Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

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December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mystery of Iniquity

Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library.  We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story.  He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962) and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen.  Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.

The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives.  One piece particularly caught my attention.  A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.”  The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament.  As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture.  The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself.  Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.

Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture.  It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word.  I am not engaging in a counsel of despair.  I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.”  Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.

The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be ab.  The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.”  And here the mystery of iniquity enters.

I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible.  As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught.  And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened.  We must always remember this propensity in the human heart.  Lord, have mercy on us.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two-tiered Witness?

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has been holding me for weeks.  I’ve blogged already about Paul’s vulnerable, transparent witness: “You are our letters of commendation,” he says to the Corinthians (chapter 3).  Paul has no structural, organizational props for his ministry, just the effective witness of a life lived before others that he can point to it and say, “See here?  This [my life] is visible proof of God’s transforming work.”  I like it.  Or do I?

Then I read chapter 6: “We have commended [there’s that word again] ourselves in every way…” and then a long list of sufferings: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments,” and on and on.  Now, I’m not liking it.

Which prompted this thought: is there a qualitative difference between the witness of “regular” Christians and people called to full-time ministry and then, by extension, even more so for people in apostolic-like ministries of the sort that Paul had?  My question is too long, so let me try again.  Is there one set of witness/lifestyle expectations for regular Christians and another set for people in full-time ministry?

The standard Protestant answer is no.  We like to tout the priesthood of all believers, which I believe myself.  But then I start thinking about how a middle-class American guy with a wife and kids and job and other such commitments reads and hears Paul’s testimony.  What is God’s Word for that guy when he reads 2 Corinthians 6?  By the way, we evangelicals love 2 Cor. 6:2, “…now is the acceptable time [for salvation].”  It really preaches well in evangelistic settings.  But immediately following is this “commendation.”  Paul is challenging the Corinthians: “Look at my life.”  So, “now is the day of salvation” is connected to “look at my life.”

Maybe that is it.  Maybe the key is, “Look at my life.”  I live within a particular set of circumstances.  Am I a transparent Christian there, in that context?  Paul’s calling was his and mine is mine.  Different time, different circumstances, different callings.  Of course, it is true.  But then I start to worry a little that I am too-easily letting myself off the hook.  I’m not an apostle, after all.  I’m just a regular Christian.  God doesn’t expect that sort of witness from me.  Or you.

What did we just do to our reading of the Bible?  On the one hand, we should read carefully and not just woodenly lift “life principles” out of the text in some mechanistic way.  On the other hand, I’m concerned about how the trajectory of this sort of “interpretation” always seems to soften the call.

I think, in practical ways, we do have a two-tiered witness among even Protestant Christians.  We love reading about the Jim Elliotts and the Amy Carmichaels.  We are inspired by their passion for the Kingdom of God and their sacrificial commitments.  But…we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  So, when we read Paul talking about his sufferings, do we blunt God’s Word  to us by putting Paul in a different category?  He’s an apostle and we’re just regular Christians, after all.

Is there a de facto two-tiered witness among all Christians?  Is it OK that there is such, if there is?

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments