Scattered thoughts on thinking and writing

I’ve often said—usually to myself, occasionally to others—that not much makes me happier than having my kids carefully consider a situation, and then respond differently than I would. My goal is not to teach them what to think, or even how to think, but to persuade them that thinking is vital.

Of course I’ve taught them my own thinking over the years, both conclusions and techniques. But that is only scaffolding to be used as they come into their own as thinkers. I expect them to discard whatever doesn’t meet the standards they eventually develop. And when I see that happen, it is evidence that I did what I set out to do.

Back when we sold homeschooling materials, I wanted to write a set of short study guides for broad topics—economics, history, philosophy, mathematics, theology, and so on. These were not to be comprehensive but only starting points, a very broad overview of the issues together with a bibliography of good introductory books. The hope was that the overview would equip the reader to pick and choose intelligently from the list of books so as to gain a very broad understanding of the topic, its outline and primary issues and relevance to the rest of life. And for those who wanted to explore further, the books on the list would be proper jumping-off points.

This is how I go about familiarizing myself with a topic—not always by starting with an introductory book, but almost always by chasing down citations in whatever I happen to be reading. If the topic is new to me, my Kindle will begin to fill with free or library-provided books, and the mailman delivers a steady stream of four dollar used books I find through AbeBooks. I get to them right away, or I get to them later, but I get to them. (We moved to the farm in 2005 largely because of Joel Salatin’s writings, and those books had sat on my shelf for four years before I read them.)

The usefulness of citations doesn’t always correlate with their source. I have two writers in particular who are precious to me, even though I disagree with and even dislike most of their own thinking, because the works they cite are always profitable. If they recommend a book or essay on a topic that interests me, I will add it to my own reading list because I know they are discerning readers.

I needed a name for my study guide series, and settled on How to Think About …. But I wouldn’t use such a name today, and even then I was uneasy about it because of its prescriptive flavor. Telling people what to think is pretty bad, but telling them how to think is worse since it will narrow their range of perception even further. And it wasn’t what I meant anyway.

More accurate would have been How I Think About … or A Way of Thinking About …. Or, these days, just A Way of … (seeing, reading, handling money, interacting with others, relating to God’s economy, etc.), since thinking is only a part of it, and not the most important one. All I hope to do in my writing, whatever the venue, is to describe my own understanding of a topic in the hope that others might benefit in some way from a different perspective. And I think it’s important to restrict myself to describing understandings that I have lived out in some way for some length of time. In essence, I want to present myself as an example—not necessarily one to be followed, but for the reader’s consideration.

In her essay Why I Write, Joan Didion writes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I’m sympathetic to that. I’ve read and studied, thought and considered and pondered for all my adult life, but when I began trying to write down my thoughts the quality of my thinking (and understanding) improved markedly. In the beginning it was a method of clearing out a lot of mental rubbish. Many things I thought I knew didn’t stand up to the test of being articulated, and I learned to jettison them, initially with pain but eventually with pleasure. Other things—not nearly as many—I rethought, researched further, and eventually beat into a shape that could be put into words. Often that process would highlight gaps I hadn’t noticed, and I learned to view this as an opportunity to deepen, solidify, or sometimes change my thinking on this and related topics.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” I second this wholeheartedly. The most important things I learn tend to come to me as crystal clear statements, and although I credit the skill of the writer I also think a sound thought will lend itself to simple and direct presentation. So if I’m writing and the words aren’t flowing, I’m more inclined to revisit my understanding of the matter than to play with the wording.

Although I’ve found it helpful to set down my thoughts in writing for public consumption—a regime that forces me to actually do the work required for quality thinking, rather than just telling myself I’ve done it—it hasn’t led to the sort of conversations I hoped for.

A good part of this is because my interests have wandered so far afield that there isn’t a lot of common ground between me and most people on which a conversation can be built. I don’t usually have the time or energy to lay the needed groundwork, and I don’t expect a reader to wade through endless preliminaries just so we can converse.

But I also have a growing awareness—resignation, maybe—that those who might be willing to engage on these subjects also view public discussion differently, as either confrontation or commiseration. I would prefer to explain rather than defend myself, and to closely question the explanations of others without appearing provocative. Sometimes I manage this in email exchanges, but so far not in public.

When I’m thinking through a problematic issue I like to examine all my assumptions, while holding them as lightly as possible. This is because I rarely know in the beginning where the source of the problem lies, and I don’t want to skew my ponderings by assuming the source is probably here or probably not there. I’ve been surprised too many times to trust my initial instincts.

I haven’t yet figured out how to do this in public writing. The best I have managed is to summarize my thinking once it is settled, highlighting the assumptions which others aren’t likely to share. And this doesn’t work very well with issues where the reader is heavily invested in his own different assumptions.

