Thinking about thinking. It's the best definition I know for critical thinking. In this episode we talk about asking fundamental questions and figuring out what we truly believe based on evidence.
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Be good and do good.
In today’s episode we discuss thinking about the right things, and I tell you why I use a double-sided razor. It makes sense, I promise.
About ten years ago, I was in Sam’s Club, and I was looking for razors. At the time, I was using the Gillette Fusion. It has five blades, and I thought I would be able to save myself a few bucks at the warehouse store. I knew I would probably have to buy a year supply, but the cost savings over time was worth it. There it was. Sixteen replacement blades, $59.99. Not bad, I thought. I could get about a month out of one blade, so sixteen would shave me for a little over a year. Then the math guy in my head started crunching numbers. One replacement would be $3.75. Okay. That’s fine. I passed by another set of blades. Sixteen replacements, $20. Yeah, well, those blades were trash. Sure, they were only $1.25 a blade, but it’s $1.25 just down the toilet. Why? Well, they just were. The Fusion had five blades, and you can’t really put a value on that fifth blade, can you? This other set had three. Five versus three. No comparison, really. So I told math guy in my head to shut up, we were getting the Fusion. This is done. As I went down the aisles looking at everything we needed and a bunch of stuff we didn’t, I began listening to myself rationalize different choices. Ten dollars a pound for steak? That’s too much. Pork at 2 dollars pound? Pork it is. Men’s shorts for $22, no way but $12? Sold! But despite telling the math guy to shut up, he just wouldn’t. “You know even if you went through 2 blades a month with the other, you would still come out way ahead,” he said. Okay, we’re done with this. It’s in the cart. The shaving experience with the Fusion is simply superior. It has more blades. It’s an amazing shaving experience. We’re buying Fusion. Case closed. But math guy wasn’t listening. And then math guy asked a really important question. What are you really buying? Are you buying a shaving experience or are you buying something else? Are you buying image? Are you buying colors? Are you buying something that looks like it’s techy? Are you buying what everybody else is buying? Or are you buying hair off your face? I still walked out with the Fusion blades. At this point, I was trying to put math guy in his place. But math guy asked the most important questions. Math guy asked me to think about some decisions I make all the time and then asked me why.
When we grow up spiritually, one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is why we believe what we say we do. While the first part of spiritual maturity is knowing the right things, thinking the right things is different. My argument in knowing the right things is you simply need to keep learning. When we think we have all the answers, we probably don’t even know all the questions. When I was a single guy, I thought raising children was difficult, but not complex. Now that I have children, I’m happy to tell 20-year-old Kenny he was clueless. He was well-meaning, he had some facts, but he wasn’t even remotely in a place to know how the dynamics change. He simply needed more information. I’m sorry to be so harsh to him, but he needed to keep learning. That’s knowing the right things.
But thinking the right things is analyzing, meditating, discriminating and internalizing. It’s taking the facts you got while you were learning the right things and seeing what you’ll choose to make stick. These aren’t the same process, but they’re related.
When thinking about the right things, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. What do we think we know, or how do we understand it? What evidence do we have? What are the important bits to understand and what’s safe to ignore? And how important is it in general?
Mark Twain is credited with saying “what gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” We probably know we believe a lot of stuff which is untested or we just assume to be true. And based on those assumptions, we’ve put together a life which seems to work pretty well.
When I was in Sam’s, I was sure it was important which razor blade I was getting. I mean the Fusion system was the best a man can get. I knew that. A commercial told me that. No, I wouldn’t have consciously said that out loud. I would absolutely see the problem of being so persuaded by advertising copy. But I tried the razors and it got whiskers off my face. I liked the way it felt. I liked the outcome. And soon I was a Fusion guy. I bought it. I knew that for sure. Except, I never really tried much else.
Now I’m not saying choosing a razor and choosing a savior are the same thing, but I do think the process looks similar. You may have grown up with two parents who took you to church every week. I did. Christianity may have been what you did on Sunday. Your best friends may have been a pew or two away. And if that’s your story, that’s great. And if that’s not your story, that’s fine, too. We often choose to believe in God at a point in our lives when we don’t know very much. Our choice of life-changing philosophy sometimes comes down to who we like, getting good stuff and how it makes us feel. God gets mixed up with our relationship with our parents, our choice of friends, our social calendars, our political beliefs and the list goes on. Christianity is our tradition, a problem solver, or both. We like all the good stuff we can get from believing, so why not believe, or least say we do? And we’re not really lying, we’ve just never thought about it. Christianity is where your friends are, and if you lost the philosophy, you would lose your friends. Your life would be more complex. For example, I recently learned on the Jordan Peterson podcast that religious faith is one of the few effective treatments for alcoholics. It’s the foundation of the entire twelve-step plan. Alcoholics Anonymous goes to great lengths to not name God, but step two says “that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” So Christianity, or Christian-like behavior solves some real-world problems.
