Since I began seminary last fall, I’ve been thrust into a somewhat-constant critical mode where anytime anyone says anything about anything I feel the need to object or play the Devil’s advocate. Not only does this have the great potential of being annoying to the person(s) I’m critiquing, but it also probably isn’t necessary. After all, not everyone is in some form of grad school. Not everyone is taking the same classes I am taking. And, much to my demise, not everyone cares as much as I do.
Ever since I’ve begun thinking critically about my faith, Scripture, and Western culture, I have found that I cannot go back to the way I used think. Once I’ve been made aware of something, I can no longer ignore that something. Where I seem to get into trouble is when I try to bring someone else along to where I am, even though they might not be interested or they might not be ready to evaluate a particular something under critical light (i.e. divinity of Jesus).
I find this is a little related to the balance between faith and scholarship post a few weeks back, but with a slightly different emphasis: being a seminarian amidst non-seminarian crowds. This could be a weekly Bible study or prayer meeting or Sunday morning service or believing coworkers. It could even be, as in my case, online communities.
A verse that comes to mind is Romans 14:1, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” Now I know the context is different (discussing, mostly, food laws), but I think there’s a similarity for when seminarians encounter others who may not be as practiced at critical thinking, may not find the need for critical thinking, or haven’t thought critically about a specific topic. In this case, bringing critical light to something they hold dear might have damaging consequences.
So how do we know when to turn off the ever-constant internal critic? At what point do we find ourselves saying, “Okay, this is too far; pull it back”? Or, if we feel the need to bring that critical light to that particular topic (sometimes needed), how do we go about doing so in a gentle way that doesn’t cause panic? What experiences have you had in bringing critical light to a topic?
 By no means am I suggesting that those who have not thought critically are weaker in faith; instead I’m saying that non-seminarians might not think about things as critically.
I wasn’t even in seminary yet when I started having this battle. I had just had one district school of ministry class (using Living by the Book by William Hendricks — I also read Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth), and i was already listening to lessons and sermons with a more critical perspective to see if they were using the text in context. I’m slowly learningt to wait for people to come to me and ask about a topic, or find a way to work addressing an issue into a future lesson I give, rather than immediately raising the question when people may be more defensive.
Brian: I like the idea of waiting for people to come to you. Takes a lot of the edge off the tension and allows for a more gentle response. Thanks for sharing!
I stop and ask myself whether or not the person I am talking to is part of the same conversations and critical methodologies I am. If no, then I won’t go there unless they specifically ask for my point of view or have begun a debate. I have lived in areas with some pretty closed-minded religious types and often sharing my religious studies major perspective just hasn’t gone over well.
Perspective is a comfortable position and a useful tool for merchants and politicians. It is a deadly counterfeit of reality much like a person backing up at a cliff edge. Where might one have arrived that others would find in a search, those who seek to know the literal purpose expressed through the bible apart from investigations of who, what or where to prove or disprove but rather seek revelation of the superhuman perspective? The cloistered group of academe employ critical thinking. Critical review is worthwhile yet ultimately it is self-directed. Faith acknowledges a superior source, existence unfettered by mortality. Institutions and devices assist the transfer and growth of knowledge for short lived humans who are nevertheless mired in time deprived conceptualization. Our calendars and schedules portray this human condition. Days are components of our limitation and shackles affecting the awareness of earthbound mortals. The subject is spirit. How uncomfortable faith must be. Why does one accept the doctrine of trinity?
Yesterday Rodney Thomas shared a quote from Malcolm X that I found to be insightful and relevant to your question. He said, “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was once a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” This is true. I’ve needed people to be patient with me over the years and as hard as it may be to be the one being patient, it is necessary to reciprocate patience to others. This doesn’t mean that we don’t correct wrongness and error, but we try to do it with the thought in mind: If I were the one in the wrong, how would I want the one who knows better to address me? What sort of speech would make me open to change rather than hardening and calcifying my views not because the other person was wrong, but because their attitude was offensive.
There was a time when as I began to learn things I became a “straight-shooter”. I repent of this. Knowledge without love is nothing. Similarly, there remain many things I do not know (as being a doctoral student is showing me, once again) and I hope my supervisors, dissertation readers, and colleagues show me grace. Since I need that grace I also need to learn to give it and I think that will go a long way toward learning to balance a very healthy desire to think critically with an equally healthy desire to maintain humility about one’s own epistemology and how we engage others.
In love, Mat 11:6 Yes, even idle words will be judged, The message of the Bible is not one of comfort in this life. A position is contrary to servant, as the Son of Man accepted. A position could be an uncomfortable description of slave. Those who name Lord admit they are not their own.
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