How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs. Currency, 2017. $23.00. 160 pp.
By Trevor Binkley
I recently finished reading the excellent little book by Alan Jacobs titled How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. In this post I will review some of the highlights of the book and make some applicational comments along the way.
Towards the beginning of the book Jacobs quotes T. S. Eliot: “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend to substitute emotion for thoughts.” (22) In our emotionally charged and polarized world it certainly seems that Eliot was right on target. It is grieving that in our cultural moment disagreeing with someone comes with a knee jerk emotional response and a painting of the other person as the slimiest demogorgon imaginable. Why do we react to things we do not understand the way we do?
Since we cannot possibly think about every decision we need to make in a given day our survival depends on having groups which help us to think. Jacobs writes, “Thinking independently, solitarily, ‘for ourselves,’ is not an option.” (39) People learn to think in groups and that is a good and necessary thing. The problem comes when someone from a different group shares an idea which is opposed to the thinking of my group. When that happens our default tendency is to react emotionally rather than thoughtfully.
To add just a bit of complication to this question Jacobs goes on to show that the answer is not some imaginary pure rationalism. There is no such thing as pure rationalism because our thinking in unavoidably bound up with our emotions. Even if it were possible to become purely rational the lack of emotions would be dangerous: “we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve the cognitive load. … And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world …. These people will provide for you models of how to treat those who disagree with them.” (87)
“One of the classic ways to do this is to seek out the best—the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded-representatives of the positions you disagree with.” (75) In so doing we need to ensure that we are actually listening to their arguments rather than just “lumping.” (113) “Lumping” is when we hear an idea but instead of listening carefully and engaging in the arguments for that idea we just lump it together with other previously dismissed ideas. Once again, Jacobs acknowledges the fact that we all need to do some of this “lumping,” but thoughtless, reactionary “lumping” needs to be avoided. To do so we must learn “The Value of Splitting,” that is, “the disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work.” (121)
Let me illustrate this idea: if certain words or headlines instantly make us feel uncomfortable, then chances are we are “lumping.” When this happens we need to slow down and reject our preconceived ideas about what is being communicated. In Christian circles some trigger words might be “election,” “free will,” “predestination,” “amillennialism,” “submission,” etc. If any of those words make you uncomfortable simply by reading them then the group you are a part of has taught you to enter “Refutation Mode” upon hearing terms which are not on your group’s safe list. (18)
A great test for determining if your group has healthy thinking practices is laid out by Jacobs: “You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude towards ideas from the outgroups. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the ‘wrong’ website open in your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, ‘I can’t believe you’re reading that,” this, says Jacobs, is “not a good sign.” (138) To apply this to the Christian community — are there specific authors or theological topics which are taboo in your group?
Obviously not everyone has the time or the training to engage in the myriads of theological differences, discussions, and disputes which take place in Christendom. But I am a firm believer that pastors and leaders who continually reside in “Refutation Mode” regarding those they disagree with are in sin. I realize that is a bold claim and I am happy to discuss it should you want to push back on this idea. What possible excuse could there be for someone who is called to be an under-shepherd of Christ’s flock to be engaging in ignorant and divisive “lumping” of other under-shepherds and Christians who disagree with them into a category of things unworthy to think about?
To put it another way, if you cannot explain the other person’s position in words which they would applaud then you do not really understand what they believe. For Christians the first step must always be to accurately understand what another Christian is claiming the Bible says about the topic being discussed. To preemptively write someone off without actually understanding how they are deriving their arguments from the text of Scripture is to soar to the utmost heights of hubris.
By all means pastors should teach according to their convictions regarding how to understand the text they are preaching, but to refuse to interact with the views of those under a different conviction on secondary issues is to ignore Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the church in John 17. Additionally, doing so seems to be a clear sign that those pastors have stopped thinking, at least in any meaningful sense of the word.
We would all be wise to heed Jacobs’ warning, “Thinking does not have a destination, a stopping point, a ‘Well, we’re finally here.’ To cease thinking … is an act either of despair — ‘I can’t go any further’ — or of presumption — ‘I need not go any further.'” (151)
In sum, I highly recommend this very thoughtful book and hope it helps many to reflect on their considerations and cogitations so as to grant them generosity in their deliberations when contemplating the meditations of fellow believers.