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.
“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”
“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?