One thing I have learned from studying history with my students is that critical thinking of past heroes’ work is not popular.
My 7th graders and I just learned about the history of science. It was fascinating to see that when a scientist made an important discovery, people believed they were right in every other area of science. For example, because Isaac Newton discovered gravity, they believed every other statement he made about science to be true, without testing the theory themselves. People refused to think critically about acclaimed scientists’ ideas, causing everyone to believe false theories for generations.
When a brave scientist did have the audacity to question a false theory and through experiments prove it wrong, many refused to accept it. Even if it was repeatedly proven to be false.
After years of not admitting the flaws of scientists like Aristotle and Newton, scientists finally learned to look at previous scientists’ work with a critical eye. They began accepting or rejecting theories as they tested each one using the scientific method. Science then flourished.
As I learned the history of science, I saw the resemblance to the Christian church. I realized we have been doing the same thing for generations. I see us holding up previous church leaders’ ideas, realizing how great some of their theology was, but refusing to admit their mistakes. We fail to test their ideas on the Christian’s scientific method: The Bible.
This has been repeated throughout history. Menno Simons, the man Mennonites are named after, was persecuted for looking at his forefathers’ teachings critically. He stood against the false teachings of the Catholic Church and many despised him for it.
Why do we hold him as a good example, yet are terrified of doing the same? If anyone dares to question the theology or a church guideline that has been passed on, often they are greeted with contempt. I myself have been attacked and told to stop being rebellious. The answers to some of my questions have been responses like, “They [our forefathers] had a reason for believing this way, we can’t toss it out,” or “It’s the way we’ve always done it and it’s worked so far.”
Is that really an answer? What if that is what every scientist would have thought? We would still believe in a geocentric world (oops, I think some people might). We need to test our forefathers’ theology using God’s word, not on whether or not it fits with our agenda.
Critical thinking is not dangerous. In my own words, critical thinking means you are willing to look at an issue objectively and view it through the lens of facts and data rather than feeling and nostalgia. What’s dangerous is not thinking critically…that’s how you become easily brainwashed.
For example, when people refused to believe that Ptolemy was wrong about the geocentric worldview because he was a fantastic scientist, they ignored the data in front of them. The same thing happens when people refuse to acknowledge that our previous church leaders may have had flaws in their theology; they ignore the Bible and choose false theology instead.
I’m sure Menno Simons would not want us to blindly believe everything he wrote and said. Paul commended the Bereans for thinking critically—of himself! I wish more of today’s Christian leaders would be that humble.
We have all probably heard the cliché “One thing people learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.” If this world had more critical thinkers, this wouldn’t be true.
Critical thinking can be done in a wrong way, especially when the facts aren’t based on God’s Word. We need to learn to accept the good and reject the bad. But that takes effort on our part to know which is which. It is far easier to accept or reject the whole package instead of deciphering, but neither option is helpful. What can we learn from these examples in history?