Evangelicals, Critical Thinking, and Uncertainty

I recently watched a podcast by Phil Vischer.  For those of you who don’t know who that is, he is the creator of an Evangelical staple: Veggie Tales.  In his podcast he was sharing his thoughts on a new book by the famous atheist Peter Boghossian.  Dr. Boghossian’s book is entitled A Manual for Creating Atheists, and Vischer in the podcast shared some surprisingly honest and insightful statements about Evangelical Christians.  He states that there are some places where Dr. Boghossian has actually gotten it right about mainline Christianity.  Namely in the realm of how most Christians define faith (i.e. as believing something with no evidence) and their lack of critical thinking skills.  I’d like to share the two comments from the podcast that I think have the most value.

First:

“I want to encourage parents and Christian educators to teach critical thinking skills… do you know why we don’t do that? ‘Cause we’re afraid our kids will actually use them, and they might come to a different conclusion then we have come to”

Second:

“We have to encourage Christians to become comfortable with uncertainty.”

To be fair I don’t think critical thinking is taught well across the board.  This is not just a failure of the church.  However, we as Christians need to learn how to love God with our minds, and most of all to not let fear keep us from changing some of our previous assumptions when we do.  Now I know that critical thinking can easily become highjacked by modernity and can provide a false sense of security.  But I think the skill is a vital one if we are going to be able to survive in a post-Christian America.  In addition, I think the key to avoid repeating the mistake of modernity is found in his second comment.  Christians need to get comfortable with uncertainty. 

Vischer is highlighting an epistemological issue here.  We cannot presume to know a person in the same way that we know or study a scientific theory.  There is room for uncertainty when we are getting to know a person, and we don’t always get it right (although I think any scientist worth their salt would admit that is also true in their field).  And Christianity is ultimately about knowing a person, the Personhood of the Triune God.      

This, I fear, is where much of Christian Apologetics has taken a wrong turn.  We have done a great job teaching critical thinking skills in terms of winning a debate, but we treat God as if he can be discovered in the same way as gravity.  Without humility and honesty about our epistemological uncertainty, all we will produce are antagonistic, egotistical Christians.  This is obviously not true for every apologist out there, but it seems that the type of Apologetics most commonly employed and studied is ironically one of the last major strongholds for Descartes’ foundationalism.

So what is the way forward for Evangelicals in an ever shrinking Christian culture? (Hint: I don’t think it’s revving up our Apologetics programs, at least how we’ve done them for the past 30 years)

How have you seen critical thinking taught successfully in your theological context?

Does uncertainty have a role to play in the future of the church? Do you think it is helpful or harmful?

 

 

8 thoughts on “Evangelicals, Critical Thinking, and Uncertainty

  1. “(although I think any scientist worth their salt would admit that [uncertainty]is also true in their field)”

    Yes, but I am much, much more “certain” of certain physics equations (where I happen to make my living) — like relativity, or fundamental quantum mechanical relationships, which have both been elegantly and beautifully derived from fundamental principles as well as verified repeatedly through experiment — than I am about any religious dogma. Everything in the Bible, and every doctrine or faith statement derived from it, in so far as it makes a statement about any thing transcendent is inherently and necessarily speculative and unverifiable, at least in this life. To not be conscious of this is, to say the very least, highly uncritical.

    To elevate any theological proposition to the same level as fundamental scientific relationships, is foolishly presumptive. To say that is not to ignore the uncertainty or inherent limitation of scientific knowledge; rather it is to recognize that religious “knowledge” is a fundamentally different thing.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I definitely agree that religious knowledge is very different from scientific knowledge. That is essentially the main argument of my post. I am not equating science and religion as if they are the same thing. I do, however, disagree with your dismissal of theology as not having the same value as science. In the same way that there are different kinds of knowledge there are also different kinds of evidence, and Christianity is not without evidence. Granted it is not as rock solid as the theory of relativity, but it is not blind mysticism either. Too often science and religion have been pitted against each other as if they could never be harmonized, and I think both Christian lay people and non-Christian scientists have bought into that kind of rhetoric. I think theology and science both have things to offer, and it makes for a scary world indeed if we abandon or dismiss either one.

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      1. I think that is a good point – there is no unilateral and universally static epistemology. We know all kinds of things in all kinds of different ways. [NT Wright has a good quote about the epistemology of love – involving trust, experience, and hope]

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  2. It is very difficult to think critically without understanding your own worldview. I remember hearing the term “critical thinking” a lot in school, but I never really understood what it meant until I developed a Christian worldview. We need absolutes in order for the world to make sense. How can you develop a stance when there is no firm ground to stand on? Apologetics is great, and we need to strengthen our understanding of our own faith; however, communicating the devastating effects that relativism has on our own perceptions of the human experience is an important step toward fully appreciating a world view which contains absolutes. Seekers may not understand Christianity, but it’s easy to understand that life becomes meaningless without absolutes.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I actually teach Christian world view to seniors in high school and I definitely agree with its importance. I think allowing room for uncertainty will not lead to relativism if it is handled correctly. But I don’t want to over-correct in the process so that there is no room for faith or doubt. Christians need to be okay with questions and not fear asking them.

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