I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to others or to themselves, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. Not to mention, when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”
This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say “she really thinks for herself” when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z. Similarly, people in my line of work always say that we want to promote “critical thinking”—but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.
When we believe something to be true, we tend also to see the very process of arriving at it as clear and objective, and therefore the kind of thing we can achieve on our own; when we hold that a given notion is false, we ascribe belief in it to some unfortunate wrong turning, usually taken because an inquirer was led astray, like Hansel and Gretel being tempted into the oven by a wicked witch. And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.
I recently had occasion to reflect on what I concluded about teaching from my own years sitting under it. As I enter more teaching roles, I have to ask myself, “What makes for good learning?”
- Learning is ultimately a mystery, because so little of what I do, so little of what I think I know, is traceable to “aha” moments. Nonetheless, teachers who applied appropriate methods really were more effective, particularly when it came to writing tests. Just because learning is a mystery doesn’t mean there’s no connection between the skill of a teacher and the learning outcomes of his or her students.
- Instead of aha moments, my education was, I think, a long initiation into a conversation that started long before I came along and will continue long after I’m gone. The initiation taught me the kinds of arguments and evidences that count as contributions. It taught me which voices were most important in that conversation both now and in the past. It also taught me where to go to look for their contributions. I know intuitively when someone is playing by the “rules” of the biblical studies game—but only because I listened and listened and listened for years. I’ll add that listening to the expositions of my long-time pastor, who was himself “in the game,” also had an immeasurably impact on me.
- A lot of things I was taught—and faithfully regurgitated for tests—didn’t really sink in until later, sometimes years later. As I began to see this, I began to think that education is about building connections among the things one learns at the base of Blooom’s taxonomy (1. remember, 2. understand). Peers played a key role here: friends who had made those connections slightly before I was able to were able to lead me to see them because they could easily remember what it was like not to know them. The “curse of knowledge” made it difficult for some teachers to bring me along at points. They couldn’t remember what it was like to be as ignorant as I was!
- Back to writing tests: I did feel that the teachers who had clear ideas of what kinds of skills I needed by the end of the course were better at measuring the outcome of their instruction. And those who worked up the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy rather than staying on the lowest rung were better, too. Thankfully, I had a lot of good teachers.
- I do think that D.A. Carson was right when he said his students don’t remember what he taught them so much as what he was excited about. Therefore, I am certain that my students in the future will remember things about my wife, KJV-Onlyism, Stanley Fish, and ultimate frisbee.
I think some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are looking to confessions and scholastic categories and other elements of reasonably-stable-and-long-term-but-not-overtly-Catholic church tradition for a way out of the interminable theological disputes going on around and among us.
But these disputes are our lot under the sun, because we’re all fallen interpreters; and I think the Bible (see those hapless Corinthians) leads us to expect disagreements. I totally get the fatigue, and I’m tired too (at the ripe young age of 37)—and I think confessions are useful for terminating many disputes healthily. Churches ought to have careful doctrinal statements and ought to hew to them; so should parachurch organizations (schools, camps, publishing houses) and denominations.
But as friends of mine in a Reformed Baptist group recently (re-)discovered, a confession also adds to the list of documents over whose interpretation Christians end up disagreeing. I will not say “I have no creed but the Bible”; I am bound by the confessions of faith that God has placed me under at my church and even at my job. But adding human statements to divine ones is never sufficient to keep fallen people from twisting the truth. “Pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a strong argument against Protestantism, sure, but it’s also a strong one against Catholicism and Protestant (hyper-)confessionalism. They added human statements to divine ones, and I don’t think they’re doing much better in the unity department.
It’s my “something close to biblicism,” learned in part from Frame and in part from my heritage, that lets me conclude, along with the Bible, that the noetic effects of sin must always be expected and never forgotten. In others and in myself. Till glory!
Alan Jacobs is interviewed by his now-unbelieving former Wheaton student, Emma Green, who nonetheless provides insightful journalistic coverage of evangelicals. They discuss his new book How to Think.
And Jacobs says this:
Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.
One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.
But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.
Okay, so there’s a lot of wisdom here, as always with Jacobs. In particular, that last paragraph ought to be memorized by all American schoolchildren and recited daily as accepted wisdom. The variables are so complex that people almost universally take refuge in ideological responses; they are all our brains can handle.
I also like the complaint that people appeal to “vast subterranean forces”—we psychologize our opponents and enlist them in imaginary cabals.
But… knowledge in Scripture is an ethical category, so wicked evil malice is a possible explanation for someone’s inability to see the truth.
You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Eph 4:17–18)
Hard hearts have a direct impact on cognitive faculties.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom 1:18)
I think I’d want to leave room for people to culpably but sincerely believe a lie. The suppression of the truth happens at a level of one’s knowledge below conscious thought. I don’t think Richard Dawkins consciously thinks to himself, “I know there’s a being of eternal power and divine nature, but I just can’t admit it publicly or I’ll lose all my income.” And even if he does think this way, it isn’t healthy for me to think that he thinks this way! The Bible speaks of God sending wicked people—people who “refuse to love the truth”—a “delusion” so that “they believe a lie” (2 Ths 2:11) They really do believe it, in other words.
