. Later I found out he was the president’s son!

  • We cannot think for a second that on the day of judgement claiming “other people believed such and such” will be a good excuse. We are often happy to remind non-Christians of this fact, but slow to realise that we do the same thing in relation to orthodox belief.

    One day I’ll have to stand in front of God and give an account and saying “countless people before me believed it” will not cut the mustard whether Christian or not. All orthodoxy provides is a good starting place.