Critical thinking and grace

Essay covered in red pen

In this post I’d like to reflect on a tension that I consider to be quite widespread within academia. ‘Critical thinking’ is often extolled as one of the core virtues necessary for the intellectual life: much university-level teaching is geared towards developing this skill, and it is viewed as foundational for effective research. This is all right and proper, in one sense: it’s important that we provide a space where received wisdom can be questioned, hidden motives probed and new ideas put to the test – increasingly important in an era of ‘fake news’ and widespread mistrust of ‘expertise’ in diverse fields.

And yet anyone who’s spent much time in academia will also be familiar with the downside of this emphasis: the journal submission that comes back with ‘critical’ comments which amount to a hatchet job; the questioner in a research seminar who clearly has their own axe to grind; the student who receives elegantly scathing feedback on an essay into which they had poured hours of effort. 

As Christians working in this environment, how do we balance the call for criticality with our responsibility to be agents of Christ’s grace to our world?

As always, Jesus provides our perfect example here. He certainly wasn’t afraid to engage critically with the world around him; in fact, he could be remarkably blunt when he saw hypocrisy or injustice taking place. (‘Elegantly scathing’ would describe some of his exchanges with the Pharisees pretty well!) And yet his actions were always full of grace, and characterised by the gentleness that Alicia wrote about last week: to paraphrase Isaiah, he broke no bruised reeds and snuffed out no smouldering wicks. What can we learn from His approach towards this tension? I’d suggest three things to start with:

  • Always be alert to the broader context. Jesus’ primary focus was on people’s hearts: often in his ministry we see him responding to an underlying attitude rather than a superficial action or question, and this is at the heart of true criticality. That’s why he held the Pharisees to account for their hypocrisy whilst he willingly dined with acknowledged ’sinners’; those who claimed to be experts in God’s law were to be held to a higher standard. Likewise in the academy, it’s important to make sure that our criticism is focused towards the right things, and keeps these in perspective. (Even when our own favoured hobby-horse rears its ugly head!)
  • Check your motives. Jesus’ criticisms – even his harshest ones – were motivated by love, and by a genuine desire to see positive change. (See, for example, his weeping over Jerusalem, or his call from the cross for God to forgive those crucifying him in ignorance.) When we encounter something that riles us and we feel the urge to wade in and sort it out, it’s important to consider first: why do we care about this? Are there important issues at stake here? Or are we engaging in order to prove ourselves in some way, or advance some agenda of our own?
  • Cultivate a generous engagement. Negative experiences of ungracious criticism can lead those in the academy to develop a kind of innate defensiveness, where creative research is choked by the need to second-guess possible critical responses at every turn. (There’s nothing wrong with a healthy degree of critical self-awareness, of course; I’m talking about what happens when this gets out of control.) One powerful way to counteract this is to push ourselves outside of our own specialisms and engage with areas where we cannot fall back on our own expertise. I’ve been really struck recently by encounters with several academics who are working to bring together seemingly disconnected areas of research; this is valuable not just because of the potential for new contributions to knowledge, but also because it encourages a generous, outwards-looking approach to scholarship rather than a critical defensiveness.

How does this sound to you? Do you have any critical reflections (gracious ones, of course!) to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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