Thinking is really hard. Changing your mind is nearly impossible. Not only are human beings biased, stubborn and slow, but modern discourse has become so clipped, polarised and rancorous, so wedded to certain beliefs and the identity they entail that the genuine questioning of those beliefs becomes supremely difficult. And yet there is hope.
So argues How To Think: A Guide for the Perplexed (Profile Books, £10.99), by Alan Jacobs, a distinguished essayist and English professor at Baylor University, Texas. But if a book about thinkingsounds intimidating or oppressively academic, fear not. Jacobs is a remarkably accessible writer: witty, winsome and wise; swift in style while deep in study. This book should be recommended to any thinking person, whatever background – but its lessons also have profound implications for the Church.
The book is alternatively subtitled 'A Survival Guide for a World at Odds', which helpfully captures the sharply divided nature of much contemporary discourse. Jacobs is so helpful in part because he diagnoses the problem with so much of our conflict: a failure to properly think.
But his book is not a doom-laden tome of despair. Drawing on a wealth of cultural sources, he explores the many subtle ways in which thinking (summarised as 'The power to be finely aware and richly responsible') can go awry, and how to do it better. One key insight: we can't think 'for ourselves', we can only think with others: 'Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly and wonderfully social...when people commend someone for "thinking for herself" they usually mean "ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of."'
He concludes with a 'thinking person's checklist', providing simple steps to wiser thought. Particularly for those who frequent online discourse, the list is a gift – though it may also convince you to spend less time online.
But the book is far more than just telling you how to be better at life, and it never comes across as patronising, partisan or judgmental. It would be easy for Jacobs to slip in the occasional point-scoring barb on a subject such as this, yet he remains remarkably restrained. This book won't tell you 'what' to think, it offers no explicit argument for certain political or religious positions and it relies on little previous understanding. Some might suspect Jacobs, as a Christian intellectual, to be quietly sneaking in a work of Christian apologetics, concluding that only 'God' makes sense of thinking, for example. But he does not, making his work eminently accessible. If Jacobs' theology shines through, it's insofar as he promotes principles of charity, generosity and humility as essential to what it means to be human.
Jacobs is a pedagogue more than a preacher, and one reads with the impression of a kindly professor who guides his students through a rigorous but gracious and frequently entertaining seminar on thinking well. He comments in one lesson: 'I've carried this metaphor as far as it can go...I need a new one', and his teacherly benevolence has a winsome, encouraging effect. This work insists on a disposition of clear-headed hope: 'working toward the truth is one of life's great adventures'. Learning how to think, Jacobs suggests, is not simply rightly activating our mental capacities, but a lifelong process of formation, becoming a certain kind of person.
The relevance of all this for the Church may not be surprising: any truths about public disagreement and the way we select our beliefs becomes only more pointed for Christian community, defined by its commitment to communal confession founded on both grace and truth. Those only vaguely familiar with church politics, within any tradition, will know that debate is frequently unkind and unconstructive. We fail to check our biases and frequently make our home within a given 'in-group', soon regarding theological outsiders as the 'repugnant cultural other'. We're quick to react, and value 'victory' over true debate. Labels take the place of loving relationship.
It's hard to read this book and conclude that Twitter, for example, is a particularly wholesome resource for the life of the church, let alone humanity. My experience is that it brings out the worst in people, and yet it appears to be the locus of so much 'public debate'. And as Andrew Wilson suggested at the Gospel Coalition, fervent conservative Christians may have the most to learn from Jacobs' instruction. The challenge for the church is therefore to seek out better modes and media for conversation, the kind that actually enable listening and learning, and which genuinely builds the other up rather than just knocking them down.
Thinking is hard. Underestimating the fact would be foolish, wallowing in its difficulty would be silly – which makes this a wise and thoroughly welcome book. If you're a human person who values thinking on any level, this book is for you.
'How to Think' is on sale now.
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