I wrote this little reminder for a seminary class this morning. I thought that my counsel to them might have some meaning for all of us.
One of the most important vocational resources for seminary learning and preparing for a life of exegeting, expositing, and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ is critical thinking. There are many definitions of this popular phrase. “No single definition of critical thinking is widely accepted” (Halonen, 1995, p. 75). Definitions of critical thinking are routinely constructed out of the material of context (e.g., higher education, military, or business). Despite the variety of definitions of critical thinking, Canadian philosopher, Dr. David Hitchcock of McMaster University, seems right in his wise distillation: “[Critical thinking is] careful thinking directed to a goal” (Hitchcock, 2018).
Critical thinking is intuitive or learned and practiced competency for evaluation and decision-making. “Careful thinking” (Hitchcock) in the realm of theology and religious studies and in pastoral-vocational education involves similar steps as in other disciplines (see Figure 1). Critical thinking involves a presenting issue or problem, raising questions about the presenting issue, locating and isolating the variables, evaluating the variables, and arriving at conclusions (and, e.g., courses of action) that can be applied for the glory of God and the good of others. Critical thinking is a skill that is cultivated across one’s life of service. It is an essential attitude of a Christian shepherd that is used daily in pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, advising, and leading missionary endeavors.
Critical thinking in seminary and beyond can be hampered by barriers, interior and exterior. Internal Barriers to critical thinking include preconceived notions, emotions, and a sense of conformity. Exterior barriers include physical threat, indoctrination, and coercion. Let’s think about internal conformity.
While it is good to conform to that which is right, each of us is subject to the whims of this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). When our proximity results in an uncritical reception of those whims—ideas, values—the external forces are received and accepted internally (for several possible reasons). This is conformity, “group-think.” The uncritical acceptance of the ideas and or behaviors of others can be amoral, or, indeed, dangerously immoral.
Do you suppose that you are immune to group-think? Go to a third world country that lacks mass communication. You will soon realize that you have conformed to some ideas that have been “fed to you” by mass media and cultural acceptance of the idea (in the West, e.g., an uncritical acceptance of sensuality). Group-think can be dangerous in being able to prophetically speak the Word of God to your parishioners, your students, or others in a given ministry context. God’s Word is “an earthquake,” to borrow the phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel. God’s Word smashes the idolatry of group-think, turns over the tables of crooked idea merchants, and reverberates with the eternal charge:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.”(Isaiah 55:8 AV)
I have included a whimsical example of how “group-think” is not only a reality in human nature but also a formidable influence in human behavior. The video is funny. The implications are frightening.
After watching the video, ask yourself:
- “How does this reality impact the way I study Scripture?”
- How I speak the truth of the Gospel to others in our culture?”
- “Does Group-think influence my exegesis? My exposition of a Biblical text?”
- “Do I conform to a given theological position because of others in my ‘tribe’ (e.g., your denomination, age-group, geographic area, or ministry setting); or because I am convinced and convicted by Scripture?”
As Saint Paul preached by pen in his distance-learning class to the believers in the capital of the Empire, the Epistle to the Romans,
“For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar” (Romans 3:3b,4a NKJV).
“Everybody’s doing it:” GroupThink as a Barrier to Critical Thinking (Courtesy of the Prudential Insurance Company).
Bloom: Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1:… – Google Scholar. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2020, from https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?hl=en&publication_year=1956&author=B.+S.+Bloom&title=Taxonomy+of+educational+objectives%3A+Handbook+I.+The+cognitive+domain
Critical Thinking as Disciplinary Practice—Stephen C. Yanchar, Brent D. Slife, Russell Warne, 2008. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.115
Halonen, J. S. (1995). Demystifying Critical Thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 75–81. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2201_23
Hannel, G. I., & Hannel, L. (1998). The Seven Steps to Critical Thinking: A Practical Application Of Critical Thinking Skills. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 87–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/019263659808259812
Smith, G. F. (2003). Beyond Critical Thinking And Decision Making: Teaching Business Students How To Think. Journal of Management Education, 27(1), 24–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562902239247