Critical thinking: Questioning Jesus?

Critical thinking: Questioning Jesus?

Clinton
Chisholm

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

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Whenever I teach philosophy or apologetics (defending the faith) I do an exercise with my students called “cliché analysis”. This is intended to warm up their thinking faculties by raising questions or making comments on popular but not exactly logical statements.

At a Christian institution a few years ago I decided to get more radical with the students and, after discussion of the easier clichés, for example “rape is not about sex but about power”; “given the awful state of our society what is the value of churches?”, I put up the following on screen for open discussion.

“Contrary to popular belief, Jesus's golden rule “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is not necessarily safe for neighbour. Can you see how?”

Before asking for volunteers, I told them I did not know their pastors, and even if I did, class discussion remains private to the class members so they should free their minds and think seriously about the golden rule.

Owing to detected reticence, I picked on one young lady to begin and she said she did not want to comment, so I asked why. She almost tearfully said she could not raise any questions about what Jesus had said. I tried my best to coax her into thinking about the maxim but she wouldn't budge. So, I said: “What is the hidden assumption about self or neighbour behind this golden rule?” I followed up with “What if self is a sadist (a person who enjoys inflicting pain) or one who struggles with the distinction between right and wrong. What then?”

A few of the braver ones began to offer comments, gingerly. I realised then the difficulty of critical thinking for people, in general, and religious folk, in particular. Two main hindrances to critical thinking that I discern are below.

1. Mental laziness — an instinctive mental disposition of seeing one's own mind as an empty container to be filled with the ideas of authoritative merchants of information, such as lecturers, authors, pastors, books, without questioning same.

2. Mental self-doubt, entrenched lack of appreciation of one's own ability to think independently, free of the duress of so-called experts or authorities. Religious centres are probably where this hindrance is most evident as religious leaders are seen as representing God and, thus, beyond question.

As I became more troubled by this dilemma of aversion to thinking critically in churches and knowing the value that Scripture places on the mind — especially the entreaty to “love the Lord with all your…mind” — I have, since the late 1980s, built a feedback time into my sermons/studies. I told the congregations I have served since then that they are free to ask questions at the end of the sermon/study and that I reserve the right to ask anyone a question about the sermon/study as well.

That proved awkward for most, but because I refused to back off they began to appreciate that, if understanding is the goal of sermonising, then feedback is really critical. In fact, one communion Sunday in my last pastorate I was closing the sermon and inviting folk to gather for communion right after, and a dear brother raised his hand.

After I invited him to speak he said: “Rev, you have defrauded us this morning, you have not invited questions and I have one.” I apologised and took his question. May his tribe increase!

I know that most pastors would not even pray about this as a sermonising option, but I still recommend it as a means of guiding better preparation from the pulpit and better absorption from the pew.

By the way, some of us as preachers should never speak extempore (minus carefully prepared notes, cf US President Donald Trump, off script) given the not so tidy nature of our minds.

The call in Isaiah 1: 18, “Come let us reason together saith the Lord,” suggests critical thinking among God's people.

 

Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm is a former lecturer. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or clintchis@yahoo.com.


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