Saturday, 31 May 2008

Thinking about Thinking

I have entertained a growing fascination for the way we think about things and have long believed that many of our difficulties as Christians, indeed as a general humanity, in dealing with the world would be more manageable if we simply determined to think clearly and fearlessly about ourselves and the world around us. I suppose this is philosophy and certainly the shortest and most helpful definition I have found for that field of intellectual enquiry is that philosophy is “thinking about thinking”. Some see no practical use for philosophy but given this definition it would seem difficult to avoid it if we are going to make sense of anything. I knew one pastor who had only derisory things to say about philosophy but who used many recognisable philosophical concepts in his sermons to help people think through gospel principles without any idea that he was being philosophical.

Norman Cousins observed that “It is nonsense to say there is not enough time to be fully informed...Time given to thought is the greatest time saver”. Blaise Pascal famously observed, “Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed”. Yet it has also been observed that, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking” (Sir Joshua Reynolds). Yet, whatever the evidence to the contrary, Arthur Koestler’s pithy observation remains true, “We cannot unthink unless we are insane”.

Where people appear to be unthinking they are not altogether avoiding the thought process but simply lazy thinkers. They often allow the crowd to do their thinking for them and entertaining second-hand thoughts. This is illustrated by a conversation I had some years ago with a Christian friend. My wife’s mother had died and he asked me if she was a Christian. I told him that she was not but was a Spiritualist to which he replied, “Never mind. You will still get her under family salvation.” Of course, he was making reference to an event in the New Testament book of Acts in which the jailer of Paul and Silas asked, “Sir, what must I do to be saved?” Their reply was: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The implication in my friend’s remark was that, by believing, this jailer would save his whole family as though by proxy.

Being a new Christian I found this a novel and strange concept and I asked him what he meant and why he thought that way. He explained, “I don’t know. I once heard it said at a conference!” A thorough reading of the text and a moment’s careful thought will show that his idea of ‘family salvation’ is not theologically correct. Paul and Silas “Spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house...then immediately he and his family were baptised.” (VV 30-34) Clearly, the members of his ‘household’ had individual responsibilities to hear, believe and submit to the gospel.

What is puzzling is that so many of us have a propensity for repeating something we have heard as though speaking from personal understanding gained by careful study and consideration and as though citing an authority that is unimpeachable. This is especially frustrating when we do so in the name of God and represent our non-thinking as gospel truth.

In E M Forster's 'A Passage to India' Miss Adela Quested is newly arrived in the subcontinent and reflects on the social scene she finds among British ex-pats. Recently engaged she contemplates a vision of her prospective married life, with its endless round of predictable social engagements and imperialist traditions while 'the real India' appears 'always as a frieze, never as a spirit'.

"But the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand. Adela thought of the young men and women who had come out before her, P-and-O-full after P-and-O-full, and had set down to the same food and the same ideas, and been snubbed in the same good-humoured way until they kept to the accredited themes and began to snub others.’ I should never get like that,’ she thought, for she was young herself; all the same, she knew that she had come up against something that was both insidious and tough, and against which she needed allies."

As Christians we can, in the instinctive effort to be accepted in this strange new world of faith, find approval in keeping to the accredited themes of our group and, like Forster’s heroine, we need to determine, 'I should never get like that'. But the pull of unthinking and predictable acceptability is indeed both insidious and hard to resist and we need allies if we are to resist. In Christian circles the monster Forster describes can be identified in the same way he identifies it in the book - by attitudes of unthinking conformity.

“The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself” (Archibald MacLeish)

It should be encouraging for any Christian determined to avoid those accredited themes and dare dissent and think for themselves that the Bible says:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Ro.12:2)

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