Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Reasonable Alternative

Back in the mid-90’s I was dean of a divinity school at a Baptist college near where I live. When I became dean, I led the faculty through a thorough revision of the curriculum in an attempt to try to make theological education more germane to what students actually do in the parish once they get there. I had spent considerable time as a pastor before becoming a divinity dean, and I was determined not to repeat the mistakes I had witnessed in my own experience with theological education. Chief among them was the complaint I heard from numerous students who, in one way or another, commented on their seminary experience with the indictment: “I had entirely too many professors trying to tell me how to be a pastor who had never spent even one day as a pastor themselves.” Can you imagine being in medical school and being taught by professors who had never actually practiced medicine?

The preeminent piece of the revision was the initial course in the curriculum which was titled “Introduction to Theological Education for Ministry.” In that course, we addressed issues that every student entering ministry should engage: the call to ministry; a commitment to a life of study and learning; a commitment to a life of prayer and piety; and a commitment to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to reflect seriously on God’s work in the world. As dean, I staffed the course but did not teach it myself…except for the critical thinking component. That I taught myself. Only having a week to give to it, and knowing that I could not teach logic in such a brief period of time, I devised a shorthand way of introducing the students to logic and critical thinking. I developed a system of reducing the principal parts of critical thinking to three things, all beginning with the letter “a” to make them more easily remembered. They were: assumptions, arguments, and authorities. By assumptions I meant the fundamental presuppositions you bring to the table without ever voicing them, or sometimes being aware of them, yourself. Arguments had to do with the fundamental “rules” that govern logical thought, what is traditionally taught as logic in college. While I did not attempt to get the students to learn all the names and definitions of the logical fallacies, most of which are in Latin (argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, non sequitur, etc.), I did make sure that the students knew that there were “rules” that govern thinking, that there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways of arguing a case, that arguments can be either sound or specious. Authorities had to do with the authority to which one appeals to “settle” an argument or issue, and how credible those authorities are, authorities such as reason, experience, tradition, intuition, popular culture, etc. We engaged in some “argument evaluation” in which the students had to analyze and evaluate the credibility of certain arguments or discussions they heard in the news. It was both informative and entertaining…and I trust beneficial.

I left the school in 2004, but I sometimes wonder whether critical thinking is still being taught there, and if so, how the students would hear the contemporary arguments being offered up today. For my part, I hear essentially two different kinds of arguments being offered, especially in the world of politics: reasoning and name-calling. The former is characterized by an appeal to some “truth” that the arguer both accepts and assumes as valid for everyone. It is predicated on the assumption that truth is absolute and universal, not relative and individual. Three times three equals nine is not my “take” on arithmetic; it just is. That is, there are some things that are true and some things that are false irrespective of what you or I or anybody else may happen to think about it. We may disagree on what that is; we may disagree on how close we are to it; but we may not disagree that it is. The latter perspective assumes the opposite: that truth is relative (which, I would argue, so eviscerates the whole notion of “truth” so as to make it meaningless). In the words of the Postmodernist Manifesto: "Nothing is certain, not even this." Hence, if there is no “truth” to which one can appeal, then the issue shifts to power. For these people, it’s not about “right” and “wrong,” they believe in neither. It’s about who has the power, who has the microphone, who has the might. Indeed, for these people “might makes right.” They’re not into “right” and “wrong,” only “winners” and “losers.” This perspective is popularly referred to as “political correctness.” The word “political” here is merely a synonym for “power,” and that gives a glimpse into where their values lie. Power makes something “correct” or ‘incorrect” since there are no absolute truths or universal values. Of course, these people will shift the ground on you in a heartbeat if it serves their purposes to do so and appeal to reason or value or fairness as their ally. But they are just as quick to abandon them when they serve another’s argument. They justify this on the grounds that finally it’s about power not truth. The “winner” gets to make the rules and set the values and determine the truths. “Winner takes all.”
But why appeal to any truth or value or rule if you finally believe there are none? Because you and I are hard-wired for truth, even the purveyors of political correctness. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity years ago, you can take a bat and beat each others’ brains out without a commonly-held set of absolute, universal values and truths, but you cannot quarrel. Quarreling assumes that there is a commonly-held standard to which both parties can, and must, appeal in order to prevail. It’s called “reasoning” and it’s different from name-calling. The only reason I can argue that my idea of Charlotte, NC is better than yours is that there is a real city of Charlotte. If there were none, the whole enterprise would be an exercise in futility and a waste of time. So it is with you and me. We argue and quarrel because there are real standards above us both, known to us both, and available to us both to which we can appeal for support. As the Christian moralists used to say, We have a sense of “oughtness” woven right into the fabric of our existence which can no more be violated with impunity than can the law of gravity. You may deny it; you may ignore it; you may evade it; but you won’t escape it. Your Creator hard-wired you for it. It isn’t a cultural “artifact;” it isn’t a “herd instinct;” it isn’t an accident of evolution. It is an invasion, and intrusion from the “outside.” To think at all I must claim for my thought validity that isn’t credible if my thinking is merely the product of some material or biological or cultural process. As Deepak Chopra said: “I am here to think God’s thoughts after Him; everything else is just detail.”

And so I issue a modest plea. Sure, we could use a bit more civility in public discourse. But incivility is neither new nor the unique province of any one constituency. Boors are boors and there will always be boors. What we really need is some critical thinking about the issues that vex and perplex us. Maybe if we wrestled with the issues a bit more, there'd be less wrestling with each other.

Better still, maybe we should spend more time wrestling not with each other but with God. I’m reminded of the monastic novice that approached the old monk and inquired of him: “Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?” To which the old monk replied: “Oh no, my son! I’m much too old and much too tired for that! Now, I wrestle with God.” To which the novice replied: “But Father, do you hope to win?” To which the old monk replied: “Heavens no, my son! I hope to lose!”

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