During the 1930s two books rose to prominence. Most of us still know and have, perhaps, read one of them: “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.
The other book, also a massive bestseller, was written by a French priest, writer and lecturer named Ernest Dimnet. Dimnet’s book did not remain a bestseller like Carnegie’s. But last year I happened upon it. It’s titled “The Art of Thinking.”
It’s interesting to observe the state of our culture and then compare the rise and fall of these two books. One teaches us how to influence others, a self-help book for the ages, or so they say. The other, a book on how to think. One book will help you get ahead in this world, the other book will encourage you to slow down and to be a person who truly “sees.”
We are not a thinking culture. We are not a seeing culture.
We solve problems.
We get things done.
Thinking takes a backseat to results.
But I would argue now is a good time for our culture to stop, and have a think.
During my time in England studying under Alister McGrath, he often used the phrase, “have a think.”
Once, when I was unraveling a strand of thought in C.S. Lewis’s work on the concept of “Northernness,” Professor McGrath told me to take a couple months, “have a think” and do a deep dive on the idea, then get back to him.
A few years of “having a think” can do wonders to your rhythm of life.
I’m often shocked at how quickly and brashly people on social media and on blogs react and respond. And usually, it is without thinking.
But it’s not only social media reactions that reveal our lack of thinking. It’s what we emphasize, as leaders, as Christians, as the Church: speed, efficiency, acting. These are not bad qualities in and of themselves but solely emphasized they dry up the human spirit and turn us into stressed-out versions of our intended selves.
But what does a thinker look like, act like?
Dimnet characterizes a thinker as, firstly, a person of vision.
“The thinker is preeminently a man who sees where others do not. The novelty of what he says, its character as a sort of revelation, the charm that attaches to it all come from the fact that he sees.
“He seems to be head and shoulders above the crowd, or to be walking on the ridge-way while others trudge at the bottom.
“Independence is the word which describes the moral aspect of this capacity for vision.
“Nothing is more striking than the absence of intellectual independence in most human beings: they conform in opinion, as they do in manner, and are perfectly content with repeating formulas.
“While they do so, the thinker calmly looks around, giving full play to his mental freedom. He may agree with the consensus known as public opinion, but it will not be because it is universal opinion.”
Dimnet further suggests that thinkers, being people of vision, will see the truth when others will not. And sometimes this can make the thinker look dictatorial. But at their heart, the thinker is preeminently a teacher …
“and it is to the credit of most of them that they devote their lives to preaching the truth they see. Some of them do so in admirable speeches or books, others in the picturesque language of the artist, but whatever the vehicle, the devotion to truth remains visible.”
In December of 2017, I attended a publishing event in Boston. I was introduced to a new young female author. We exchanged writing stories, laughed a bit, and were having a lovely time when the conversation turned political.
I attempted to parry and change the subject, I’m not much for politics. But she wanted to pursue the notion of how everything is political, which spiraled somehow into her using my maleness, whiteness, my author-ness, my PhD-ness, and my power as proof that even our author event was full of bias and politics.
Taken aback, I tried to salvage the discussion on my end. I tried to ask questions and discover what she meant by some of her statements.
I wanted to know.
I wanted to learn.
But it became evident that my questions offended her. I tried to make up ground, change the subject. She smiled and I tried to regain a less tense path of conversation. We eventually parted ways and everything seemed okay. But I had a knot in my stomach.
I share this story not to launch into her accusations towards me, I know she didn’t mean them as a personal attack, but to highlight her response when I began to ask her to define her terms, to explain her position.
But she did not explain. She simply repeated herself, then ultimately, from what I could tell, became offended at me for pressing her to explain what she meant. I had no idea that my simply being in that room was a political statement.
I left the party and walked back to my bed-n-breakfast, in the rain. I felt awful that I had somehow offended her. I wasn’t trying to. I was trying to connect, to understand, to further the discussion.
How did I offend her, I asked myself?
By asking clarifying questions?
I was flummoxed.
I’m not an expert in Aristotelian logic, but I do know that in order to have any kind of conversation, terms must be defined. This is ground zero of logic.
In logic, there are three acts of the mind:
1. Simple Apprehension
And three corresponding questions:
1. What do you mean? (Define your terms)
2. What’s the point? (What’s your conclusion?)
3. Why? (Prove it.)
We could not have a logical discussion. I lamented our inability to engage in a lively, inoffensive, conversation.
But the more I surveyed social media, where everyone including (especially?) Christians seem hell-bent of screaming their own point of view towards people, the more I concluded: we don’t care what anyone else thinks or says.
We only care for ourselves. When we fail to look past our own ideas of how things should be, we cease to be people of vision, we cease to really think.
I believe the Christian community has fallen under the weight of its own non-thinking.
Here are five examples, among others I suspect:
1. Shoddy Theology – I believe this is perpetuated by a broad swath of popular Christian publishing, along with Christian conferences, and the megachurch culture. And I don’t mean this as a harsh critique. I am myself an author, writer, and I’ve spoken at conferences. But having been in this world for nearly 15 years, this is my observation.
