Today’s question: in the Bible, why didn’t God make critical thinking important?

If God exists, and really wrote the Bible, why didn’t He set critical thinking front and center in, say, the teachings of Moses or Jesus? Why, in other words, is God’s emphasis in the Bible upon the pragmatics of faith and obedience—but not reason and doubt?

For example, Thomas is held up as a bad example to followers of Jesus, for he insisted upon, well, evidence  for Jesus’s resurrection. But Thomas was just being a good critical thinker. Surely you shouldn’t believe things just because somebody tells you. Having a skeptical habit of mind and insisting on evidence is a good thing, right?

Look again at the famous passage from the Gospel of John that gave Thomas the moniker “doubting Thomas” (20:25 KJV):

The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Thomas flunked the resurrection belief test. This was the wrong answer. In fact, in verse 29 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave a blessing to noncritical  thinkers:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Imagine how different the world’s history might have been if Jesus had valued Thomas’s skepticism and said something like this to him instead:

Good for you, Thomas! Believe none of us. To discover truth do these things: dialogue with sympathy, reason, and logic with those who disagree with you and ask for evidence wherever people make extravagant claims.

To me, that sounds more like the response of a divine being. What Jesus said sounds more like the words of a being caught in the contingencies of his historical time and place.

What say you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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21 Responses to Today’s question: in the Bible, why didn’t God make critical thinking important?

  1. Heuristics says:

    Christianity has a special relationship to critical thinking actually in a way quite unlike other religions in that christianity places logic front and center. Traditionally this has been done by reference to John 1:1 where the Word, the holy logos or logic is identified with Jesus. So in christianity logic is seen as part of the nature of God and it is thought that logic can be used to get to know God. This is why christianity has such a focus on theo-logic, theology or God-logic and can be contrasted to other religions that often says that God transcends logic.

    Paul might have been an advocate of critical thinking:
    Thess 5.21: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”

    I believe both you and me share a love for skepticism but we might want to be careful about advocating skepticism for everyone, it might not suit them as well. Most people appear to be most happy with steadfast ground, things to hold as sure. Unsureness too many appear often as a corrosive liquid to their sense of life fulfillment (sociology of religion has much to say about this type of thing).

  2. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    I like the Paul quote you offer, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the question of how much skepticism people can stomach, but what’s the difference between, say, Marxist biology, Hindu biology, Christian biology, Jewish biology, atheist biology and, well, just biology?

    In other words, whenever you add something ideologically to biology it becomes something else, something “pseudo.” And so I would ask you this: what’s the difference between logic and theo-logic or God-logic? That sounds suspiciously (to me) like Stalinist biology—something that takes liberties with the facts for the sake of salvaging an ideology.

    What, for example, on a logical basis, justifies Jesus’s response to Thomas?

    —Santi

  3. Heuristics says:

    Oh, I do not have any such grand things in mind with my usage of the word logic, my usage is much more boring. Theologians, or God-logicians use the same logic as mathematicians, computer scientists or.. well, logicians. Modus ponens, modus tollens and such (though a bit more exotic logic like modal logic is used nowdays, but thats standard for philosophy). Scientists are very rarely trained in epistemology and since biologists shun mathematics they are trained in it even less then others but not even computer scientists are trained very well in anything other then boolean logic.

    The way one can look at a field of science, say biology is interesting. If we are talking pure science in it’s most physical form, as you know we only get statements of the type “this group of atoms will likely move in this way”. To go from there to “we should use this information to cure that disease” requires a filtration into some kind of value system. Christianity, Marxism, internet-forum-atheism, Hinduism etc all provide different filtration methods. Some filtration methods will filter out more then others. Anti-theistic marxist-stalinistic materialism filtered out genetics and Darwin and some sola-scriptura forms of protestantism will filter out for example plate-tectonics.

    It seams to me to be useless to have science without a filter, but how to find the one true filter(tm) I do not know. As long as one does not hurt others, perhaps it would be best to just go with what appears to be best (whatever that means). But I am not so sure at all that whatever is the best is the best for everyone.

    >What, for example, on a logical basis, justifies Jesus’s response to Thomas?

    We are probibly using two different meanings of the word logic here, so I do not know if I should do a very simple nonsensical logical proof or write a little about justification for beliefs 🙂

  4. I never liked the story of doubting Thomas for precisely this reason. I think it sends all the wrong messages and makes it seem virtuous to suppress one’s intellectual capacities in favor of naive credulity.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    I love your phrase—“internet-forum-atheism”. I hope you don’t mind if you find me sometimes using it. There is such a creature and that’s the perfect term for it.

    And you’re right. I was imprecise in asking you about the “logic” of Jesus’s statement to Thomas. Obviously, there’s nothing logically impossible in the statement. If Jesus was God, his statement makes perfect sense. God can set any terms for discussion or belief he-she wants.