The benefits of Christianity are real, but just because you like what you get from being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship with Christ. Put another way, when I was growing up, I liked eating regularly, living in a comfortable home and having my clothes washed on a regular basis. But just because I liked the benefits of living in my mom and dad’s house didn’t mean I had a good relationship with mom and dad. Christianity can absolutely get you some great stuff. But the stuff isn’t enough. It’s not even the main thing. It’s the relationship that’s important. I mean, at some point, we simply outgrow living with mom and dad. Just like that, many Christians feel like once they get their problems solved and get the benefits of a moral social club, they’ve outgrown the need to believe in some old guy in the sky with a white beard. But they’ve missed the point. Outgrowing God is as silly as outgrowing a relationship with your parents. We don’t have the same relationship we had with our parents as children, and thank goodness. When I was a kid, I fought with my parents about stupid stuff. I thought I was smarter than I was. I thought I was richer than I was. I thought I was better than I was. But as an adult, I now know mom and dad better. I don’t agree with everything they did or do, but I understand them more and I love them more. And they know me. They know me really well. They know my habits, they know my flaws, they know where we disagree. And those disagreements don’t change how much I love them a bit or how much they love me. It’s helpful to have someone disagree with me who I know is in my corner. They’re not fighting to fight, they’re fighting to make me better. It’s hard to hate someone who loves you that much.
In John 6, Jesus did a miracle and fed 5,000 people with very little food. It was hardly enough food for five, much less 5,000 and yet Jesus fed everybody and had leftovers. Later he saw some were following because they got free food, so he told them you have to believe in the person who can create a feast from famine. The food is nice, but it’s temporary. It’s a side effect of being in a relationship with God, but it’s not the same thing. Look, if you’re only coming to Christ for the free food, for a moral social club or to fix some problem you have, your belief is no different than your belief in the Rotary Club or the Red Cross. Christianity becomes an organization that relies on you. It thrives when you support it. It becomes just another organization which needs members like you. But the heart of Christianity is this: God doesn’t need you. You need God. God knows you. God knows all your faults, he knows when you disagree with him, he knows when you think you’re smarter than him, and he disagrees with you it’s precisely because he loves you and to make you better. He’s in your corner not because he has to be, but because he wants to be. He doesn’t want your stuff or your dues or your name on a membership roll. He wants you. Look, without its members, the Rotary Club vanishes, the Red Cross dries up. Without you, God is just fine. But you with God is much better.
So, if you need to be thinking about the right things let me ask you do you believe in God? Don’t answer that quickly. Think about it. I think one of our problems is we know the right answer. You know you should say yes. I mean you’re listening to a Christian podcast, but is it true? Do you really believe? If you aren’t sure, that’s fine. It’s a great place to start. Some of the best Christians have doubts. And if you don’t, say so. And if you do...then why?
Thinking about the right things means you’re a critical thinker, and critical thinkers look for evidence. They don’t fear evidence, but they also realize once you find it, you have to interpret it. If I see footprints in my back yard, does it mean a thief was sizing up the house to rob us or the guy was coming by to read our electric meter? Or if Gillette says Fusion is the best a man can get, how are they defining best? How do I know it really is what they say it is?
The study of the evidence for God’s existence is called apologetics. There are dozens of excellent writers who have tackled this subject and, frankly, I can’t do justice to what they’ve done. C. S. Lewis wrote a couple important books about this. More contemporary writers include Lee Strobel, Norman Giesler and Josh McDowell. The apostle Paul in I Corinthians gave reasons why he believed. In short, there are good, compelling reasons to believe in God and that Jesus is His son. Part of this goes back to knowing the right things. In order to decide whether you believe in something, you need to go back and examine the evidence you have and the most reasonable interpretation of that evidence. You have to continue to learn and re-examine what you think you know. You also have to be open to changing the way you think based on what you find out. For example, as I’m recording this, the world is grappling with coronavirus. There is a large group of people who believe there’s a benefit wearing masks and there is another group who doubts that. One of those groups is right and one is wrong, but for right now, we’re don’t really know for sure. In other words, we don’t know why we believe what we do. There is some evidence both for and against, but the safer route is to wear the masks. For the record, I don’t think they do much good. But I’m not sure, and I don’t mind putting one on.
