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.
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.