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.

Ineluctably Created to Worship

Let me begin by quoting a few lines from a now well-known commencement address by David Foster Wallace, on the occasion of Kenyon College‘s 2005 Commencement [published later as This is Water]:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

The notion that everybody — including atheists — worships, in some fashion, is of course not original to DFW.  Nor is this notion uncontroversial.  One problem being how we should define or describe “worship.”  Be that as it may, let us move on by saying something less controversial: if not everybody, let’s say, many, many people worship some thing or someone or some ideal with the implicit hope that the object of worship will bring about happiness or beatitude in the worshipper.  This common feature indicated to Henri de Lubac, SJ (1896-1991) that humans are endowed with a desiderium naturale ad videndum Dei — translated as, a natural desire to see God.  Drawing on the medievals (Bonaventure, Thomas, and Scotus), de Lubac explains this combination of the natural and supernatural by parsing the natural in terms of desire and the supernatural in terms of how that desire is fulfilled.

Given this natural desire to see/experience God, what happens when something other than God becomes the object of that desire?  It is impossible to speak of all cases but we can say that in many, many cases the “worshipper’s” desire is not fully satisfied.  This dissatisfaction, in turn, can be an opening in a conversation that can eventually lead someone to God in Christ.  In a marvelously insightful and inspiring book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith offers us a deeper, truer understanding of ourselves — not primarily as thinkers (“I think, therefore I am”)  nor as believers (“I believe in order to understand”) — but as agents of desire or love (“I am what I love”).  Homo Liturgicus.  Smith writes, “Like the blind men pictured in Rembrandt’s sketches, for the most part we make our way in the world with hands outstretched, in an almost tactile groping with our bodies.  One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the-world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead out with our heart and hands” (p. 47).  This appreciation of ourselves and of one another as more than thinking things or as believing believers, but as creatures with a built-in desire to see God, creatures of heart and hand, creatures for whom God is the only true source of rest and love (recalling that old Augustinian prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”), should, I hope, inform how we reach out in conversation to those who do not yet know salvation in Christ.

Messiology — No, It’s Not a Misspelling


I am fond of a veteran, fiery missionary – George Verwer – who in 1963 founded a mission agency called Operation Mobilization that recruits and trains many young people for evangelism and outreach targeting little reached areas around the globe.  George Verwer is also famous for his pithy, humorous sayings that capture the less-than-ideal conditions of Christian missions.  One of my favorite Verwer sayings is the following: “Where two or three of the Lord’s people are gathered together, sooner or later there will be a mess.”  For those of us who are involved in ministry, we know first hand how true the above saying is.  The messiness of ministry – borne out of real life dealings with people who are broken and hurting and confused, not to mention our own brokenness, wounds, and confusion – often leads us to question our competency in ministry.  We might think, “What’s going on?  Why is ministry so frustrating at times?  Why am I seeing so little in the way of positive results?”  In truth, competency or lack thereof might be a small part of the problem.  Most likely, however, it’s really not a matter of ministerial competency.  The issue is the earthbound reality of our fallenness.  When fallen people, even though “saved” by Jesus, start bumping into each other in the mortar of ministry, things are simply bound to get messy.  At these times, it’s important to remember the other side of ministry – God’s side.  Verwer comments after the proverb above, “We, however, have a great and sovereign God who specializes in working in the midst of a mess.”  The Apostle Paul, of all people, knew both sides of ministry.  He knew the workings of the sovereign Lord.  He also understood the other side, writing, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:7-9).

The reality of God’s mighty oversight and our fleshly weakness, both elements together, gives us real life hope in ministry.  The missiological mandate of the local church – i.e., to be a missionary presence wherever the church is found – along with the messiological condition of the local church means that the Triune God must work things out simply because we cannot accomplish the tasks of God’s Kingdom without the Spirit intervening and working through us and our mess.  And that is exactly what the Spirit of God is good at: working in and through us, the “us” who are broken, hurt, and confused.

A fine mess, we now see, is the very stuff in and through which Jesus works His resurrection power!  Soli Deo Gloria!

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