Being Critical Without Being Critical: Some Thoughts on Theological Education

Before coming to teach as an adjunct at Leland, I taught for a few years at a large state university in Virginia.  One course I taught was Critical Thinking.  It was a required course for all incoming first-year students.  And one can guess the range of students I would get every fall semester: some earnest about the class, others interested mainly in getting by without too much work, and those in the middle of this range.

As an introduction to Critical Thinking, I would explain the difference between “critical” and “critical” (as in “critical thinking”).  The first sense of “critical” is familiar to us all: as one dictionary puts it, “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.”  All of us would want to avoid this description of ourselves naturally.  But the sense of “critical” in “critical thinking” has an entirely different definition.  One longish definition from the field of critical thinking runs as follows:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. [A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987].

So after this clarification, we would proceed with the rest of the course in Critical Thinking.  Long story short, for some students the discipline of critical thinking was alien.  Perhaps a little too strong of a term.  If not “alien,” it was “unnatural,” to the extent that critical thinking was not a natural way that a good number of students thought through things.  Texts in Critical Thinking of course recognize that our natural modes of thinking sometimes lead us astray.  For example, thinking based on sheer emotion, appeal to (illegitimate) authority, ad hominen attacks, appeal to fear, guilt by association, and numerous others.  An implicit agenda in a course like CT is to instill in students the awareness of their style or mode of thinking.  To foster self-awareness in one’s thinking! 

Now coming to Leland and teaching future pastors, teachers, and leaders in a theological educational setting, I’ve found a similar challenge: how do I help our students to think critically?  Thinking critically as they read the assigned texts, as they write papers, as they reflect on their own theology, et cetera.  Here, too, for some students, this way of thinking is not “natural.”  In addition, this way of thinking can feel “unspiritual” or “unchristian.”  The struggle to become critical, Christian thinkers is a real struggle of the heart and mind.  The struggle to gauge what’s presented critically without the critical attitude.  To consider the theology and perspective of others critically and appreciatively without arrogance and lack of respect.  We as theological instructors, like it or not, model a type of thinking.  Courses in Critical Thinking can be of immense help.  But outside this kind of explicit attention on critical thinking, we as instructors can still help our students.  By modeling – by saying aloud what we are thinking, by voicing how we’ve come to certain conclusions, by sharing our doubts and uncertainties about certain matters – by offering our students a living example of critical thinking – all this can go a long ways in strengthening our students in this area. 

In closing, I speak as a student who also learned by seeing a wonderful exemplar of critical thinking.  I had many great teachers throughout my education.  But one stands out, in part because of his modeling of critical (I should add, appreciative and honest) thinking: Nicholas Wolterstorff.  His seminars, conversations, and books have, quite simply, profoundly shaped the way I think as a Christian.  My desire for my students is to convey some of what I’ve learned about critical thinking as I have been so blessed.

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