Beliefs have consequences. All other things being equal, false beliefs have worse consequences.
Pick any issue on which people are divided. It doesn’t matter what.
Whatever issue you picked, I will claim two bold axioms. First, both sides think they are right. Second, both sides passionately believe that facts, reason, and experience support their own position. These axioms apply not only to issues that separate believers from unbelievers. They apply equally to issues that separate believers from one another.
But what is the solution? Typically, we depend upon argument: the application of evidence, logic, and experience to support our position and refute the opposing one. But this rarely changes minds because the second axiom happens to be false. Invoking a popular quote loosely attributed to Jonathan Swift, “One cannot reason a man out of an opinion he was never reasoned into.” Our opinions are shaped by irresistible tides of tradition, social pressure, emotions, self-interest, and unseen spiritual forces that aim to deceive every one of us.
Back in 1994, historian Mark Noll grabbed the attention of many with his jeremiad, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In it, Noll charged, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Obviously, this did not sit well with some. Of all the criticism, the most trenchant was that Noll’s target was too small. The true scandal was that of the American mind, regardless of religious affiliation.
So, what constitutes sound Christian thinking? It’s tempting to settle for a pat answer, “thinking Biblically.” But what does that mean, exactly? Usually, efforts in that arena are much more about what to think than how to think. Others suggest Christians need to read more, get better educated, and learn critical thinking skills. Those are all helpful and worthy. Ironically, teaching people to think critically makes them much better at detecting the fallacies of others, but their own? Not so much.
In recent years, an emerging body of research in cognitive psychology has focused on several fundamental prerequisites for sound thinking, reaffirming what Scripture has taught for millennia. These can be summarized in eight simple principles.
1. The Christian Mind is Humble
Most practicing Christians have never heard of intellectual humility, yet it is the bedrock principle of sound thinking upon which all subsequent principles depend. It consists of three essential components: acknowledging, admitting, and avoiding.
- Acknowledging the limits of my knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
- Admitting the possibility that I could be wrong.
- Avoiding complacency and self-satisfaction by engaging in the practices which follow.
Intellectual humility is explicitly taught in Scripture:
“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.”Proverbs 3:7
“Do not be wise in your own opinion.”Romans 12:16
Intellectual humility is also the fundamental prerequisite of true wisdom:
“When pride comes, then comes shame; But with the humble is wisdom.”Proverbs 11:2
Research has shown that intellectually humble people are more agreeable, less polarized, less argumentative, and less adamant in their own opinions. Does this describe anyone you know? Does it describe you?
2. The Christian Mind Seeks Wisdom
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wisdom is the “capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends.” This serves as an apt description of both secular and Biblical wisdom. Solomon was hailed in Scripture as a man of superior wisdom – the one thing he asked of God upon assuming kingship. Much of the book of Proverbs is dedicated to teaching the principles of wisdom.
But how do we get wisdom? Surely, wisdom comes from the study of Holy Scripture, but not everyone who reads the Bible is automatically wise. He must understand it, believe it and apply it. Furthermore, wisdom is rather domain-specific. A solid grounding in the Bible doesn’t automatically make one wise about healthcare, science, economics, or public policy.
We are instructed to pray for wisdom:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”James 1:5
This sounds very much like a promise, “ask, and it shall be given to you.” But there’s a caveat:
“But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.”James 1:6
The term translated “doubting” is the Greek diakrino (διακρίνω), and it means to prefer, to dispute, or to contend. In other words, approaching with a humble and teachable spirit. Asking for wisdom when your mind is already made up gets you nowhere. Intellectual humility is the bedrock of Christian thinking.
There’s more to wisdom than just asking, even with a humble heart. We are instructed to apply ourselves:
“Study and do your best to present yourself to God approved, a workman [tested by trial] who has no reason to be ashamed, accurately handling and skillfully teaching the word of truth.”2 Timothy 2:15, Amplified
“A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.”Proverbs 1:5
Besides intellectual humility, contemporary research has identified two key attitudes that are conducive to obtaining wisdom. The first is something known as a “growth mindset.”
The concept of “mindset” was elaborated by Carol Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford. She defined two types. A “fixed” mindset assumes intelligence is static and cannot be improved. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, ignore criticism, resent the success of others, and ultimately fail to reach their life potential. A “growth” mindset believes intelligence can be developed, seeks new knowledge, embraces challenges, perseveres through setbacks, learns from criticism, and ultimately attains a higher level of achievement. Nearly every Scriptural injunction to grow in our faith presupposes a “growth mindset.”
A second attribute conducive to wisdom is an attitude of curiosity. Curious people are less likely to be complacent with their current level of knowledge and understanding and have an internal drive to learn and understand more. Of course, curiosity can be misdirected: we’re not talking here about looking for secret number codes in the Pentateuch.
3. The Christian Mind is Discerning
It is a poor witness to the fallen world when the disciples of Christ are known not for their wisdom but for their gullibility. Yet, survey after survey shows high levels of acceptance when it comes to conspiracy theories or other popular myths.
“Also do not take to heart everything people say,Ecclesiastes 7:21
Lest you hear your servant cursing you.”
“…that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting”Ephesians 4:14
I have written elsewhere at length on the subject of Christians and conspiracy theories, pointing out the various causes and why they resonate with us. Of course, conspiracy theories are but one aspect of this problem. We are inclined to believe false rumors about people we know and about people we don’t know. We are easy prey for hucksters promoting quack remedies and easy fixes. We fall for slick presentations and compelling, confident-sounding speakers selling bad products, bad policy, and bad theology.
