Serious thinking does not always lead to the same conclusion

Steve Chalke was kind enough to tweet a link to my piece on his invitation to a global conversation; in the same tweet he linked to a piece by Brian McLaren on the same theme. Brian’s piece was entitled ‘The Biblical cat is out of the fundamentalist bag’, which mostly left me straining to think of mentions of cats in the Bible (I don’t think there are any – several lions of course…); the piece was mostly a series of links to interesting posts elsewhere; at the end, though, McLaren writes:

…the real question is this: in the privacy of people’s own hearts, will they (will you, will I?) have the courage to think, rethink, question, and consider the possibility that the conventional view of the Bible is in need of radical rethinking – not to reduce confidence in the Bible, but to discover a wiser, more just, more honest, and more proper confidence?

This form of argument (‘if you think seriously about X, you will change your mind’) is remarkably common in both academic and church discourse; it seems to me to have two fundamental problems: first, it is simply false; and second, it is utterly unrealistic (apart from those two issues, I’m completely with it…)

I take it that the first point is obvious at some basic logical level: even assuming that my current opinions on the truth or falsity of statements are simply random, and also assuming that serious thought will lead me infallibly to truth, then 50% of my opinions will happen to be right by chance, and thinking hard about them will only confirm them. Therefore, a prediction that ‘if you think hard about X, you will change your mind’ will be true 50% of the time, and so no better than the prediction ‘if you think hard about X you will not change your mind’. On this basis, the argument is only interesting if there is some reason to assume that the accuracy of my current opinions are significantly worse than random – if I have somehow become predisposed to believe falsehood.

Now, such a situation is not impossible to imagine; indeed the Marxist idea of ‘false consciousness’ – and the wider concept of ‘ideology’ – suggest positively that this situation obtains around certain subjects in certain contexts (and I accept at least some of these analyses, as it happens). That said, McLaren’s point concerned people in churches who had believed what their pastors taught them; does he think that the several varieties of Christian teaching available in our churches are all so bad that they are significantly less reliable than a random choice of opinions? If not, his argument has no validity.

My second argument, that the point is utterly unrealistic, goes like this: I cannot be an expert on everything, so I study what I can, and develop a discriminating trust of authorities on the rest; given this, to ask me to distrust credible authorities and investigate for myself on every issue is unreasonable and impossible.

I have (random example) not studied the raw data on climate science; I know that there is a very strong scientific consensus around the truth of global warming, and also that some people deny this; I choose to accept the consensus and to modify my behaviour accordingly; is McLaren suggesting that I should do otherwise until I have become expert enough to examine the raw data? This seems to be the import of his argument, but I suggest – on the basis of the analogy I have given – that this position is not just wrong but actually dangerous.

Now, if (like a climate change denier) I thought I had reason to suppose that the authoritative voices were trying to mislead on the issue, I would have good reason to expend the energy to grasp the evidence in order to check each proposed fact – but again, McLaren’s comment here is about local church pastors, essentially – is he really suggesting that across the world (or across the USA) local church pastors are en bloc actively colluding in misinformation? (I mean, America is fertile ground for generating bizarre conspiracy theories, but this one would be right up there with the worst…)

I believe not just that I have thought seriously about questions of Biblical authority, but that I have thought more seriously than almost everyone on the planet currently about these issues (there are, perhaps, a few hundred people I would bow to…). On almost every issue, I have concluded that in fact what I was taught as a young unreflective Christian was in fact right – no doubt because my mentors had thought seriously themselves. I accept that some of my beliefs may be wrong (I accept routinely that any of my beliefs might be wrong…), but I refuse to accept that I am being naive or unreflective in holding to my current beliefs.

I have no problem with someone else who says that thinking seriously has led her to revise the opinions she inherited from the tradition, but to assert as McLaren apparently does, and as others do repeatedly, that serious thought will inevitably lead to a rejection of traditional teaching is not just indefensible, but also rather offensive.

2 Comments

  1. Michael Bigg
    Feb 22, 2014

    Hi Steve. Thanks for your comments on this. I absolutely agree that the “appeal to serious thought” rarely makes for a strong argument. However, I do think it a little unfair to accuse McLaren of this tactic. In the context of the article he seems to be replying to those whose response to Steve Chalke is an appeal to tradition and authority. His comment is directed at those (perhaps unlike you) who really have never given the question of biblical authority serious thought. Would you not agree that it is an issue that certainly merits prayerful and careful reflection?

    I read the main thrust of his point as being directed to pastors who stamp out this kind of discussion within their churches.

    (Of course those who, for whatever reason, have not investigated biblical authority for themselves are unlikely to find themselves absently reading Brian McLaren’s blog, making any comments in that direction rather redundant. But that’s another story…)

  2. Terry
    Feb 22, 2014

    Steve, your final paragraph is very well put. It’s what I see (or perceive) so often in arguments about church and its ‘traditional’ practices. Thanks for articulating this so clearly.

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