Richard Paul and Linda Elder in their synopsis of critical thinking, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking-Concepts and Tools, provide a concise explanation to the field of critical thinking. Succinctly put, critical thinking is a skill we all can develop to evaluate and improve our abilities in thinking. For the global Christian leader, this form of thinking about thinking offers some very insightful aids in how we can improve our decision making, strategy building, and problem solving skills. Leaders in ministry are essentially problem solvers, seeking to understand and answer important questions from a theological, biblical and anthropological perspective. Why has the gospel not penetrated this culture? How can we grow the youth program at our church? How do we make disciples who will exhibit true life change?
Critical thinking offers a number of helpful pointers for developing thinking that a leader that can benefit from.
1. Elder and Paul warn us of the pitfall of Sociocentric thinking (the way that we are conditioned to think and understand by our own cultures). For Christian leaders working in a global world, this will be an essential key to success. We need to be able to see the cultural blind spots in our own thinking and how that affects our leading and decision making. Moreover, we need to be able to see the blind spots of the cultures we work in and partner with, to be able to help them become better thinkers and find common ground in multicultural settings. Conversely, sociocentric thinking can lead to planning, implementation, and leadership that flatly fails because it is unaware of cultural realities. Truly, non-sociocentric thinking is essential in a global world. We need to be able to find and synthesize what is universal truth and universally applicable, and discard or hold loosely that which is culturally bound, whether neutrally or negatively. This approach then allows for new ways to incorporate essential gospel witness and Christian spirituality across cultures. The fact of global Christianity necessitates this skill.
2. Elder and Paul also suggest the need for developing “essential intellectual traits” in our thinking. One of these traits that is very necessary to Christian leadership (but is often lacking) is the skill of “intellectual courage.” Are we willing to consider alternate viewpoints in depth and fairness, even though those viewpoint may be anathema? Or do we allow the controlled norms of our group, or self, to eliminate possible solutions and outcomes? Will we uncritically accept what has always been? Intellectual courage allows us to really take a hard and honest look at various perspectives, and also have the courage to change patterns of thinking and culture which may in fact be incorrect or inadequate. It seems that often this is what makes a great leader, someone who is willing to ask the hardest questions and affect difficult, but necessary change. One need only look to the leadership of Jesus, who was consistently questioning the assumed underpinnings of sociocentric values and attitudes of his time. Practicing intellectual courage may lead to new revolutions of thought and theology and unseen solutions to current problems.
At the same time, there are some cautions that global Christian leaders need to be aware of while utilizing critical thinking in their contexts and teams. Firstly, I must ask if “critical thinking” and the model proposed is solely representative of Western, academic culture? That is, do other cultures think the same way? Do other cultures always value the same way of making decisions, and the same “universal intellectual standards?” Do the sum of these values actually lead to effective thinking in all cultures and contexts? In this sense, I believe that global leaders, working in multicultural settings must be sensitive to the reality that those we lead may not make decisions in accordance with critical thinking values. This may be a positive or negative thing, but in any case, a leader will need to know to incorporate critical thinking in a way that does not upset the cultural norms of receptive cultures, while also stretching and challenging the thinking of those people most connected.
Also, critical thinking rightfully places a strong emphasis on the ability of reason and rationality to improve our world, our societies, and our lives. I strongly agree that critical thinking is essential on many levels to improving our lives, however, I also wonder how critical thinking would be applied to the life of Jesus, and other Saints? How does the rationality of critical thinking intersect with the life of faith? Is faith rational? If I am to be honest, I can think of many instances where major decisions were made in ministry contexts, where if critical thinking were applied, those decisions would not have been made. In hindsight, those decisions were finally motivated by the faith of a Spirit filled community that sensed God’s call in spite of “better judgement;” what is more, the outcomes of these decisions have often led to the most unexpected spiritual fruit and blessings. Often faith defies reason, and calls us to moments of mystery and even chaos. It is often in the mystery and chaos where God works the most.
As Christian leaders we certainly need to develop our critical thinking skills, but we also need to be open to the wild and unexpected winds of the Holy Spirit to take us to places we never imagined going.
Possibly it would be worthwhile to develop a concept of critical thinking within a Christian theology closed system?