Thinking too Hard Will Change What You Believe (And That’s a Good Thing).

Thinking too Hard Will Change What You Believe (And That’s a Good Thing). March 23, 2012

“The scholar never fully knows in advance where his line of thought will lead him. For the Christian to undertake scholarship is to undertake a course of action that may lead him into the painful process of revising his actual Christian commitments, sorting through his beliefs, and discarding some from a position where they can any longer function as control. It may, indeed, even lead him to a point where his authentic commitment has undergone change. We are profoundly historical creatures.”

(Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, 2nd Edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, 1999 Reprint, pp. 96 and 97.)

If you don’t know who Nicholas Wolterstorff is, I’d like to pause and take a moment to personally welcome you to the twenty-first century and the world of high-octane contemporary Christian thought (click here).  And I like it when smart people agree with me (or I with them, whatever).

Stretching your mind may lead you to revise what you believe.

You can dismiss what I say, but look at the picture on the left. Doesn’t Wolterstorff look like a philosopher, someone you don’t want to get into an argument with? I should think not.

Wolterstorff is talking about Christian scholarship, but I think his comment holds for all Christians who undertake a serious study of their faith, the world around them, and how in heaven’s name the two can get along.

Some of us are more apt to explore our faith than think of ways of preserving it. Our intellectual exploration is unavoidably wrapped up in our own spiritual growth. The two work together. Intellect challenges faith but they are not at odds. They need each other.

Sometimes thinking clearly and deeply changes what you believe, and that does not make baby Jesus cry. Neither does it cue the seventh trumpet of judgment or kick over the seventh bowl of God’s wrath in the Book of Revelation.

Some of are just made that way. And God can handle it.

Maybe the process of change Wolterstorff describes isn’t the big problem the church has to avoid at all costs. Maybe it helps the church.

Maybe changing our minds on some things–even on points where our “authentic commitment undergoes change”–is part of what it means to be a thinking Christian.

Maybe there’s more to this Christianity business than making sure we don’t wander off of the beach blanket.

That’s what Wolterstorff thinks, anyway. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you.

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  • Mike Vendsel

    I like your definition of a philosopher as “someone you don’t want to get into an argument with.”

    • peteenns

      No not A philosopher, but THAT philosopher.

      • Matthew B

        It’s true generally, though.

      • Mike Vendsel

        fair enough, but you typed “a” 🙂

  • George

    Food for thought 🙂

  • Mark

    I “thought too hard” and lost my faith. There are hordes of similar experiences. Perhaps most Christians know of these experiences, and that right there is what stops them from thinking very critically about their faith – the fear of losing it.

    • Mark I agree with your statement. I like this quote by Peter Rollins ““We are also genuinely open to being wrong about parts and perhaps all our beliefs while at the same time being fully committed to them.”

    • Jeff Martin


      Maybe your faith was not much to begin with. It is like someone crying over the fact they lost their 12oz Natural Light Beer. Overall it is probably a good thing that it got lost.

      My faith has only got stronger the more I think. So yuo will have to ask me sometime about my faith

  • Rick

    One idea that sticks with me is that sometimes what I’m rejecting (or revising) isn’t really ‘the faith’, it’s my church community’s version of ‘the faith’ (which may be inadequate). I read lots of C. S. Lewis when I was a young Christian, and frankly, he kept me in the faith when I thought many of my Christian friends were ‘throwing their minds away.’ My current small group has been listening to a series on “Catholicism” by Father Robert Barron (very good, by the way). And in one segment he talks about the ‘God’ that the secular atheists are rejecting (which is a very fundamentalist view of God) and he says, “I reject that God, too.” And he was right.
    It is difficult to be in a church community that doesn’t share your conception of God. But, I’d have to say that I think God is very likely bigger than what our various church communities think about Him. Don’t assume that because you don’t share what your church community believes anymore, that you reject God. You may be rejecting an inadequate view of God. And that’s a good thing. Find a church that supports what you may now believe. They are out there. You might have to hunt for a while, but they are out there. I’m not usually a bible quoter but this comes to mind “ask, seek, knock. he who asks, receives. he who seeks, finds. and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” What an optimistic idea.

    • no name today

      What kind of a small group are you in that can listen to a series on Catholicism? Just curious. I viewed it and thought it was excellent. But I’m not sure I could take the risk right now of sharing it with “my group”. I think you are absolutely correct in saying that God is much bigger than what our various church communities think about him. I know this blog isn’t about finding that kind of a place, but I’ll say here that it’s tough. My views are in a state of flux. And all I have to do is look back perhaps just 6-12 months ago to know that my Self back then would never have understood my Self today had they tried to have a conversation.

