Is it possible to be both a critical thinker and a Christian? After all according to Elder and Paul, “The uncritical tendency is to place one’s culture, nation, and religion above all others (Elder, p. 13). “ She also states that, “Much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced (Elder, p. 1).” It would seem that Elder would certainly believe that critical thinking and concrete religious beliefs are juxtaposed against one another. And, many in the culture would believe that the church is hostile, rigid and archaic as well.
In the Christian faith, we certainly do abide by a set of absolute truths. These truths govern the way we think about creation, the environment, sexual ethics, money and many more areas of life too numerous to count. We have a fixed set of beliefs that cannot be moved. Does this mean that a Christian cannot fully engage in critical thinking? I do not think so. Rather, I believe that if Christians engage in critical thinking about their faith it will not make it weaker, but it will actually mature and strengthen their faith.
In John 6, Jesus does a few remarkable things. He feeds the multitudes, walks on water, and begins to talk of his body being bread and his blood being wine. It is in this conversation that many of his disciples left him. As they leave him, Jesus poses the most difficult question to the twelve when he asks them if they will leave too. It was in this moment that Peter boldly declares, “Where are we to go, only you have the words of life.” This amazing confession was not made in an emotional moment. Emotion is what drove the other disciples away. This confession was made after Peter had seen Jesus do remarkable things. For three years, they sat by his side. They measured what he said every facial expression, and every gesture. Jesus at times even seems to throw questions to them to develop their critical thinking. He was never afraid of questions because following him was not just an emotional pursuit, but it was a pursuit of the soul and the intellect. It was these questions that were posed to Peter that I think helped him navigate life and ministry after Christ ascended. The questions that Jesus asked firmly rooted Peter in the Gospel message.
As Christians, we should never fear viewing the entire landscape. We should continue to have an intellectual curiosity in life that leads us to view ideas and cultures fairly. Too often we often teach people what to think and do not allow them to engage their mind and help them discover what they think, why they think that and how they came to that knowledge. While this is anecdotal, I do believe that this is why so many leave their faith when they graduate high school and go to college. We never engaged those youth to think critically about their faith, so the first time their faith is challenged, they wither and die.
In the post Christian era, the church must re-engage in critical thinking. Due to the rise of evangelicalism in politics and other spheres of life in the 80s and 90s, the church seemed to drift away from critical thinking and left that to academia. Again, we were told what to believe and not taught how to discover why we believe. We are just now seeing the fruits of this tactic in the culture. Many are leaving the church because they no longer see it as a viable way of life because it cannot stand up to the scrutiny of critical thinking or so it seems.
There are many ways to change course within the church, but it will not be easy. Pastors and leaders must engage in critical thinking. The culture must once again see depth and breadth to the church’s arguments why the Gospel applies to their life today. A serious focus must be employed in critical thinking if we are going to reach today’s culture with the Gospel. We must, like Jesus, pose the difficult questions to our parishioners and let them wrestle out the answers in order to strengthen their faith and in turn strengthen the church.