    And I also agree with you (though you didn’t use this phrase exactly, I think you meant it) that “the truth is the whole.” You called it the “best” or “one true filter.”

    How to get to that whole and figure out how to properly reason from it becomes the dog chasing the tail.

    With regard to theo-logic, I agree it can be quite rigorous in the realm of philosophy: “IF God is x, then it necessarily follow that . . .” But I wonder if you make a distinction between dogmatic theo-logic and philosophical theo-logic.

    Dogmatic theo-logic—or dogmatic theology—would, it seems to me, endorse Jesus’s statement to Thomas as a way of achieving an end run around the humdrum means of thesis justification (good reasons, logic, evidence).

    —Santi

    • Heuristics says:

      Thank you for the clarification, i think I have a better grasp of what you are asking now.

      As for dogmatism, I don’t know really. If someone makes a statement to me like: “you must do this!” or “things are like that!” I have a natural tendency to want to find out the arguments behind that statement. I don’t think I hold anything to be so sacred that it cannot be questioned. But all questions come to an end at some point and the end is always (to my large irritation!) “I don’t know, but I trust that this is the way it is”. So I don’t know if I really recognize the relevance of the word “dogma”. All statements of fact (including this sentence or the possibility of sentence making etc) and all moral obligations has a foundation in.. trust.. in faith of some kind.

      So dogma… well. Question away at anything, but at the end of the day the sheer practicality of being human means having to build a tower of ideas on faith. So i cannot yell much at people that accepts a grouping of idea-towers from a person of authority for no other reason then they trust that person. I would just hope that what those towers do is enable the person to build loving relationships with themselves and the people around them for it is by that metric I judge the beauty of the architecture of the towers. Some architecture is so bad (hate-promoting) that it might just require yelling at the architect though.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Mystical Seeker:

    I don’t think the Thomas passage, as you put it politely, “makes it SEEM virtuous to suppress one’s intellectual capacities in favor of naive credulity.” Rather, there is no seem there: I think it unambiguously BLESSES the suppression of the mind’s questionings and desires for evidence, and makes non-doubting “naive credulity” a virtue. Except ye become as a little child . . .

    I find the doubting Thomas passage one of the most problematic (and tragic) verses in all the Bible (and that in a field with a lot of stiff competition). How different the world might have been (in a positive way) with an admonition from the mouth of Jesus to doubt extravagant claims, think critically, dialogue sympathetically with your opponents, and seek evidence.

    What we got instead is a curt and dismissive shut down made all the more powerful for its simplicity and rhetorical elegance: a great soundbite for comforting the occasional doubts that might occur to casual critical thinkers otherwise predisposed to believe, circa 90 CE.

    The Thomas story and Jesus’s statement really is not for an outside audience of critical thinking philosophical skeptics, but for the audience of believers suffering the persistent pangs and twinges of doubt.

    —Santi

    • Santi, I agree with you that it is both problematic and tragic.

      I went back to my blog and found an old posting from a two years in which I wrote the following:

      For the second Sunday of Easter this year (March 30), the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was the story of “doubting Thomas” from the Gospel of John. It is interesting to read and hear online sermons from liberal pastors when they discuss this passage. Typically, liberal pastors like to proclaim their openness to doubt as a legitimate feeling. They contrast themselves with hard line fundamentalism, which has no use for doubt and which relies so heavily on certainty. Doubt, we are told, is perfectly natural and reasonable, especially when one is faced with extraordinary claims. The thing is, though, that there is always “but” at the end of this–you can doubt, but in the end as a Christian you naturally must come down on the side of accepting that Jesus was literally resuscitated from the dead. Thomas doubted, after all, but ultimately he put his hands through those crucifixion scars and he believed.

      The skeptical Christian, we are told, doubts but still sides with orthodoxy. It’s okay to doubt, but don’t doubt too much. Ultimately, you have to accept that Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. You have to accept that Thomas put his hands in Jesus’s hands and side. You have to accept what later church councils said about Jesus’s supposed divinity and place within the Godhead. Those are, we are told, “essential things.”

  7. Rob says:

    Santi — I think you are misreading the passage. The point (in my view) isn’t that it’s bad to seek evidence. Rather, since Jesus had said that He would rise again, Thomas’s failing was in his not having faith that Jesus would do what He said. There’s a similar problem with the way the typical ”internet-forum-atheist” defines faith — as belief without evidence.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (as a starting point, not necessarily as the last word) defines faith as

    “a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

    b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

    For the Christian (at least), faith is confident belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t relate to any set of propositions at all and thus evidence as to the truth or falsity of certain propositions is manifestly irrelevant. That is not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist, however. In my view, the unsupported claim that faith is belief without evidence is a purported argument disguised as a definition, and a pretty lousy argument at that.