Humans are trusting by nature; skepticism takes a good bit more effort and discipline. Those least well-versed in a subject are the easiest to fool – and there are lots of people out there seeking to fool you. Not all who aim to deceive are human, by the way. It is indisputably taught in Scripture that Satan’s primary tool is deception. We are warned repeatedly against succumbing to his lies, which go far beyond mere doctrine:
“Satan’s chief objective is not to sow false doctrine, but hatred, division, and conflict. He doesn’t care what we believe, so long as we are at each other’s throats. We make it too easy for him.”Superbia, p. 258
Jonathan Edwards declared our surest defense against the lies of the evil one:
“Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.”
4. The Christian Mind is not Lazy
When was the last time you heard a sermon on sloth? Me neither. Yet, in the formulation of the early church, Sloth was regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. Though you are more likely to hear of the overextended, frantically busy, or workaholic adult or student, they are the outliers. According to the American Time Use Survey, across the span of a day, the average American spends more hours in leisure and sports than working. Those hours spent watching television, surfing the web, or engaging with social media add up quickly. On the other hand, we read less than 16 minutes per day. If we’re honest, most of us have the time to read more.
“Study and be eager and do your utmost to present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth.”2 Timothy 2:15, Amplified
But there’s another form of laziness which is much more subtle. In the best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman described two ways of thinking that he labeled “System 1” and “System 2.” System 1 is quick, effortless, intuitive thinking that is characterized by snap decisions and judgments. System 2 describes careful, methodical, analytical thinking. “Thinking slowly,” in other words. Guess which one we use the most? Guess which one leads to better decisions and more informed opinions? System 2 thinking is superior in most cases but requires effort, and our minds – like our bodies – are naturally lazy. The technical term is “cognitive reflection,” as taught in Scripture:
“He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him.”Proverbs 18:13
“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”John 7:24
Take time to think. Our brains need exercise, too.
5. The Christian Mind Learns from Others
Both intellectual humility and the pursuit of wisdom demand that we consider the opinions, advice, and arguments of others, particularly of those with whom we disagree.
In the area of cognitive psychology, this is known as “actively open-minded thinking.” Having an “open mind” acquired a bad reputation in the late 20th century because it was so often wielded by apostles of liberalism and the sexual revolution. But we must not jettison a principle of sound thinking merely because it was misused by some. It is, after all, taught explicitly in Scripture:
“A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.”Proverbs 1:5
“For by wise counsel you will wage your own war, and in a multitude of counselors there is safety.”Proverbs 24:6
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”James 3:17, ESV [emphasis added]
As the 1787 Constitutional Convention grew to a close, its outcome remained very much in doubt. According to witnesses present, many fence-sitters were inspired to vote for ratification following the closing speech by American statesman Benjamin Franklin. In a famous excerpt, Franklin described quite succinctly the principle of actively open-minded thinking:
“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”
6. The Christian Mind is Watchful of Emotions
Several decades of research have established beyond any reasonable doubt that emotions influence our beliefs and decisions more powerfully than any other factor. We form beliefs and make decisions based on what enhances our ego, what satisfies our desire, or what soothes our anger. We are more willing to believe people that we like or admire and more resistant to those we dislike or find unattractive.
Scripture warns against letting emotions cloud our judgment:
“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath”James 1:19
“Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded”Titus 2:6
The antidote to emotionally flawed judgment is, paradoxically, not to suppress our emotions but to become more aware of them, so as to recognize when they are operative.
This principle underscores the danger of time spent watching television, YouTube, TikTok, or other social media. All of these exist to make money through advertising. Ad revenue is based on the audience size, and these businesses employ sophisticated algorithms carefully programmed to identify your vulnerabilities and keep you online as long as possible. They pull you in, not by appealing to your refined intellect, but by serving up material that keeps you entertained, titillated, or angry. You don’t need that.
7. The Christian Mind Honor’s God’s Word
Okay, this principle didn’t emerge out of contemporary psychology. All the ones I’ve listed so far would be sound principles of thinking for any religious faith or none at all. Only from Scripture and our relationship with God can anything emerge that might be uniquely Christian.
According to orthodox Protestant tradition, the Word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Therefore, the Bible commands authority over matters of theology, morality, and doctrine. Any truth claim that directly contradicts the express meaning of Scripture is to be rejected. This means more than just intellectual agreement:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”James 1:22
The Christian mind takes the principles of truth contained in Scripture and then endeavors to live in accordance.
This principle can be misapplied. Without intellectual humility and open-minded thinking, it’s tempting to think that our interpretations are infallible and charge those who disagree with us of “rejecting God’s word.” I know because I’ve seen it. We all have. But it’s fundamentally dishonest – and rooted in intellectual pride.
8. The Christian Mind Respects Tradition
Some traditions and teachers scoff at tradition and claim it should have no role in the thought life of a believer, but this is both untrue and impractical. Tradition is simply the passing down of teaching from one generation to the next, and there’s no escaping it. Basic Christian beliefs, such as the orthodox formulation of the Trinity, did not appear fully formed at Pentecost. They were certainly inchoate in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament but did not emerge fully formulated until after several church-wide councils in the early centuries of Christianity.
As for rejecting tradition, Paul taught quite the opposite:
“I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”I Corinthians 11:2
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”2 Thessalonians 2:15
Respecting tradition serves as a safeguard against “presentism,” or “chronological snobbery,” defined by C. S. Lewis as “The uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
Our world is awash in information and disinformation. It may never have been more difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood. The most successful deceptions appeal to our innate pride, and once hooked, our pride prevents us from ever realizing or admitting we were tricked. In the pursuit of truth, humility is our greatest friend; out of it flow all the other principles of sound Christian thinking.
The Christian Mind:
- Is humble.
- Seeks wisdom.
- Is discerning.
- Is not lazy.
- Learns from others.
- Is watchful of emotions.
- Honors God’s word.
- Respects tradition.