      • Rick

        I guess we are a rather unusual small group. One of the members of our group is considering becoming Catholic. Our church history is a bit unusual and allows for some diversity in our group that other churches may not allow. We were a Presbyterian Church for about 25 years and recently (7 years ago) the congregation moved to a Pentecostal denomination (Foursquare). AND I work at a Nazarene University (the Nazarenes are the anti-Presbyterians). I have found that I prefer Nazarene theology (Arminian, that means they are not Calvinists) to Presbyterian theology (= Calvinism). But, having made these changes, I hold ALL these ‘theologies’ a lot looser than I used to. Our small group consists of an Eastern Orthodox member, a member who is seriously considering Catholicism and several Protestants who are a variety of flavors. I went to a Presbyterian seminary many years ago, so I got all the ‘party line’ about Calvinism and found myself rather unhappy with several approaches Calvinism took to the notion of God and how he works in the world. But, since I was not exposed to any other theologies, I didn’t have any alternative answers. In the past 7 years, though, that has changed drastically because of our move to a different denomination and where I now work.
        I can write more about this, but it might be more long and involved than you really want or need. Suffice it to say, I’ve been exposed to other voices and I now hold other positions as a result. There is more to write, but I don’t want to go too long.

        • no name today

          Yes, I’d agree that your group is “rather unusual”! And wonderfully so! I share some of the very same affiliations and backgrounds that you mention, but I’ve yet to find a group that is so broad – one that can “hold all these theologies a lot looser”. Seems like that would be a wonderful place for honest exploration and discussion. In the meantime, blogs are a wonderful thing.

  • Hi Pete,
    I have appreciated some of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s writings, but I have a bone to pick with him (and perhaps you?) on this one.
    You quoted Reason within the bounds of Religion, pages 96 & 97. A few pages earlier he summarizes his intention for the current chapter, which is important because what he writes there contextualizes your quotation. He writes:
    “So far I have been pressing the point that the Christian in the practice of scholarship ought to let the belief-content of his authentic commitment function as control over his theory-weighing. My emphasis here is almost the opposite. Sometimes he should allow scientific developments to induce revisions in what he views as his authentic Christian commitments.” Page 94, his italics.

    My focus here is the same as Wolterstorff’s: what one views as one’s authentic Christian commitment. In other words, what a Christian takes to be (and then presumably makes of) the content of his/her commitment to Christianity. And my beef is not that Wolterstorff’s idea is excessive, but that it is insufficient. Here’s what I’m on about:
    Wolterstorff notes that “scientific developments” can bring revisions to one’s beliefs (what you call in your title “thinking hard”). I heartily agree. But what you both seem to be targeting is what belief content should be deemed authentic. Yet surely for Wolterstorff (and more so, in fact, for you) is it not only scientific developments but existential developments that prompt revisions?

    You may well agree with this inclusion. But my interest is instead in its ramification. For it seems to me that where scientific developments can prompt revision of belief content, existential developments can additionally prompt revision of the very notion / possibility of authenticity of the belief itself.

    My point is that certain existential developments (or a series of such) can not only make one doubt one’s beliefs but, under certain circumstances, should prompt one to revise one’s view of the authenticity of Christian belief. Murder, child abuse, and the deception and power-mongering of the clergy—or particularly, all of them combined—within one’s personal experience may, depending on one’s circumstances, paint the stark and undeniable picture that evil is more powerful (and more real) than the Christian God.

    In this case, “thinking hard” necessarily results in rejecting Christianity. Stated differently, none of us can hold that Christian belief is ultimately true, for we are contingent and finite. And if our best and most “authentic” resources point to the contrary, then sticking with Christian belief despite such makes us (at least) fools and liars.
    My goal is not to castigate Christianity: I am a Christian. Nor do I believe that God is anaemic or merely an idea (as opposed to an entity). Nor, finally, do I believe that anything is more central to God’s character than love.

    Rather, I am concerned that in our efforts to encourage people to think (and so become more Christian) we sometimes render them less human. How so? Because despite our contingency, for Christians the only unrevisable revision is Christian belief itself. Yet in some cases, failing not only to accept but to encourage their atheism vis-a-vis their experience of this God or that Jesus is tantamount to a betrayal of their very humanity.

    In Christian terms, rejecting the validity of their conclusions (by gainsaying their most authentic existential resources) denigrates both their creatureliness and the reality that creation is not only good, but is a good enough resource for all to decide how (and how much) God is real, is love, or just is.

    • no name today

      Not sure I completely follow this, but it sounds like “how can we know what we know?” If our observing and experiencing and thinking bring us up against this “unrevisable revision”, what are we to do with that? Deny our “most authentic existential resources” as humans? It becomes a confusing loop tape unless we somehow find enough momentum to jump out.

      But into what?

      “But my interest is instead in its ramification. For it seems to me that where scientific developments can prompt revision of belief content, existential developments can additionally prompt revision of the very notion / possibility of authenticity of the belief itself.”

      Is there an alternative to “thinking hard” then?