There may not be vast subterranean forces affected people’s cognition, but there are vast supernatural ones.
Nonetheless, despite these caveats, views on the wisest, most efficient way to raise the standard of living for working class people are based on such “astronomically complex” factors that our first recourse should not be to spiritual blindness and delusive belief in a lie on the part of our political opponents. Instead of resorting to fallenness, first try finiteness: we can’t even understand the present well enough to make exhaustively accurate descriptions of our economic situation; far less can we predict the future. And I say this no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on. I recently took the Political Compass test and scored as pretty nearly a centrist, so just about everybody out there is to my right or my left. It is certain that through God’s common grace there are “contemptuously smug liberals” who have valid political insights about how to achieve common goals. There are “wrathful conservatives” out there, too, who see parts of the truth that their opponents don’t.
Policies have to be chosen, and someone’s party is going to be disappointed. I’m not saying all parties have an equal lock on political truths. I’m saying that careful Christian theology provides a basis for humility—because the same fallenness and finiteness that affects the other party affects ours. We must judge others’ policies, but we must be willing to be judged by the same measure we mete out (Matt 7:1). Jumping right to demonization is a sure way to elicit the same from the other side. And as one of the comparatively few educated people who actually believes in demons and their power to influence mankind, I still say that “demonization” of one’s political opponents should not be one’s first—or even fifth—recourse.
UPDATE: I just read this article in the New York Times about Boko Haram’s practice of forcing young girls to be suicide bombers. The article was deeply disturbing and sad. Boko Haram terrorists offer a religious rationalization to the young ladies: you’ll only be killing wicked people, and you’ll go straight to heaven. Whether they sincerely believe what they themselves are saying or not, I don’t know. It seems to me, however, that they are morally obligated—given what the Bible says about conscience in Romans 2 and elsewhere—to know that any appeals to religion to justify murder of innocents are at best cynical and in actuality evil. In other words, Boko Haram is not just wrong to send 13-year-olds to their deaths; they’re malicious and wicked. I have little doubt that learning the fighters’ life stories could increase my sympathy for them; who as a kid aspires to be a sadistic murderer? Surely some are victims of subterranean forces. But “I was only following orders” is not a suitable defense because knowledge is an ethical category: all people have God’s law written on their hearts and ought to know better. I hope my empathy could never extend to absolving murderers of their guilt, or I’d violate my own God-given conscience.
The upshot of this little blog post: I want to accede to Jacobs’ wisdom while preserving my ability to pull out the “wicked” card when needed.
I read pretty much anything Alan Jacobs publishes. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds was yet another great read.
This book is Alan Jacobs not half-baked but maybe 90% baked, and it’s still a fantastic read. It felt to me like one long essay, very much in the Jacobs style, which means a lot of trenchant intellectual commentary, delivered smoothly, on interesting stories. But whereas Original Sin, which was very much in the same vein, felt to me like it drove me to a point and wrapped a theological bow around it; this topic—good thinking—is simply too large for this small book to handle with anything feeling like finality (that’s what I mean by 90%). If this book had been titled “How to Keep Cool in a World of Social Media Firestorms,” it might have felt more complete. Jacobs does deliver numerous insights for the social-media-addled. (For example, “Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.”)
But his self-critical exploration of intellectual honesty, an exploration which skirts the realms of the theological, was the most valuable part of the book for me. He brings thinkers back to love, a theme he explored in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Here Jacobs offers no final answers. We can’t keep an open mind at all times; he knows that and proves it with verve. But when it comes to thinking, there is no algorithm by which we can necessarily determine whether we are guilty of kowtowing to some Inner Ring or are part of genuine community, no way to know with certainty whether we are susceptible to narrow influences or are truly loving thinkers. Life is, or ought to be, a pursuit of that knowledge, even if we’ll never perfectly achieve it. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world,” Jacobs says, “any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its roots every morning to see how it’s doing.”
If Jacobs perchance reads this review, he ought to know that I read most words he writes publicly—and that I think this once he missed a great opportunity to quote Stanley Fish. Fish has a story he appeals to a number of times in his writings that is much like the Phelps-Roper story. It features a member of the Aryan Nation who finds himself instantly disaffected with his erstwhile crowd when one of its leaders gives a speech consigning those with cleft palates to the gas chambers. This man’s daughter had a cleft palate. What Fish points out is that people who change from one worldview to another don’t change wholesale; they pivot on at least one point they held before. In this case, the man loved his daughter and this was his pivot point. I think Jacobs could have explored this story with great depth—and could have deepened his own case by using it. In it again love is key to thinking.
One more thing: I’m a Christian, and Jacobs is a Christian, and says so in this book. I think Jacobs could have gotten away with more Christianity. Augustine, for example, surely could have figured prominently in a book on how love is essential to right thinking. And, for that matter, the Apostle Paul.