I’m a recovering critic. I’ve started strongly disliking a certain brand of criticism. I call it “being opposite”—the state of mind where no matter what is suggested, there is some flaw in it and it is dismissed. The catalyst for this thought topic was declaring publicly how much I’ve decided to pay the babysitter. After reading through some of the responses, I’ve decided that even if I said something like: “Food is good” there would be a slew of responses saying, “No, food makes you fat!” “People choke on food all the time” “Food isn’t even food anymore, it’s just all processed chemicals and you’ll get cancer from even looking at it.” My new mantra is: It does not take a great genius to find out what is wrong with something. It takes a genius to make something imperfect work well.
Critical Thinking as Dismissiveness
There was an excellent blog post at Mormon Midrashim, that addressed this same attitude of opposite-ness. He talks about how our pursuit of “critical thinking” has led us to become condemnatory and rude. The author is an English professor, so he knows quite a bit about teaching critical thinking.
He says, “I suspect that when we say we’ll teach critical thinking, we do mean we’ll help strengthen students’ gift of discernment. But I worry that instead of discernment, they’re mostly learning dismissiveness.
After all, we teachers of critical thinking tend to place a high value on students’ ability to see through or reject a bad argument. So is it any surprise when students rush to reject things? When they take pride in their ability to scorn?
And maybe we’re not as vigilant as we should be in pointing out that just because one person made a bad argument for something doesn’t mean the principle itself is bad. So should we be surprised that students often use their critical thinking skills to find some dirt in the bathwater and promptly throw out the baby?”
He recommends an approach called Thorough Thinking, in which, instead of finding out what is flawed in the argument and rejecting it, we should to try to see the issue from multiple sides. We practice thinking charitably and with empathy. And then, at least if we don’t agree with the conclusion that others have made, we can still understand the forces that led them to choose it. We can have softer hearts and kinder words for people with whom we don’t agree.
Criticism Mutes the Spirit
The church is one place where I especially feel like “critical thinking” is a bad idea. (Don’t quote that sentence out of context, please). When a person approaches everything critically, it is difficult to feel the Spirit. I remember a fireside when I was a junior in High School. We were down at the river-bottoms church, and this woman was talking about women in the scriptures or in history or something. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her talk. I can remember her multiple grammar errors, her over-the-top enthusiasm which I found very insincere, and her strange facial expressions. I thought it was totally hilarious to watch her and a little bit beneath me to be there. On the way out the door, I overheard a sweet friend say, “The Spirit was so amazing in there! It was like a blanket that covered everything”; her friend agreed, “I know. That was awesome.” I suddenly felt very shafted. Why wasn’t I under that blanket? How had I missed that amazing spirit? I was in the same room. I went home and prayed to know why He left me out of the amazing Spirit that night. The Spirit taught me that my critical heart was impossible to penetrate.
I know that I am not the only one who has critiqued a lesson or sacrament meeting talk, and I still do it occasionally. But again, it doesn’t take a genius to find something wrong with what people do. It takes a genius to filter out mortal imperfection and find the message that the Lord intended for you. No one is perfect in the church. And we are all volunteers. There is an ugly arrogance involved in criticizing people who have sacrificed their time, effort and personal comfort for free to teach a lesson or give a presentation. It breaks my heart to see people go in the back of the room and wonder if they have failed because people turned their noses up at the lesson or musical number or sharing time. Maybe it really wasn’t a very good lesson or well thought-out, but that doesn’t matter. The example of self-sacrifice and willingness to be obedient is commendable. A little gushing over someone’s effort is never out of place.
I was in a Stake Primary meeting once when the presenter was so nervous and scattered that it was difficult to get much out of her actual presentation. But she had decorated the whole room, included favors and handouts for the participants, and put hours worth of effort into her presentation. I was inspired by her level of commitment, and that spoke to me more than the verbal message she gave. She inspired me to be more thoughtful in my own calling. (And yes, I see you, former me, judging her for putting so much energy into her presentation on “froofy” things. That’s exactly what I am talking about. We have to let people serve however they are willing to serve. That doesn’t mean I have to make froofy things, but I mustn’t fault others for having a different talent to share.)
