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Few intellectual skills are quite as valuable as the ability to engage in critical thinking. There is a small array of sub-skills required to be a critical thinker, not the least of which is the ability to embrace nuance and a willingness to engage in both/and analysis instead of only either/or. I am not sure I was trained in critical thinking as early as I should have been as I matriculated through my pre-college education. Mostly I assumed that if a teacher assigned me to read something, it was because I was supposed to absorb the thoughts of the book or chapter or article as pre-approved by the instructor and, therefore, as something I just had to memorize and accept.
At some point early in college, though, I started to realize this was not the case. And I still remember quite vividly one of the first times when I wrote “No!” in the margin of a book I was reading even as next to other paragraphs I started to write in “???” and “Maybe” and “Not Quite.” Suddenly it occurred to me, “Hey, I think I am learning here!” Again, perhaps this was something I should have been doing in high school already and that is as likely a deficit of mine as anyone I had as a teacher back then.
I have often thought of nuance and both/and ways of thinking as a hallmark of a lot of orthodox theology and of the best of the Reformed tradition. Despite his reputation as the dour theologian of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, John Calvin actually took the middle way through lots of issues. As many people know, followers of Abraham Kuyper often seize on either his emphasis on the Antithesis or his emphasis on Common Grace but achieving Kuyper’s own balanced and nuanced embrace of both simultaneously often proves elusive.
Even in some of the bigger areas of orthodox theology, nuance and balance are hallmarks. Is God One or Three? Error lies on either side of the “or” in that question. Orthodoxy claims God is One and Three. Is Christ fully divine or fully human? Same scenario: if you accept the question as phrased with the “or” option and try to answer it, you don’t land where the ecumenical creeds do. Be willing to say Christ is both fully divine and fully human and you land nicely inside the Athanasian Creed. Even the inspiration of Scripture requires saying that it is fully inspired by God and bears the marks of the fully human authors through whom God’s Spirit worked. But that Spirit worked well short of merely dictating things word for word. Biblical inspiration is simultaneously plenary and organic.
Sure, all of this lands you smack in the midst of mystery but that’s nothing against it.
But as we all know, we live in an age without nuance and largely without critical thinking. Bad enough that this characterizes our balkanized society and the polarities of social media but this runs straight through the church too.
I have written over the last couple years of the challenges pastors faced (and still face) in the pandemic and of how many once-trusted pastors found themselves tossed out of congregations they had served for a decade or more. And yet they got ejected over views on masks and vaccines and social distancing. I have no way to know this, of course, but based on the testimony I have heard from these wounded shepherds of God’s flock, a whole lot of them would still be serving their now-former congregations had more of their members been able to embrace some both/and kinds of thinking and analysis.
On social media in recent weeks I and a few others have engaged some posts by people who want to defend a very traditional line in the CRCNA on matters related to the Human Sexuality Report being debated at the CRCNA Synod this very day. Again and again, though, the message comes through: if you do not think along one very specific line of thought, then . . . well, then you reject the whole of Scripture and its authority. Or then you may as well say you reject the divinity of Christ or his atoning death. Or then you clearly love the world more than God. Or then you clearly are just making stuff up as you go along because obviously the Bible has one and only one thing to say on any given subject.
Even as this is going on, the January 6 select committee has gone public in two hearings now. But again, it often seems like we are told that you can either accept everything the hearings are putting forward or you can reject every single shred of those hearings as politicized theater that has no bearing on reality. It would be a huge win for this country if a lot of people could come down somewhere in the middle. What that might look like I am not going to try to suggest but I would wager that it would be far more healthy than what is actually happening.
Years ago Mark Noll made quite a splash with his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But to put it mildly, what has happened to the evangelical mind since that book came out in 1995 has gotten to be in many places somewhere well beyond scandalous. And a whole lot of it is the death of critical thinking, the death of nuance, the death of both/and thinking (to the point that even suggesting some both/and points of view in some circles is now chalked up to a mealy-mouthed caving in to this or that popular view in secular society).
All of us feel better when we can feel settled in our thinking. We want the “right” answer and once we think we have found it, we want to take our stand on it come what may. Living with an element of suspense, embracing contradictions or the possibility of contradictions, and trying to see things from all angles not only takes work, it prevents a definitive “landing” on some things. Obviously there are some (many) issues that brook no compromise but a good bit of what occupies us in everyday situations could do with a bit of nuancing on a semi-regular basis.
My fear is that in also the church we dislike this enough that we’d rather administer simple litmus tests by which very quickly to sort people. But I fear a whole lot of pain lies down that road and so I return to what I wrote about two weeks ago: the discovery of a middle wisdom on an array of subjects that might give love and charity and generosity a chance to flourish among us. If the only thing charitable generosity costs us is being cocksure we are right and absolutely certain about everything, that is hardly too high a price to pay.