However, it’s important to find out the truth, both in wearing masks and the existence of God. Knowing the reasons changes your reactions and your relationships.
We can also both look at the same evidence, come to different conclusions and both be right. Huh? Yeah. You may remember in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas had a fight over John Mark. John Mark was a traveling companion and a relative of Barnabas. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas were planning their next trip to help grow churches and they had to decide whether to bring John Mark with them or not. Paul reminded Barnabas that John Mark had abandoned them in their last trip, and Barnabas wanted to bring him anyway. Who was right? We aren’t certain why John Mark left, but my gut tells me he was homesick or just tired of being on the road. I don’t really know, but I can hear Paul saying something like “he abandoned us last time and we can’t really take a chance on that again. There’s too much at stake.” Then I can hear Barnabas say, “yes, he made a mistake, but he was young, he really should be given a second chance.” Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Well, Paul is right, their mission was important and they needed to give their best. And Barnabas is right, John Mark is nothing more than someone who made a mistake. He deserves a second chance. They both had the same evidence, and from a certain point of view, they are both right. Some conclusions are exactly like this. We don’t need to vilify people who disagree with us. Thoughtful, smart, and well-intentioned people may come to different conclusions. One may be wrong, both may be wrong, but both may also be right. Stephen Covey once said, ““Two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. It’s not logical; it’s psychological.”
Further, as you sift through evidence, as a good critical thinker, you need to figure out what’s important and what’s not. For example, precision isn’t always important. In class, I often ask students if they would prefer a detailed map or a simplified map to get from one place to another. Almost unanimously, students will say they want the detail. The more information the better. However, if you need to find out how to get from my house to the post office, which would you rather hear? Take a left out of the driveway, go 1200 yards to Main Street, travel 300 yards to the stop sign. Proceed straight, and then go to the next stop sign. Proceed straight through the stop sign, then proceed to the next stop sign and proceed 400 yards and the post office will be on the left before Bird Street. Or would you rather I said take a left at the McDonald’s and go about half a mile. The post office will be on the left. The simpler directions told you the stop signs were unimportant. Were the directions precise? Well, they were precise enough to get you there, but you didn’t really need to know about each and every stop sign. You didn’t need precise distances. You just needed to know when you needed to act and when it was okay to keep doing what you’re doing.
In Corinthians, Paul emphasizes to the Christians the importance of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus tells us the law and the prophets is summed up in loving God and others. In other words the writers let us know there are parts of Christianity which are pivotal. And there are parts of Christianity, which are confusing or for which we have no clear answers. Part of growing up spiritually and thinking about the right things is figuring out which debates need to be fought, and which need to be left alone. Not all subjects are created equal. We can debate forever about how God knows the future. Does He create the future or does he predict the future? I don’t know, and I don’t think it makes much difference. I have reasonable evidence He exists. I have good reasons to believe Jesus is His son and was resurrected. I know I have a choice on whether I do the next right thing or not, and I’ve got a good idea of what those things are. Past that, the debate isn’t very important. It becomes background noise. Could my beliefs change? I hope so. If not, I’m not being intellectually honest. If they can’t, I’ve stopped thinking, and I’ve stopped thinking about thinking.
So I came home with the Gillette Fusion that day. But the math guy asked me to think deeper. He asked important questions that made me think about thinking. He asked me why I believed what I did. He asked me to question what I thought I knew. I don’t buy Gillette Fusion now. I found I didn’t really care what image I had about shaving and what I really wanted was the whiskers off my face. I did a little research and ended up simplifying in a huge way. I went back to an old double-sided safety razor you might see in the 1950s. One blade lasts about 3-4 weeks and costs about a nickel. I bought a thousand blades in bulk, which, according to my calculations, should last about 83 years. A lifetime supply for the same $60 which got me 16 blades ten years ago. You may think that’s weird or unusual and I figured out that doesn’t bother me. I’ve asked myself the important questions and I’ve got good reasons for choosing what I did. I also don’t think choosing a razor is all that important. It’s just one less decision I have to make and a little less money I have to spend. I came to a conclusion about shaving and I know why I believe. So when it comes to shaving or God, what do you believe? Why?