Christian publishing primarily focuses on author platforms. If you can gather a large following, the thinking goes, then you must have something important to say. This kind of thinking is known as a non sequitur, meaning, it does not necessarily follow. A platform does not necessarily make someone a theologian or even an expert in anything. It just makes them, at a base level, popular.
Publishing is a business, so latching on to a person with a ready-made following makes sense for business, but what are we doing to “thought” when we prize platform, “quantity,” over quality? I think this needs more thought.
Conferences are an extension of publishing. They build off of one another. The conference culture creates a celebrity buzz that elevates authors and bloggers and pastors into celebrities. I wonder if we’ve thought this through, or if we merely observe the amount of influence they provide, so we seek to emulate.
The megachurch movement also creates a similar vibe, our consumer mentality is fed through an excellent product and everyone loves being associated with the Cool place to worship. Have we thought this through? (See below my note about Francis Chan.)
When we simply mimic what creates worldly success, we pay the price. Often this can be found in the dimming of the message.
It can produce shallow products that people buy and consume, messages that people take to heart even though the messenger may only be sharing an opinion. We can then base our theology on people, messages and events that may not be providing solid foundational thinking, to say nothing of the theology.
Have we thought deeply about this?
2. Pragmatism and an extreme dedication to personal views of justice – Consider this quote from theologian Craig Gay. He says,
“… the contemporary preoccupation with such things as planning, with the organization and mobilization of resources, with ‘programming,’ with the projection of the Church’s influence within the culture, etc., may actually be quite destructive. …
“To paraphrase Martin Buber, whoever knows the Church as something to be utilized–even presumably in the service of the Kingdom of God–must know God in the same way.
“Because God does not actually allow himself to be known in this way, however, Christian activism ends only in disillusionment and perhaps even godlessness.” (Gay, 306.)
This quote from Gay hits on a few points, most deal with the nearly insatiable desire to do, do, do, in the church. But what sticks out to me is the final part about Christian activism ending in disillusionment.
Activism can take many forms. It might be handing out Bibles at the State Fair, joining a women’s march in D.C., or short-term missions.
But Gay here reminded me of how the Church at the turn of the twentieth century became divided. The sides? One side for the fundamentals of the faith. The other, stressing the importance and preeminence of personal views of justice.
I believe we are very much back in the 1920s. But now, faith is defined by not only how you serve or your activism, but such action has also now been sanitized of the actual Gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ.
I thought of an encounter I had a few years ago with someone I would consider an activist.
This young entrepreneur told me it was enough that people who attended a concert put on by To Write Love On Her Arms left the concert and no longer cut themselves.
That was enough.
“But what about sharing the light of the Gospel with such a person?” I said.
“That’s manipulative,” he responded. “It’s enough that they don’t cut.”
I’m completely behind organizations like TWLOHA, but not at the expense of the Gospel. I’m all for activism that reaches the hurting. But as a Christian “the Good” is only a starting point. Not the telos, the goal, of our faith or our activism.
Where was the thinking behind this activists statement to me? I was surprised, but not totally. It was a common sentiment I’d heard among other folks engaged in similar work.
I concluded it must be the “thinking of the Christian culture at the moment.” This was not a thought out position by this young entrepreneur as much as it was a mantra they thought felt right.
3. Parroting the values of a culture steeped in the postmodern secularism – I see this in debates on cultural hot buttons such as gay marriage, white privilege, equality, or really whatever is being screamed about on social media.
Once, after speaking at a conference, I returned to the Green Room and engaged with a popular blogger on the subject of adoption and white privilege. We were discussing the other various situations of privilege in the culture (such as class, financial, etc.) when her husband, from across the table, began badgering me about my views on white privilege.
He insinuated I was a racist because I was asking his wife questions about other types of privilege.
Eventually, he got very heated as I calmly answered his questions and volleyed a question or two his way. The discussion got so heated I jokingly asked he wanted to step outside, just trying to lighten things up with a little humor. Eventually, the conversation simmered down.
When I left the Green Room I remember thinking how crazy that discussion was, and why conversation around these topics tend to escalate so quickly. That was a couple years ago.
Now, it seems like we’d rather get out in the street and really throw down when it comes to these types of discussions. And, we’re not having them in person, we’re conducting them behind the veil of social media where everyone can say what they want; no accountability, no thinking, just reacting, just shouting.
Another example of this might be with how Christians, seemingly without thinking, talk about human flourishing being the end goal in life. But, as Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age,
“Loving, worshipping God is the ultimate end. Of course, in this tradition God is seen as willing human flourishing, but devotion to God is not seen as contingent on this. The injunction “Thy will be done” isn’t equivalent to “Let humans flourish”, even though we know that God wills human flourishing.” (See Taylor, 16-20)
Parroting hip or cool sentiments seems harmless. But if we cease to think for ourselves, and really do the digging required to form an informed perspective, then we can easily slide into theologically dubious conclusions on important issues.
In the discussion on white privilege I was simply trying to engage and ask questions, but this was not acceptable. I was supposed to just believe everything I heard or read about on the internet, apparently.
The illustration of flourishing for the Christian is meant to show the nuance involved in such discussions. The Christian must operate in this tension of renunciation (take up our cross and follow God) and flourish.
