Lately I’ve been re-reading and studying Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay Was Ist Aufklarung? (What Is Enlightnment?) It’s available all over the internet, just google it if you’re interested.
I grew up in a church and denomination where it was Verboten to think for yourself–unless you were the great spiritual man of God du jour. Even then, of course, nobody thought he or she (as in Aimee Semple MacPherson) thought for themselves; they received it right from God.
I found Kant’s essay liberating when I first read it. And, actually, before I first read it I had already found encouragement to think for myself, to ask and wrestle with important questions that some people considered “settled,” in the evangelical seminary I attended after college. The great thing there was that we were encouraged to think for ourselves within a community and tradition that knew what it believed about the important matters of Christian faith. But I never felt condemned or even criticized for asking any question even though I knew if I strayed too far from the center of that tradition-community I would no longer be able to remain there.
I’ll never forget an article I read in Eternity magazine (now defunct but very important in my spiritual and theological journey out of a narrow, sectarian religious context into the larger evangelical mainstream) called “Courage to Allow for Leaders.” The author called on influential movers and shakers of evangelical denominations and organizations to nurture and encourage and mentor young men and women of faith who dared to think for themselves and even question time honored beliefs and customs. As I was exiting my home denomination I showed that article to one of my mentors who angrily rejected it as nonsense.
I hope and pray that over the years I have modeled the kind of encouragement of young, free thinking Christians that I found in my seminary from my God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving non-fundamentalist (!) professors. I heard a motto once about Christian higher education that our task is to help students question what they believe while continuing to believe what they are questioning. Of course, that’s a very fine line to walk. Most don’t do it very successfully, I’m afraid.
Back to Kant’s essay. Even as an evangelical Christian I think it is right to think for yourself. Horrors! I can just hear the outrage from fundamentalists. But listen. I have come to think that Kant was not only right to encourage mature people to think for themselves; perhaps without knowing it he was simply describing what everyone really does whether they know it or not.
Let me illustrate. Some years ago one of my favorite students came to me to tell me was joining the Catholic church. (Until then he had been a member of a rather liberal Protestant denomination.) I asked him why. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was tired of trying to figure out what to believe and needed an authority to tell him. He also said he had come to believe it was wrong to decide what to believe for yourself; people ought to bow to a magisterium. Well, first, I volunteered to be that authority, that magisterium, for him, but for some reason he didn’t accept my invitation. Second, I told him that by deciding to join the Catholic church he was figuring out what to believe for himself; nobody was making him join it. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? People who claim they are simply accepting authority in deciding what to believe are actually deciding what authority to accept!
My point is that I don’t see how anyone can avoid thinking for themselves (except perhaps children or the mentally impaired). All mature people, capable of thought and responsible for their actions, DO think for themselves. Suppose I decide to reject Kant’s dictum. What am I doing but thinking for myself? Oh, sure, people can PRETEND to not think for themselves and often have to avoid persecution, for example.
Now, not for a moment do I think we are tabula rasa–a blank slate that we then fill in by ourselves. Of course not. We all grow up with beliefs given to us by our elders. But, ultimately, we decide whether to continue embracing those beliefs or change to something else. When someone says “I don’t think for myself [often expressed as 'I don't interpret, I just believe']” I don’t believe them–even when they mean they believe the Bible and do not think for themselves. In fact, they are deciding to believe the Bible! What else? Who else is thinking for them in deciding to believe the Bible.
Sure, someone might say God causes us to believe certain things. But even then, it is we who are doing the believing. And people talk about being “brainwashed” under “mind control.” I accept that can happen. But even then it was the person who decided to undergo that and continue in it. I’m not arguing that people possess some transcendental Self that floats freely above the fray of influences; I’m simply arguing that within one’s own context of influences, one ultimately decides what to think and believe. To the extent they don’t and are actually programmed to believe something by someone or some thing outside themselves, they are not really thinking at all. They are functioning as a machine.
Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I have taught for almost 30 years “The unexamined faith is not worth believing.” Mature people, including mature Christians, need to realize they are choosing to believe and question whether their choices are responsible ones justified by valid sources as norms such as Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
At some point in my past, when I was about 20, I realized I no longer believed a crucial doctrine of my denomination. I looked deeply into why I no longer believed it and realized it was not justified by Scripture, the larger Christian tradition, reason or experience. Somehow I had chosen to stop believing it and then discovered why as I reflected on my subconscious decision. Ultimately I had to leave my denomination because of that. I knew others who came to believe as I did–to not believe that doctrine, but they pretended to themselves and others that they did somehow still believe it because they didn’t want to leave the denomination. But, ultimately, THEY decided what to believe and what to do with that. Nobody thinks for you or decides for you what to believe. And even if you try to let them, it is you who are letting them which is thinking for yourself.
My next post will be on the meaning of all this.