Critical Thinking as a Spiritual Path: Prepare Ye the Way of the Truth?

Yale Divinity School graduate, and former evangelical, Jonathan Dudley, explains, in a recent essay, how lay evangelicals tend to evaluate expert testimony (and so arrive at ridiculous conclusions):

Lay evangelicals evaluate the arguments made by “experts” in a manner different from many non-evangelicals. The latter will often ask: How prestigious is her academic pedigree? Is she representing the consensus of similarly credentialed experts? Insofar as I can understand her arguments, do they convince me? Lay evangelicals ask different questions: How good of a Christian is this guy? (Or, in evangelical parlance, “How is his walk with the LORD?”) How closely do his arguments line up with my understanding of the Bible? Is this guy one of us?

Actually, I’m not so sure that this is a unique characteristic of lay evangelicals, but the point is still taken. Charles Sanders Peirce called such behavior (not listening to those who don’t already agree with you as a way of firming up belief) the method of tenacity.

Jonathan Dudley also highlights another evangelical foible: stacking college boards with lay people frightened of open academic discourse and science:

When a college’s base of donors, prospective students, and even board of trustees are made up of lay evangelicals, this places severe limits on what its scholars can say publicly. This fact became apparent at my alma mater, Calvin College, when public outcry and the powers that be combined to silence two scholars advocating the acceptance of human evolution.

So, there you have it. Dudley has a few other observations, but I take these two to be key. If you wish to arrive at the actual truth of matters, there are evangelical habits and institutional structures you’d be wise to avoid.

Why be an evangelical again?

Shouldn’t the way of the Lord and the way of getting at the actual truth of matters be exactly the same? Why isn’t critical thinking—following the truth wherever it rationally leads—also regarded as a spiritual path?

That’s a book I’d like to write someday: A Walk of One’s Own: Critical Thinking as a Spiritual Path.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Critical Thinking as a Spiritual Path: Prepare Ye the Way of the Truth?

  1. critical thinking means critically rethinking any beliefs you currently have

    and critical thinking is the path to secular thought and life

  2. “Evangelical” once had a sense of critical scholarship associated with it, but in popular parlance is now almost synonymous with “fundamentalist” and the worst kind of Biblical literalism. There are, and always have been THINKING evangelicals, lay and professional. People who engage deeply and critically with the culture and thinking. In my own research I’m finding some of the most current engagement with recent Continental philosophy is from theology, surprisingly, and some of the writers are evangelical in the broad sense.

    “Why isn’t getting at the actual truth of matters also regarded as a spiritual path?”

    Speaking as a former evangelical, for many years there has been a quiet promotion of the path of the mind and critical thinking as a path to God. I’m thinking of works like “Discipleship of the Mind” by James Sire (1990 ?), focusing on verses like “love God with all your heart, MIND, and body” (one of the gospels). Sadly, it doesn’t get the mainstream evangelical attention it should, but the majority of evangelical scholars would heartily endorse this idea.

    This is one of my hobby horses, I could expand greatly, but must go do some critical thinking of my own.
    :)

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