When I saw Alan Jacob’s latest book that released this month, How to Think, I was immediately intrigued by the title (see: Amazon link). If that didn’t sell me by itself (which it did), I would have been equally persuaded by the subtitle: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds. Few things sound as needed as this conversation right now. How do we navigate our opinions and those of others around us that we disagree with? How did we even develop the opinions we currently have? This book explores these ideas.
Jacob’s writes as both an Academic and a Christian. These two camps don’t often fit well together. But this helps him provide a unique and very helpful guide, especially for Christians. Because of how many other people and examples Jacob’s quotes throughout the book, it feels as if you’ve read many books by the time you’re done.
One of the ideas I liked most was his emphasis that we cannot think by ourselves. While this seems counterintuitive and even a bit insulting, this emphasized for me the importance of a healthy church community in which we help each other grow together. As Jacob’s explains,
To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’
All of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option.
Here are some other great ideas from the book.
Sometimes there’s a blessed convergence between what you read and what you need.
T. S. Eliot wrote almost a century ago about a phenomenon that he believed to be the product of the nineteenth century: “When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.” And in such circumstances—let me add emphasis to Eliot’s conclusion—“when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”
Some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christlike, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting, even when it doesn’t mean that those people are right about those matters we disagree on. Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid.
We fixate so immovably on this notion of argument as war in part because human beings, generally speaking, are insanely competitive about everything; but also because in many arguments there truly is something to be lost, and most often what’s under threat is social affiliation.
The primary problem is that, of course, we really don’t want to be or want anyone else to be permanently and universally open-minded. No one wants to hear anyone say that, while there is certainly general social disapproval of kidnapping, we should keep an open mind on the subject. No one wants an advocate for the poor to pause in her work and spend some months reflecting on whether the alleviation of poverty is really a good idea. About some things—about many things!—we believe that people should have not open minds but settled convictions. We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs.