Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Clear Thinking People?

I spend some time this weekend with my brother's family. He is a protestant pastor. He generally avoids Catholic/Protestant topics around me. I did overhear a discussion when I was not in the room. He was talking about "clear thinking people" being able to understand the teaching of scripture. I didn't jump into the room and offer a rebuttal. Often topics like that seem like tangents to protestants. They are in fact foundational questions that we need to get right before we can have a proper discussion of other religious issues. But it would be impolite for me to inject myself and push the conversation to what I see as important.

The other reason I didn't jump in is because my brother is a very good talker. Most preachers are these days. He is a bit like Christopher Hitchens. That is to say that just because you know you are right does not mean you are going to come out with the best in a verbal exchange. The truth or falsity of the positions has very little to do with who wins at verbal debate. People think it proves one side right and the other wrong. Most can think of counter examples quite easily where the side of truth ended up looking bad in debate. But still debates convince people way more than they should. Pastors convince people way more than they should. Speaking has great power to change minds and hearts but not always in a good way. Even very smart people are swayed by logically unsound arguments. People think they are much better critical thinkers than they are especially when it comes to fast talkers that push emotional buttons.

Anyway, the phrase "clear thinking people" stuck in my mind. We like to think we are clear thinking. Are we really?  We can see people being influences by their tradition, by their sinful passions, by their intellectual pride, by their prejudices, by their pain, by a ton of things. That makes all those people not very clear thinking. But what about us? Are we immune from those things. Most of them are unconscious. That means the people who are having their thinking clouded don't know it. They still think their thinking is clear. Are we one of those people or is our thinking really clear? We would like to think so but is there any reason to think so?

Even in contemplating this question we wrestle with intellectual pride. What does it mean to admit we cannot trust out own minds? For a Catholic that is a hard truth to swallow. For a protestant it is devastating. What it means is we need to approach matters of truth with great humility. That is hard because we like our own opinion. Often it is harder because there is some emotional or spiritual issue hiding behind this opinion. It might mean we need to make a difficult change to our personal life.

But as hard as that is it becomes so much harder for the protestant. Because a protestant puts arguments from scripture and plain reason at the highest level of certainty. That is to be considered a better source of truth than tradition, better than even the most trusted church leaders, better than the opinions of even a huge majority of Christians. What that means is the hierarchy is flawed. But there is a dependency. If you are Calvinist you trust Calvinist tradition, as opposed to Pentecostal tradition, because scripture and plain reason tell you that is right. That causes you to trust Calvinist pastors and theologians. But it all hinges on the assumption that you can choose the right tradition based on scripture and reason. If you are not a clear thinking person then how can you trust even that choice?

Look at what is involved in figuring out which tradition is most biblical. You have to consider the whole of scripture. You have to look at all major doctrines. That is a complex piece of reasoning. Then you consider the emotional factors that could cloud your thinking. Like the tradition of the people involved in bringing you to Christ. Maybe it was your family or maybe some friends led you faith. Does the fact that you met Jesus through their ministry mean their tradition is right? Not at all. But how can you put that out of your mind while you do clear thinking about which tradition is following the bible? You can't.

It is not impossible to pick the right tradition. You just can't base it on which tradition is closest to the scriptures. You need to admit you are not qualified to answer that question. But there are other ways to assess traditions. Which has the best continuity with the church of Pentecost? One place to start is by excluding all those traditions that have scripture and plain reason as their highest authority. That is all those that confess Sola Scriptura. Those require you to be a clear thinking person and you have already had enough humility to admit you are not one of those.

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