Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Blessed are the Critical Thinkers?

Written by: on October 24, 2018

Imperialism is out of vogue these days. Truth be told, even the game Risk makes me uncomfortable. I think my children hesitate to invite me to play for fear I digress into a rant on the tyranny of imperialism instead of just rolling my handful of dice. The trade off is that I can’t bring myself to actually make a true effort to take over the world so they are guaranteed to beat at least one player. In school my kids continue to be taught that countries are fixed entities with borders rather than fluid collections of people. Rev Stephen Miller[1] made the important point that maps have political motivation and communicate power through size and positioning of the countries, still the borders seem clear and only one of these images will be widely accepted. At least on my kid’s geography test.

As globalism becomes the norm, respect across these borders and cultural lines is necessary if any corporation hopes to succeed on a global scale. So whether it has been motivated by benevolence or economic interest there has been a shift towards valuing respectful engagement in at minimum the Anglo[2] countries. These countries established on colonial imperialism have even initiated work to reconcile with indigenous people. Paul and Edlerintroduce the idea of ‘sociocentrism’ as “[t]he uncritical tendency to put one’s culture, nation, religion above all others”[3] which played a significant role in colonisation. As a result, there is an effort (though often poor and limited) by Anglo-colonised nations, to repent of the sociocentrism[4] which nurtured the exploitation, violence, displacement and deaths of countless indigenous people and entire cultural groups. I am fully behind this shift, though recognize that even this could be my own privileging of what higher education in my society has come to value. Paul and Elder would point to this broad growing awareness as a favourable shift towards a healthier, critical society[5] . While I agree having a society with the capacity for critical thinking is valuable, I would suggest that some of their criteria for identifying a society as such, fail to recognize some complications within our efforts to value other cultures. As ministry practitioners I think these criteria require cautious examination if we are to take seriously the mission of sharing the Gospel.

If I accept that a society functioning with critical thinking is exhibiting a higher order of thinking, that is Paul and Elder’s level 3[6] , then I am establishing a hierarchy of types of thought. For a society to achieve this, requires the resources and educational infrastructure to give its citizens access to the informational resources that enable us to have critical thoughts. Thus there is a privileging of wealthy, politically stable, benevolent societies over those without these perceived advantages. Sociocentrism prevents critical thinking because it fails to value the insights of other cultures[7] but it is often economic advantage that privileges me to access information about other cultures. “Most people don’t recognize the degree to which they have uncritically internalized the dominant prejudices of their society or culture,”[8] particularly if the culture does not engage globally. I am thus challenged to demonstrate critical thinking by treating with equal value the insights of sociocentric society, regardless of their apparent level 1 or 2 order of thinking[9].That is, I mustn’t think of myself as smarter than ‘they’ are and instead position myself to learn.

The beauty of this intentionally humble position resonates with the incarnational strategy exhibited by Christ. I must necessarily reject any privilege that comes with being a critical thinker and “in humility value others above [my]self”[10]. It is this posture of receiving from the uncritical that will ironically lead us to deeper insight. At this juncture I find the second place where I want to at least qualify how Paul and Elder define critical thinking, or perhaps I must be ready to accept that I will not willingly fulfill their requirements.

In order to share the gospel of Jesus across societal difference, I must, to a certain degree, consider that my religious thought, at minimum on this particular point, is better than whatever existing thoughts another might have. This has been a most difficult acknowledgement for me as I embrace the servant model of Jesus as transformative. However gently and humbly I offer the gospel, I must confess there is an inherent arrogance that comes with speaking out the faith ideals that I hold and refusing to remain silent. It is often then a comfort to me, that it is not on my word alone that I hope that people might come to know Jesus. In the critically thinking society, “[p]eople are encouraged to think for themselves and discouraged from uncritically accepting the thinking and behaviours of others.”[11] In this way, another person might hear and consider for themselves whether the idea of faith in Jesus seems reasonable and so, acting out of their own reasoning might choose to accept or dismiss my claims. I would like to point to the working of the Holy Spirit in this process, but even that gesture points to someone else’s influence apart from pure reason.

Herein lies the trouble with sharing faith and hoping that others might reasonably and rationally choose Jesus. While those of us in the faith can make sense of it, faith itself often seems irrational. The apostle Paul acknowledged, “[f]or the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”[12], yet Paul and Elder maintain that critical thinking requires that “People routinely study and diminish irrational thought.”[13] Furthermore, in an effort to share Jesus, I would be so bold as to invite someone to imitate some of my behaviours, for example worship and prayer, as part of their consideration of the faith, but this imitation would seem to go against critical reason.