But the end goal is devotion and renunciation. But this nuance is lost on many and eventually, it slides right into our theologies regarding justice.
Finally, the other day I listened to a female Anglican priest discuss equality and privilege. The first four minutes of her talk was filled with every single buzzword in the current Christian pop culture.
I didn’t know what she was talking about. It was as if I hadn’t been given the cipher to her coded talk. Her talk gave mostly her opinion about the issue of equality, some odd retelling of the Creation narrative found in Genesis, and then some application points based only on her own experience.
By the end of her talk, I felt like I had heard every other talk given by every other hip Christian who’s in “the know” on the issue of gender equality.
I’m listing these examples only to show that there seems to be a massive amount of culture parroting. I see this in the writing world as new (and old) authors parrot the writers they love best with regard to style.
Which is fine, but eventually you must speak with, and write with, your own voice. And this requires some thinking, discovering, and a good bit of time in the wilderness, not to mention humility.
I think we have mistakenly taken ideas like “brave” and “courageous” and appropriated them to suit our own desire to express ourselves without accountability.
4. The worship of spectacle coupled with the absence of beauty – I could talk for days on this. How churches make thoughtless decisions, usually based on utility, with regard to building and architecture, all in the name of utility, stewardship, and relevance.
Have you ever wondered why nearly all modern Evangelical churches are dark boxes crammed with sound equipment?
Where are the windows?
Where is nature?
Where is the light?
Some theologians believe our contemporary nihilism will eventually destroy our belief in beauty itself.
One of the preeminent thinkers on beauty was Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He says this about the potential loss of beauty:
“No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.
“We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past–whether he admits it or not–can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love. …
“In a world without beauty … the good also loses its attractiveness. … Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil.
“For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has any confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency.
“In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.”
What is the consequence of not only a world without beauty but a Church that no longer values beauty?
“But Tim,” you say, “It’s preposterous to think that such evil will invade the Church like that. We’d catch it if it did.”
“Really?” I say, “Have you not read The Screwtape Letters? Do you think evil just marches in all black and hideous and starts spraying evil juices everywhere? Of course not. It moves in subtly. It takes a bit here, another bit there, until you realize, quite suddenly, that you are very far off your mark.”
Have you ever looked at Instagram on Sunday and viewed all the worship leaders and churches posting photographs of their worship service? It’s usually of the performers! What are we promoting?
Beauty, when viewed from the Christian lens, pulls the viewer away from her self. When beauty alights upon the Church, it is accompanied by awe and wonder, not manufactured with lights and manipulative love songs.
As a musician, I love moody music and atmosphere. But there is a kind of stench in the church right now, and it’s coming from modern worship gatherings. It is the decay of beauty and the worship of spectacle.
But we don’t really think about it, do we? It’s just how it is.
“This what the culture wants, Tim.”
Francis Chan has admitted that when he began his church in Simi Valley, California he didn’t know what he was doing. He just looked around and copied what everyone else was doing. The church grew, he got popular, and then he sold a few million books. He readily admits to not thinking things through.
Now that he has, he’s dropped off the grid. He’s started a home church movement in one of the most secular cities in America.
I use the example of Francis Chan to show that even the most “successful” churches and pastors in America are guilty of not thinking about their own services. They just produce a show that people are used to. What else would they do?
Surely they wouldn’t create an atmosphere of prayer, of simplicity in worship, an atmosphere that points not to man’s ability but to God’s transcendence.
(I’ve already been asked to expand on this point regarding church and what it should look like. Thoughts coming soon.)
5. A bent towards the self that cripples our ability to think and act Christianly – St. Augustine wrote of this world’s tendency to bend in on itself:
“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.
In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience. The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the Heavenly City says to its God: “My glory; you lift up my head.” (Augustine, City of God XIV.xxviii.593)
Think about it.
So much of our communication comes through reaction, rather than hard thinking, which takes time, and also demands more than just conversations.
It demands time in reflection, which equals time alone, solitude.
It requires us to write in order to figure things out.
It requires us to consult a broad array of sources instead of sources that pander to our own bent point of view.
It demands we consult with people who know more about not just a topic but know how to think about a topic.
Many of us rightly ask how we as Christians should react in the moment. And that is a good and noble question. But I wonder too how we ought to “think” in the moment.
Thinking directs our action, it informs our belief. Years ago Mark Knoll wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Not much has changed since 1995, or has it?
How ought we to think? How do we think aright? How do I understand the world in which I live?
Dimnet says the thinker is a person of vision.
And that’s what I want to be, someone who sees.
To see a thing does not always mean we see it as we know it to be, but as it actually is. When writing or painting, it’s wrong to call the trees at dawn dark grey or black, even if we know them to be that on their own.
In that moment of the dawn, when the light cascades through the forest behind my house, the trees are anything but grey and black. They are golden, orange, yellow, they glow.
Without thinking I can answer the question, “What color is a White Oak?”
But if I have vision, if I really see the trees, as they are in the morning and in the evening, I will know them to be grey and black yes, but also glowing and golden.
Seeing the trees like this takes time, patience, and a love for the truth. Something we could all use right about now.