Judas the Critic
But then again, even if someone did give a perfect talk or lesson critics could still find something wrong with them. Christ was perfect and people hated and judged him. In fact, some of his 12 apostles were “critical thinkers”. Just before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, he was visiting some friends in Bethany and a woman came in with “an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box and poured it on his head.
And his apostles, especially Judas Iscariot, were indignant that she was wasting this precious ointment when it could have been sold for at least 300 pence and then they could give that money to the poor. “And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.” (And also, I think it might have been Jesus’ birthday. Serious.)
Perhaps Judas was remembering how Jesus told the rich young man to go and sell everything he had and give it to the poor. He had written that previous injunction down as the rule and any deviation was wrong. Maybe he just didn’t want to be interrupted by this lady. Maybe she was clumsy and she literally broke the alabaster box and then had to scramble to anoint Christ’s head. In any case, he judged that what she was doing was wrong. He knew better.
Judas was so much smarter, in fact, that he had the guards arrest Jesus to “lead him away safely”. That line, combined with the fact that Judas tried to give the money back once he realized that they were actually going to kill him, makes me think that Judas thought he was doing Christ a favor. Jesus was being swarmed and threatened all over Jerusalem; and Judas, the critical thinker, was trying to get him out of the masses. “Just spend a night in jail and everything will calm down”. He knew better.
And this is why “critical thinking” in the context of church gets people off-track: Jesus is never wrong. Even if one day he says “sell all you have and give it to the poor” and the next day he lets 300 pence of spiknard be rubbed in his hair, he’s still right because he knows exactly what is going in to each situation. When He says, “thou shall not kill” and then a few centuries later, “Kill Laban, it’s the only way”, He’s still right. And when His servants, the Prophets, speak for Him, they aren’t wrong either. Even if you think you know better.
Criticism of the Prophet
We’ve become such adherents of the scientific method and proof and historical fact, that many are losing the ability to feel the Spirit to anchor their testimony. They say “Feelings can’t be trusted because they can’t be proved”. But the Holy Ghost works through the feelings of our hearts and the impressions of our minds. Those are two places without a lot of quantifiable data. And you simply can’t know how powerful and convincing those feelings are until you actually experience them. You can’t share that experience–it only comes personally through the Holy Ghost. But I am telling you, with all of the data within me, that it is true. And it is so wonderful to believe without having incontrovertible proof.
The Millenial Star had an article about the effects of intellectual reliance for our testimonies. The author listed four “Trojan Horses” that are making their way into the church through this brand of intellectualism–these critical thinkers. The article is dense, but interesting. I recommend it. Briefly, his points are:
- Overemphasizing the importance of personal revelation.
- Overemphasizing the importance of “thus saith the Lord”.
- Overemphasizing the importance of church history.
- Overemphasizing the fallibility of prophets.
All of these things are important parts of the gospel, but overemphasizing any of them leads away from Priesthood authority and the hierarchy of the church. It allows people to say, “I don’t agree. I know better. And my opinion is just as valid as the Prophet’s”. Disregarding the need for a Prophet because someone feels that they can get the exact same information on their own through the Spirit places a person squarely in the pre-Restoration mindset. There are loads of other churches out there without a prophet; having a prophet is what makes the Latter-Day Saint Church remarkable. President Monson and the Apostles are one of Heavenly Father’s greatest gifts to us. Because honestly, we don’t know better. It’s a blessing to have a guide.
My pondering about this has led me in two directions: 1) Thorough Thinking, which is considering all sides, and being compassionate while still staying true to what I feel and believe is true, is the best way to approach differences of opinion. And 2) Spiritual matters can not be held to the same scrutinizing process as is required in academics, politics, medicine or any of the other sciences. This in-depth critical analysis is necessary in those fields, but when it comes to the things of the Spirit, we already have the right answer. The question is whether we are willing to act on it.