I find it further humbling to have witnessed how so very many uncritical thinkers God has used most powerfully to invite others into relationship with Him. In fact, I would venture that critical thinkers can often become less useful to God because we insist that everything be reasonable, when God encompasses reason yet is not constrained by it. It is here where I would venture, that while critical thinking is of some value, and would produce a reasonable society, it will not lead us into a God shaped society, which I imagine would not only tolerate the fool, but often find a place of privilege for that special one.

1.Stephen Miller, Rev, “Presentation on Seafarers Ministry” (lecture, Panda Hotel, Hong Kong, September 28, 2018).
2.Simcha Ronen and Oded Shenkar, “Clustering Countries on Attitudinal Dimensions: A Review and Synthesis,” Academy of Management Review 10, no. 3 (July 1985): 435-442.
3.Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools (Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009).40.
4.Ibid. 40.
5.Ibid. 42-43.
6.Ibid. 13.
7.Ibid. 41.
8.Ibid. 40.
9.Ibid. 13.
10.Philippians 2:3b NIV
11.Paul and Elder. 43.
12.1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV
13.Paul and Elder. 43.


About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

4 responses to “Blessed are the Critical Thinkers?”

  1. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Some very good thoughts. The problem with being a critical thinker is the self-critique that comes with it, and the consequence of not having a fixed opinion about anything in particular. We end up in a state of altruistic inclusiveness that deems everything as partially true or partially problematic, such that we can’t firmly align ourselves with anything in particular. I do, however, wonder if that isn’t the problem being addressed in the book. That is, there are fundamental truths that can be discovered if we think rationally and fairly about our ourselves and our world and what we read and hear. With you, I struggle with the certainty many evangelists often have about all aspects of their faith and the way it is articulated. But that’s not how everyone finds Christ. Critical thinkers are not there to undermine the simple faith of new believers, they are there to maker sure the simple message of the preacher doesn’t become something other than what it is supposed to be. Critical thinkers are there to keep the preacher honest, not to analyze the early faith of the newly converted – that will come in time.
    In his 6 stages of faith, James Fowler points to a period of critical thinking that many people are unexpectedly tipped in to through life experience – these individuals need critical thinkers to help them navigate the broader and more complex world of faith. And that is perhaps where you find yourself, just as I do. The trick in ministry is to offer people what they need – sometimes it’s uncritical simplicity, other times it’s a full scale assault on everything that can be discussed. Humility is the capacity to go back and forward between the two without condemnation.
    The question I am wrestling with, is how do we strip away egoism and face our social constructs? If there is no discernible ‘how’, then the mere mention of it is little more than academic hypocrisy. Ouch, that might be a bit harsh.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      First, I am definitely in danger of not having a fixed opinion about much. As a critical thinker I think that one of the manifestations of salvation in my life is that I am actually tethered to something fixed in Jesus. I have these ridiculously complex views on almost every major issue and often describe my position as living in the tension between a and b. I think it makes me rather annoying at times and also means I feel at home just about nowhere.
      As far as stripping away egoism to face our social constructs, (and avoiding the hypocrisy without undertaking an impossible task) I would lean towards naming and owning what shapes our egoism and sociology constructs. I look at it as naming and taking responsibility for my own subjectivity to the end of communicating my restricted view while rejecting the arrogance that I could possibly strip myself of my egoism sufficiently to truly be objective. Thus part of my project in critical thinking is always to first acknowledge (confess?) the components that form my critical voice as far as I’ve discerned them to this point, and always ready to be shown another component of my own egoism.

    • Rev Jacob Bolton says:

      I wonder if the answer to this Digby is in part what Harry said in another post about coaching . . . only those that want to be coached CAN BE coached. Perhaps only those that want to honestly strip away ego and discuss social constructs CAN strip away ego.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Much like Aler, Bayard, or Rowntree, I find critical thinking skills as tools to apply in a certain context in order to serve the other better. I think of critical thinking as striving to be aware and move beyond my own blind spots, biases, and perspectives. You are most correct, we must moor ourselves somewhere and we have chosen the Love of the Father, the Grace of the Son, and the Power of the Holy Spirit. While Paul and Elder do not write from a faith perspective, I believe their critical thinking skills can be redeemed (similar to almost everything in creation) by the power of the Spirit for the building of the Kingdom. I along with you rest in the “tension” of the already/not yet. Blessings, H

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