Gospel & Universe

Churches of Thought

This page argues that agnosticism is a form of critical thinking, and that this mode of thinking is stronger in the Church of Scholarship than in the Church of Religion (although these churches are often alike).

Critical Thought - The Metaphor of Churches - Core & Secondary Messages

Critical Thought

Like critical thinking in general, agnosticism is an attempt to tear away the veils that separate us from truth, with a small t. Agnosticism might be seen as a form of critical thought, a parallel to critical thought, or a philosophical and theological exploration of critical thought.

Critical thinking and agnosticism are both disinterested, perhaps even ruthless examinations of the world as it is -- and not as one's upbringing or predisposition imagines or desires it to be. Yet critical thinking is an even broader concept, for it can exist within a variety of philosophic and practical contexts -- that is, within a variety of contexts in which the thinker strives to be impartial and rigorous.


The Metaphor of Churches

Speaking metaphorically, critical thinking abides in the church of scholarship, which has traditionally been located in secular schools, and especially in colleges and universities. The metaphor is useful, since this church of scholarship is an institution, as is the church of religion. And like the latter, it also has a set of values, and is subject to obsessions, fads, and biases. Often the biases of the two churches are related, which isn't surprising since both are creations and reflections of the societies in which they operate. For instance, only recently were women allowed to fully participate in university life. Only more recently have they been allowed into the highest levels of most protestant churches. Even now women aren't allowed into the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

While the church of scholarship bends according to fashion, it usually rights itself and gets back to its primary goal, which is to investigate impartially the many realms of science and art. Hindrances to objectivity include the corporate and personal interests that can warp the directions and applications of scholarship, and can determine in partial ways the types of people a university accepts or promotes. This problem is common to all institutions, yet is of particular concern at a university, where the institution must encourage the unhindered and impartial exploration of technology and yet also prepare people for the companies and systems which use this technology. Other hindrances include relying too strongly on tradition, or discarding tradition too lightly in favour of recent trends. Like critical thinking, the church of scholarship thrives when it doesn't stick dogmatically to any formula or pre-determined outcome -- such as the promotion of any particular gender, class, economic theory, or political model. The only dogma that might be helpful is following reason, both in the sense of being rational, logical, and scientific, and in the sense of being reasonable, fair, practical, compassionate, and humane.

The School of Athens , Raphael, 1511

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1511

In general, fads and biases in the church of scholarship differ from those in the church of religion, whose aim is to explore and protect a pre-determined gospel. If, for instance, this gospel asserts or intimates the superiority of men over women, it's difficult to stay true to the original message of the gospel and yet remain fair and reasonable. The universities, on the other hand, don't have an unchangeable original message. They’re certainly not constrained to take seriously statements like that found in Ephesians 5:24: “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” The aim of universities, like that of agnosticism, is to explore reality, come what may. Their aim is to improve human life by rigorously confronting the questions and problems that life presents -- in the past, present, and future. As a result, the church of the university is, in general, more flexible than the church of religion in rejecting archaic ideas and in accommodating new forms of thinking.

The church of scholarship can at times be too open to new ways of thinking. At times the pendulum can swing too far – for instance, from outdated conservative ideas to faddish politically correct ideas. Yet the recent extremes to which some people have taken deconstructionpostcolonialism, or identity politics are only trends. Like previous trends, they’ll go through a winnowing process. Ideally or eventually, scholars will keep what's valuable and throw out the rest. For instance, deconstruction is a valid intellectual tool that contributed to a radical re-examination of discipline bias, yet this tool shouldn't be confused with the magical decoding ring some made it out to be in the late 20th Century. Likewise, equality of race and gender is an enormously important value, and a valid area of scholarship, yet it shouldn't be confused with silencing conservative or dissenting views.

Parody of Raphael's 'School of Athens'  by Joshua Reynolds, 1751, in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

Parody of Raphael's 'School of Athens' by Joshua Reynolds, 1751, in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

Both churches benefit society, yet the core philosophies -- otherworldly in religious churches and worldly in scholarly churches -- remain distinct. In general, the more true religious churches stay to their core message, the more they're considered churches. The more true universities stay to their goal of critical thinking, the less they can be called churches and the more they're called universities.

I like to think that the more expanded the thinking that goes on at a university, the closer it comes to being a universe city.

It's no surprise that the church of scholarship was once very close to the church of religion: most early universities were organized by religion and were a humanistic extension of the more religion-centred scholarship of the Middle Ages. It's also no surprise that as religious positions diverged around the 16th century, a form of secularism emerged that gave critical thinkers, scientists, and free thinkers a path to the Modern world.

The preacher continued to preach, yet his message was increasingly challenged by critical thinkers if it continued to champion myth over reason, if it continued to glorify a particular group of Elect believers over an increasing mass of dissenters and non-believers, and if it continued to privilege men over women, Caucasians over Africans or Asians, heterosexuals over homosexuals, or any one group of people over another. In this sense, critical thinking, secularism, and democracy went hand in hand.  


Core & Secondary Messages

The aims of critical thinking and religion appear the same — truth — yet because critical thinkers and religious thinkers define truth so differently, the similarity is in some ways an illusion. I say in some ways because the illusion applies more to primary core messages or doctrine then to secondary messages or morality. The core messages of religion are already revealed. For instance, the Jewish people had a special covenant with God, and Jesus is the Son of God. These are already fixed and hence don't resemble the ever-changing, many-headed primordial beasts still encountered in the scholarly realm. Yet the moral integrity of the secondary messages — striving for truth and respecting truth — are strikingly similar. Of course, they take many directions, yet, even then, many of these are parallel. Religious and secular people both approach the world with an altruistic aim – to see what's true or right, and to act with discipline and understanding. For instance, if one reads in the Bible that one shouldn't steal, one feels compelled to follow this moral code. Likewise, if one learns in a science text that the environment is in danger, one feels compelled to do something about it. Religious thought may be otherworldy and spiritual yet it isn't detached from caring for others; indeed, much religious instruction is moral rather than doctrinal. Likewise, critical thought may be detached and intellectual, yet it isn't disinterested in its relation to people and the issues affecting them. 

Despite this unifying morality, the core messages of religion and critical thought remain distinct, and this leads to at least one major different effect. While religious messages stay the same and hence for some are able to offer a stable and comforting Truth, critical thinking doesn't necessarily lead to comfort, seldom finds stable truths, and never leads to an overwhelming, all-encompassing Truth with a capital T. There may be excitement in exploring new directions and new ways of being, yet there's also danger and anxiety. Not everyone feels comfortable charting new courses. While there may be a sort of ruthless comfort in distancing oneself from merely hopeful or opportunistic philosophies (which can give comfort with one hand and steal authenticity with the other), there is also angst and alienation to deal with. This isn't to say that religion is always comforting: some feel a Jesuit sort of pressure to act in saintly ways, and some feel an intense and inalienable guilt because of the difficulty of acting like a saint. There’s also an uncomfortable emphasis on sin, which is hard to get rid of historically, since it goes back at least to Augustine's doctrine of original sin, and hard to get rid of personally, since it's often inculcated at an early age. Yet there's also repentance and redemption, which releases the sinner from guilt and anguish. Critical thinkers, like agnostics and atheists, must live without this miraculous release from the imperfect world.

While religious thinking claims to lead to Truth with a capital T, agnosticism and critical thinking never claim to have even sighted such a Truth. Agnosticism and critical thinking may not lead directly to truth, even with a small t, yet they point in it's general direction.



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