Trust and Critical Thinking

by Will Katerberg.

Take nothing for granted, I sometimes tell my students.

Don’t assume that what a primary source tells you is accurate and true. The author might be a liar or a dupe, have an agenda, or be misinformed. Put the document in context. Check it against other sources. Be skeptical, even suspicious, before you trust it. Keep your guard up even after you decide to trust it.

Use the same habits of critical thinking when you read modern historians, I advise them, including your textbooks. What shapes the author’s perspective? Does the book have an agenda? How does the author uses his or her sources? What is missing from the argument or story? Don’t take what I say in class for granted either, or the views of fellow students. Be skeptical about your own views too. Your own taken-for-granted biases are the ones most likely to fool you because they’re hardest to notice.

And yet, despite all this skepticism, I think that classrooms are communities of learning. They work best when students and teachers create bonds of trust with each other. These bonds do not mean taking any one person’s views for granted. Discussion, disagreement, exposing problems in in arguments, and finding places of common ground, however minimal, collectively can produce reliable knowledge. In the larger world of scholarship beyond the classroom, the “peer review” process does something similar.

black and white image of a church archway
Photo by Will Katerberg (2014).

But what about authoritative sources that we trust implicitly and as a matter of confession of faith? Should I not take some things for granted when, as a historian, I examine something like the Heidelberg Confession, the Nicene Creed, or John Calvin’s Institutes?

At least I should approach the Bible with trust, should I not? My parents read it to me as a child. I’ve heard thousands of sermons over the years. Its language and ideas shape the world in which I live, including the secular world. How can I not trust the Bible?

And yet, if I think of books like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as “history” how can I not analyze them the same way I do other history writings, especially in the classroom?

These won’t be abstract questions for me next winter, when for the first time I teach History 151, World History to 1500. I’ve been doing a lot reading and planning for that course over the summer.

Among other things, my students and I will cover the times and places associated with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Even if I try to avoid hard issues, students want to know how the history we’re studying fits with accounts in the Bible. The emergence of Judaism and Christianity are common components of world history courses, along with religious traditions such as Buddhism and Islam and indigenous practices and spirituality.

How do pictures of the universe and its creation, events like Noah’s flood, the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan, or ideas about the afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures compare to writings from Mesopotamia and Egypt and to the archeological record? What do we know about the composition of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, how they were collected into authoritative canons, when they were published as Bibles in ways that would look familiar to people today? Did early and medieval Christians read the same scriptures that we read today, and did they read and use them in the same that way we do?

The Bible that millions of American Christians take for granted is a neatly packaged item, as a physical object and an authoritative icon, compared to the messy realities that historical study reveals. This is true for many things that people take for granted. Our nation’s Constitution and its history. Science and reason. What it means to be a man or a woman. Close study of something’s history always reveals a messy reality.

That messy reality is always more interesting than the taken-for-granted package, in my experience. But critical, close analysis of something you cherish or honor can be a bruising, unnerving process. The habit of critical thinking changes you, even if it does not change many of the things that you believe.

This sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Why would anyone practice the habits of critical thinking? Why would a believer do so, whatever her or his religious tradition, community, sacred texts, or “age-old” practices? Is it worth the risk?

The habit of critical thinking might make sense for secular people, I can imagine a person reading this blogpost thinking, but it doesn’t for those who trust in something, especially the loyalties that define us most. Does this habit not sound like the roots of secularization, giving up trust in what God has revealed for human-centered reason and science? Perhaps. But once again, the history is messier than that.

One deep root of the skeptical, critical methods of thinking that I’ve been describing is Christian theology, the doctrine of the Fall into sin.

wood cut image showing a ship and the title of the book
Title page of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (Harvard University, Houghton Library)

In The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Peter Harrison shows that “aspirations to recover the science of Adam provided a common motivation” for important early modern scientific thinkers. “Francis Bacon had famously observed in his Novum Organum (1620) that the human dominion over nature which Adam had lost at the Fall could be restored in some measure by the sciences: ‘For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation.’”

In Bacon’s novum organum, or “new method,” we can see more than his suspicion. There is also hope. We also can see a trust in community. A community of thinkers, open to disagreement, skeptical and critical, committed to discussion and debate, seeking consensus where possible, would produce more reliable, less corrupt knowledge than those who take things for granted or do all their work alone as individuals.

The challenge lies in balancing trust and skeptical, even suspicious analysis. This balancing explains people’s outrage when a scholar is caught cheating, making up or distorting evidence, as in the case of a prominent Dutch social psychologist who produced dozens of fraudulent studies and an American historian who studied gun culture in the U.S. We worry not just about the cheater, but whether the process has failed. Is trust compatible with skepticism? Can it be restored with a community of peer reviewers fails or when someone cheats?

But back to the problem of not taking sacred texts and traditions for granted. What will happen in my History 151 classroom from February to May 2015? I don’t have an answer yet. My students and I will have to figure it out together as we go.

Further reading: In The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, Peter Enns describes how serious critical study of the Bible led him away from conservative evangelicalism towards a liberal Christianity. In The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy explore the historical complexities of scripture and redefine and defend the idea of  inerrancy.

This post is part of a series on Critical History and Sacred Tradition.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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