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The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear

I’ve always said that biblical scholars have it rough because they know stuff. They know that the context of that verse we like to throw around doesn’t support what we want it to mean. They know that there are many nuances in the original language that our translations and paraphrases don’t capture. They know that there are many interesting theological, psychological, sociological, and political questions raised when we seriously examine texts.

Knowing stuff (and asking the questions that help them do that) opens them up to criticism from those who have more of an apologetic bent. The latter are quick to find fault for even asking the questions or exploring the difficult territory. The challenges of critical thinking have been on my mind over the past week as I read Peter Enns‘ blog. Pete had asked Eric Seibert, Old Testament professor at Messiah College,  to guest write three pieces dealing with violence in the Old Testament. Seibert raises some interesting challenges dealing with triumphalism, power, and Jesus. The posts were provocative but dealt carefully with the challenges that faithful believers find in the texts. I have colleagues teaching a course on the theology of war and piece and gladly shared Seibert’s blogs — not because I fully agreed but because I thought he asked fruitful questions for class discussion.

The first response I saw in the blogosphere showed up last weekend in this piece by Owen Strachan of Boyce College. Strachan asked how it was that Messiah could allow Seibert to even teach there, given that Messiah’s statement of faith includes a commitment to the authority of scripture (others have pointed out that other parts of Messiah’s statement celebrate the importance of inquiry). Friday, Christianity Today posted this piece discussing the posts by Seibert and mentioning Strachan. Strachan linked that in another post that says CT sees “controversy” while he uses a somewhat obscure passing remark by Scot McKnight as his title.

Yesterday,  Pete posted this amazing link. Apparently a commenter to the previous series had written as if he were Jesus (I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t really him — the sentence structure and illogical argument do not represent The Lord well). Other commenters suggested that asking such questions would find Peter without faith somewhere in the future. I mentioned last week that Spring Arbor is committed to seeing “Jesus as the perspective for learning”. I’m certain this is NOT what it means.

Pete Enns, Eric Seibert, and I work in schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Owen Strachan teaches at a Bible College (all the BA degrees are in Bible and they have a certificate for seminary wives) affiliated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Boyce is a very different place from Eastern or Messiah or Spring Arbor. CCCU schools run the risk of using critical thinking as a tool of faith. Many Bible colleges (but not all) prefer to deal in tight arguments explaining how things fit together.

It’s not just biblical scholars of course. Biologists have to deal with issues of evolution. Sociologists have to deal with the changing nature of the Modern Family. Nobody worries too much about the economists or the chemists or the music theorists.

When we don’t ask questions it’s because we’re afraid of what happens if we do. If we tug on that particular piece of fabric the whole garment might come unravelled. Much is lost when the fear keeps us from exploring the Truth. And, to stay with my metaphor, we wind up walking around wearing garments with threads dangling all over the place — not very attractive.

Many of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees involved matters of interpretation vs. letter of the law (“why do you heal on the sabbath?”). Thomas asks questions we would today see as blasphemous (“you expect me to believe he was raised from the dead?”). Why do we ask such questions? In order to better understand. To not ask them is to hide from difficulty. But asking opens up valuable conversations. It lets us figure out the complexity of the world and keeps faith engaged.

I don’t know if I agree with Seibert’s positions or not. But I certainly appreciate him asking the questions. As I listen to other responses and perspectives, I’m better for it. We would only act to stop his comments if we were afraid of where they’d lead. But if the disciples weren’t supposed to fear a raging storm, why would Christians fear the writings of a college professor in Pennsylvania?

To critics like Strachan, questions are problematic because they could upset the entire apple cart. Liberal Arts institutions know that the apples are only good when you take them down and eat them.

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10 Comments

  1. Good stuff from Enns & Siebert that you’re reading John! Glad to see that!

    And your reflections on the need to ask questions – very important!

    Thanks!

  2. Nicole Webb says:

    Great post & links! The title says it all. Thx for making me think this evening.

  3. [...] Hawthorne wrote a piece entitled, The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear, where he laments the fearful response of critics like Strachan and praises the virtues of asking [...]

  4. I appreciate your comments here. Evangelicals must be willing to ask and wrestle with the difficult questions, including those related to religious pluralism in post-Christendom, rather than responding by fear and boundary maintenance in demonizing the questioners.

  5. I enjoyed the article and the discussion, although for the most part Orthodox Christians stand the outside of the discussion altogether (in southern parlance, we don’t have a dog in this fight). For one thing, careful biblical criticism has always been part of the Church from the beginning; witness, for example, the reluctance to include Revelation in the New Testament canon, not because of its contents but because the authorship could not easily be proved to be apostolic. And there are many more examples in the first six centuries, not least because of the need to rule out false “gospels” and gnostic tracts which masqueraded as Christian. What is important to us, then, is the Tradition that surrounds scripture and informs our faith, and which quickly reveals whether ways of thinking are apostolic or not. Along with this is our understanding of apologetics–which certainly is not opposite to biblical studies. For us, apologetics is not proving things through quoting (slinging?) Scripture, but engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths or ideologies, *in the context of prayerful love for them.* We say, “Come and see!” Apologetics begins in the deep experience of prayer. If I meet someone of an entirely different faith or no faith, that individual’s beliefs or lack of them do not threaten my experience of prayer. So, apologetics is not an exercise in out-arguing someone about something, although there are examples of early saints who did that (I think of the tradition of Mary Magdalene with her red eggs, who put down philosophers in the king’s court). I would say there is a strong tendency in evangelical circles, since the time of the Reformation, to identify Christian faith with the use of logical proofs and rhetoric. In this view, Protestants have their theological underpinnings in medieval scholasticism. To sum up: “Perfect love casts out fear.” If there is a lack of love for God or for others, then, it seems to me, fear is the automatic response. +Fr Brendan

    • Thanks Fr. Brendan. This is a fascinating perspective (i need to follow up with a colleague who is Orthodox). As a Wesleyan, I find a certain affinity to what you describe — I’ve read that John Wesley was strongly influenced by the eastern church, I’ve also been thinking that we all need a much more developed sense of how the Spirit moves to lead us to common understandings. Such an affirmation opens the door to productive engagement without defensiveness.

  6. […] 2. The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear:  […]

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