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Laughing isn’t thinking

March 5, 2013

At a nearby Catholic seminary, all seminarians must have extensive undergraduate studies in philosophy. While I wouldn’t say all Protestant seminarians ought to do the same (I’m aware of the place of philosophy, especially Thomism, in Catholic thought), I’ve thought it would be good for them to have some philosophy in their education if only to have some grasp of the history of thought and the philosophies of our day and to learn to think well (logic is helpful in sermons, too).

Now I’m wondering if it wouldn’t do everyone going through university some good to study philosophy for awhile. Knowing the history of thought would be helpful if only to show that not everyone at all times has thought the way we do.

More pressing, though, is the need to think well. This would be aided not only by a course in logic but also by learning to interact with ideas in a responsible way. Here are some things people might learn:

  • Snickering at ideas doesn’t count for anything. I run across this very often, even in educated circles; maybe most often in educated circles. An idea is raised, and someone responds by laughing and saying something like “That’s ridiculous,” or “How could anyone think that?” or similar, but doesn’t give reasons. This can be simply amusing or even annoying to some listeners, but it is pernicious when it is employed to sway people who don’t have the educational background to weigh matters for themselves. I’ve become convinced that some college degreed persons love to work with lay audiences because they can be impressive simply by snickering at ideas and people while pointing to their own pedigrees.
Hendrik Kraemer has a great quote that applies to this. In his book Why Christianity of All Religions? (p. 11) he says, “Superficiality is not nearly such a serious offence against the expert as it is against [the ‘inexpert’ reader], because he may well be misled by a shallow approach. He more than anyone else has a right to expect the subject to be handled with integrity.”
  • A person’s position on something is rarely understood by a simple one-sentence statement of the position. It happens often that someone hears an idea voiced and rejects it without knowing the reasons behind it. One needs to understand another’s position before evaluating it. In personal interaction with others, ideas oughtn’t be scoffed at and summarily dismissed without extending the person the courtesy of hearing how he arrived at that position. This isn’t just a courtesy, though; it’s the intellectually proper thing to do. The person speaking may be right and the doubting listener wrong.
  • Few people are smart enough that their off the cuff, non-studied opinions about important things should be considered valid. An opinion of someone who’s studied a matter in depth and maybe for a long time is stated or read, and a person listening or reading who’s never studied the matter in any depth will hear it, evaluate it and reject it in the span of about two seconds. Of course, this could be a simple matter of arrogance or opinionatedness, but, given our intellectual heritage, there is social precedent, too. The superiority of common sense is part of our intellectual heritage in America. Whatever comes to mind is right, and education just confuses people. This attitude is found even among educated people. One might think that such people value careful thought, but that’s not necessarily so. We’ve all heard the term “ivory tower scholar.” And we’ve all heard the as-good-as-Scripture claim, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Educated people can view their education in functional terms; it made it possible to get a job. Thereafter, opinions flow without thinking about them at all. 
Learning to think well and to handle well the beliefs of other people is important especially for conveyors of ideas: writers, teachers, preachers, and other public speakers. We need to go beyond simply conveying our own opinions to people as though that were good enough. I think of that old proverb about it being better to teach someone to fish than just to give them fish, and I think it applies here. Our listeners/readers need to learn to think, and we won’t help them do that if we don’t do it ourselves. Laughing dismissals too often are smokescreens that serve to hide the fact that we don’t know while giving the impression we do. I agree with Kraemer. People deserve better.
  1. Redeemer’s Apologetics 1 is essentially a survey of philosophical thought, and several versions if AP 2 continue the trend.

  2. Rick Wade permalink

    A man once expressed his surprise to me that in the theology texts he read the writers didn’t carefully argue their cases; they primarily quoted other theologians. He had previously earned a master’s in political philosophy. I wonder if any seminary professors ever have their students write papers on biblical or theological issues with the one stipulation that they cannot quote anyone except, perhaps, regarding background matters of history or language or the like. That never happened in my classes at Moody or TEDS.

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