“Critical Thinking” is a phrase most people like the sound of but are unable to define when pushed further. In this article I would like to answer three questions: what is critical thinking and what does it require? What does an environment in which critical thinking is cultivated look like? And ultimately, why is it uniquely important for us as Christians to try to be critically thinking people?
First, true critical thinking requires familiarity with concepts, philosophies and ideas ‘other’ to one’s own for the purpose of harsh and very real evaluation of one’s own ideas. This practice can quickly become difficult at a Christian university because real exposure to ideas is potentially problematic. A Christian university, like all other universities, is a business.
What separates Cedarville from other universities (why you are paying significantly more money to come to Cedarville rather than somewhere else) is that the Christian university specializes in culture, marketing faith and a place where like-minded Christian believers (in Cedarville’s case, believers that seem to lean toward the more conservative side of a political spectrum) come together. Cedarville University lists as its fifth mission and objective: “To enable each student to develop sound critical and analytical reasoning.” Cedarville may value the idea of critical thinking, but maintaining the image of a conservative Christian culture of believers can harm a critically thinking atmosphere. At Cedarville, we often confirm our already established viewpoints and religio-cultural ideas instead of legitimately challenging them. Our academic curriculum demonstrates protruding biases that wouldn’t be acceptable at other institutions (for example, psychology students at Cedarville are required to stand up and proclaim “Freud is a pervert” before they begin their lectures on his theories in Human Lifespan and Development. This proclamation has no real academic value, except for automatically jading the student’s perception of the thinker before they truly and openly consider the ideas). Our chapel speakers can misquote and mischaracterize movements and ideas (see ‘The Politics of Chapel’ for a more in-depth analysis). Our library circulates books like The Roots of Obama’s Rage (a completely inaccurate book of terrible “scholarship”), but because these sentiments agree with our cultural norm, its assumptions and our market, they go unchecked and uncorrected. On the other hand, things that deviate from our cultural norm are stifled: our professors know they cannot sound too deviant or introduce their students to certain ideas and philosophies (and if they mention alternative view points, they know not to present them too favorably) or else they could be terminated. Our university newspaper is heavily censored, and those deemed too radical are not allowed to speak in our chapel (recall Shane Claiborne in 2008). If Cedarville sees conservative Christians as their niche market in order to run their business, which it does, these actions and reactions are unsurprising. But this harms our critical thinking abilities because sometimes ‘the other side’ is not given a fair chance to represent itself accurately and so our knowledge of ‘the other side’ is more than often caricature. How can true critical thinking flourish in an environment like this? And does it even matter if it cannot? Why is critical thinking even important?
Critical thinking is important for us as Christians because it will help us better understand the world we live in and demonstrate respect for ourselves, for our Creator and for non-Christians. Larger American culture’s opinion of Christianity is made obvious if you watch a night of television: Christians are characterized as illogical, offensive and ignorant. Now: let’s not give ourselves too much credit and nurse ourselves by saying they are persecuting us. Many people dislike Christians because they act in those ways--illogical, offensive, ignorant--and they are also apathetic about it. They remain judgmental, condescending and overconfident in their own experience. The Bible does not justify this posture. If we are to be “hated by the world” let our shocking, counter-cultural message of love and redemption be what is audacious, not our disrespect for others. The way we can prove this stereotype wrong is by familiarizing ourselves with ideas and conceptions different than our own and striving to bring these new ideas to the Cedarville community ourselves, so that when we someday go out into the world and interact with ideas other than our own, we know how to be tolerant, respectful and accurate in our response. Critical thinking is also important because by searching for truth and wisdom, we show respect to our Creator. St. Augustine said “if all truth is God’s truth, we must affirm it where we find it.” When we search actively for truth, we demonstrate that we really want to know about God and the ways in which His world works, and that we have faith that His Spirit will guide us to knowledge. One potential problem with exposing ourselves to different ideas and allowing different viewpoints to engage each other on campus is that new opinions may form and exist in the community, which may lead to a lack of ‘unity’ on campus, a reason many Christians are initially uncomfortable with any sort of controversy or dissent. We need to be honest with ourselves: complete unity among Christians is a beautiful and incredibly unattainable idea (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Sometimes we are quick to assume that a person who deviates from the norm deviates because she is not obedient enough to God’s word, but even Bible scholars are not of one mind and they have spent lifetimes studying the scripture. It seems that differences are inevitable.
Since controversy is going to exist, the only logical step is to learn how to discuss our different views in a Christ-like manner: by cultivating an environment that graciously considers all ideas without conflating controversy and hostility, an environment which does not write-off a viewpoint because the viewpoint differs from the majority viewpoint. We should listen to all those who offer their ideas and do so in a non-patronizing and respectful manner, but not be so concerned with “being nice” that we fail to question each other and our ideas legitimately. We should not be afraid to loosen the vice grips on our ideologies. Let us strive to challenge ourselves and our fellow community members. Let us promote a setting of openness and plurality as a community tolerant of multiple ideas. Let’s read more, talk about different things, and question each other. If Cedarville University is populated with individual students promoting what they believe to be Biblical truth, and that truth is carefully discussed and evaluated by the Christian community in their search for truth, then what but a deeper understanding of ultimate truth could result? As for our relationship with broader culture, we should not criticize other cultures and beliefs without giving those ideologies the time, effort and consideration they deserve, more time than Sunday School-style bullet points of their ideas (after all, if a writer could accurately be summed up in six bullet points, they wouldn’t write books). We should not read to find flaws and discount their theories, instead, we should honestly consider their viewpoint. Let’s not give ourselves too much credit and label the problem as just fear of controversy or relativism. Thinly veiled behind our fear is our laziness- when you live in a community of people who profess the same religion and sign community covenants, it is easy to live on autopilot and not worry about some difficult issues. I am not saying Cedarville is an awful institution. If it weren’t for the community of Cedarville, I am not sure where I would be. Cedarville has helped me grow as a person in ways I would not have grown anywhere else. A lot of things that have really shaped me, however, I learned through friends and other people who value critical thinking too. Let’s be ‘iron sharpening iron’ to one another. If we want to love the Lord our God with our minds, we have to use them.