    • seanwillsalt says:

      How is God ‘revealed’ in Jesus Christ, exactly? I’m having a hard time understanding how Jesus’ life (if that’s what you’re talking about) doesn’t constitute evidence of God’s existence.

      • Rob says:

        I must not have been sufficiently clear. Whether and how the life of Jesus constitutes evidence is simply irrelevant to faith, properly understood. Personally, I think it’s good evidence, but it’s beside the point. Thomas erred not because he demanded evidence, but because he didn’t take Jesus at his word.

  8. seanwillsalt says:

    I still don’t see what you mean. How can the life of Jesus have any bearing at all on faith if it doesn’t act as evidence for whatever it’s supposed to inspire faith in? What exactly is the relationship between the two?

    • Rob says:

      Let me try more trivial and commonplace examples to illustrate the point. If my wife tells me she took out the trash, because I have faith in her and her character, I will likely believe that she did what she said without demanding evidence thereof. If one of my kids made a similar claim while growing up, because my level of faith in them wasn’t nearly so high, I would likely have demanded evidence.

      • There’s a big difference between telling someone that they are going to take out the trash on the one hand, and on the other hand informing others that they are going to do something that defies the laws of physics and which is counter to everything that we know about how the world works. I might have a lot of faith in a spouse who told me the former; a spouse who told me the latter I would disbelieve, no matter how much faith I had had in her prior to her making that statement. In fact, the very fact of her telling me such a thing would cause me to lose some faith in the credibility of her pronouncements.

        To say that God is revealed in Jesus can be a statement about the kind of life Jesus lived. If he did the things that God wants any of us human beings to do in our lives–his values, his life choices, his commitment to love and to those who are disenfranchised and excluded, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for those principles–then in that sense he revealed something of God to us. That has nothing to do with him being a magician who conjured up especially fantastical tricks like being resuscitated from the dead. I would argue that God is revealed to us when we experience love, not when someone performs magic tricks; and incredulity about such magic tricks is simply making use of our God-given intelligence.

      • seanwillsalt says:

        Yes, but you can be fairly certain that your wife exists in the first place and that she was in fact the one who told you that she took out the trash. If your faith comes from Jesus, where does your faith in Jesus come from?

  9. I’m pretty sure that Thomas had faith that Jesus existed, since he spent time with him. Faith in one’s wife doesn’t depend on her making extraordinary claims, and I’m not sure why his faith in him–whatever one defines “faith in Jesus” to mean–needed to depend on believing Jesus if and when he made an extraordinary claim.

  10. Arius says:

    I think there’s a deep existential truth in what Jesus said on a philosophical level: facts (Thomas’s visualization) are held render-less without the accompaniment of ideals (abstract notions).

    But I doubt that the constructionists of the text were writing this from an allegorical sense-but rather, from a fundamentalist poise.

    The former I could get with-however, the latter becomes an atrocity upon common sense.

    Nice post.

  11. Andrew says:

    I can see were the speech is going.

  12. santitafarella says:

    Rob,

    You quoted the dictionary with these two definitions of faith:

    “a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

    b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

    I think that both are at work in the Thomas passage. We are being asked to trust Jesus in the “my wife said she took out the trash” sense, but we are also being asked to trust that Jesus said it in the first place by reliance on the testimony of John’s gospel (that he recorded the saying and the event accurately).

    But these two definitions combined then become question begging (circular reasoning):

    “How do you know that John’s gospel records what is true?”
    “Because Jesus said ‘trust me,’ and ‘blessed are those who have not seen, but believed’.”
    “And how do you know Jesus said these things?”
    “Because John’s gospel says so.”

    —Santi

  13. santitafarella says:

    Rob,

    If you say, well, we have good reasons to think that John was a good historian, you are in another dilemma: the verification of John’s gospel becomes a substitute for sticking a finger in Jesus’s side. If you attempt to verify John’s gospel, seeking evidence of its value and trustworthiness, you are doing what Thomas did, just at a step removed.

    I think that this illustrates that there is no way around humdrum forms of justification: good reasons, logic, evidence.

    The Thomas passage seeks to arrest this humdrum process, which then stalls the believer (intellectually) in circular reasoning.

    Personally, I think that the only way around all this is to posit Alvin Plantinga’s (unverifiable) thesis that humans have a “divine sense” that is activated by “grace” and that some people just “know” in a direct way that Jesus talks to them. In such a formulation, what Jesus says is directed to the circular and enclosed heart of the believer, inaccessable to outside verification, and is not for doubters and skeptics. But if this is the case, why make the Thomas story and Jesus’s saying at all? If some people know, why do they doubt and need a buck up?

    —Santi

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