I’ve tried to engage a Christian academic writer about the challenge that self published ebooks present to the traditional publishing model. I’ve tried to engage one pastor about how many sermons a faithful parishioner needs to hear before they can be excused, a second on whether should be paid, a third on whether his flock actually took his exhortations seriously enough to act on them or even thought they were expected to. Even when the conversation began publicly I quickly moved it to a private setting, email or face to face, because the heat of the response surprised me. I had no vested position and was trying to learn more. The other had their identity tied up in the issue, and the surface content of the exchange didn’t seem to match up with fierceness used to defend the position.

When we “discuss” contentious topics, it seems to me we rarely discuss the topic itself. I haven’t been a member of a church for ten years and expect never to join another, based on reasoning I am happy to discuss. But I don’t think I’ve even mentioned this to someone who is a strong advocate of church membership, because their own reasoning appears flimsy and shallow to me, and doesn’t match up well with my understanding of the very deep issues raised by church membership. (I don’t mean by “match up” that we disagree on how the issues should be resolved, I mean that we don’t agree about what the issues are.)

I’ve heard people assert that it is legitimate, necessary, and even loving to question the salvation of someone who does not belong to a local church. This is a dire judgment to level on another, and I can’t imagine even entertaining such a possibility unless I’ve worked long and hard to be sure that no other, more generous interpretation is available. And yet when I look into explanations of the rationale behind church membership, the reasoning seems flimsy and shallow to me, and I suspect that the reasoners have worked backwards from the conclusion they wanted, gathering up all the bits and pieces that could possibly be called into service to support it.

Although I now take a dim view of church membership, the dimness is mostly practical. Historically the purported benefits have been far outweighed by its potential and actual abuse. When I hear of another abusive situation in an institutional church, I first ask myself: would this be a problem if no one was exercising authority over another? The answer is almost always: no.

And so I would genuinely like to engage a thoughtful advocate of church membership, simply to ask: what exactly are the benefits bestowed by membership that outweigh the abuse that is inevitably inflicted by imperfect authority figures? are these benefits somehow available only through the exercise of authority? or is authority simply a bottom line of the faith, not to be questioned but only to be enjoyed/endured? But I expect that such a conversation would quickly become something else—a challenge to the other’s authority—no matter what words were exchanged.

Have I mentioned same-sex marriage? Of course not! To me the topic appears to be out of bounds for discussion, no matter what your position. You may preach to the choir, or you may issue “gotcha” challenges to the opposition, but you are not encouraged in any way to revisit your thinking about marriage and how it fits into overall Kingdom living.

If you don’t believe that, try to entertain this thought: Should churches be in the business of marrying people? The historical information is scattered, but I gather that for most people throughout most of history marriage was a social and legal matter, not a religious one. The Christian church insinuated itself into the process over many centuries, and it wasn’t until the Council of Trent (1545-63) that sacramental marriage became part of canon law.

Now, wouldn’t the current social situation be much less contentious if the church simply repented of elbowing its way into the marriage business, and stopped performing weddings? I don’t insist that this is the only reading of history, but it seems to be one valid reading among many. Yet I can’t imagine even raising the possibility.

Thinking and writing are inseparable for me. And the thinking is primary. If I could think adequately without writing, I wouldn’t spend the extra time to write. Especially public writing, which runs the risk of puffing one up. I have witnessed the gradual destruction of several very smart and well-intentioned thinkers who fell prey to the dangers of writing for an audience. I am no stronger, and have no desire to develop the strength required to survive them.

So I don’t really write down my thoughts for an audience—certainly not to grow an audience—but just for myself and the few friends and family members who care to read them. And I regularly reconsider my writing habits, checking to see if the current pattern is likely to accomplish what I hope.

Right now I’m wondering about the short essay format that this blog encourages (for me, anyway). It pushes me to publish less than I might otherwise, since I want the pieces to be complete in some way, and for many of the things I’m thinking about I’m not yet ready or able to write up my conclusions. Of course, in this case less may be better, at least for the reader! But for me it means that I will usually not apply the discipline of writing to thoughts which I’m not likely to publish—perhaps they are too tentative, or likely to be provocative or contentious, as on the issue same sex marriage—and so I’m wondering if there might not be better ways to spend my limited writing time.

The form this post is an experiment in response to my worries about spending my writing time wisely. Not that it represents “the new approach”. It is only a modest attempt to write differently, to get outside the old box and into another.

Turning sixty, and some life events which accompanied that, has affected my thinking in many lasting ways. Most important, I was finally able to view my life as an arc, and to turn my attention to finishing well. I now have a tangible sense of the time left to me, as well as can and can’t be accomplished in that time. Most of my life’s possibilities are now actual. I know the things I will know, I live where I will live, I know the people I will know, and I am influencing the people I will influence. The remaining time and energy needs to be focused on assembling something of quality from the pieces already at my disposal. And time and energy grow ever shorter, so it is important not to waste them.


11 thoughts on “Scattered thoughts on thinking and writing

  1. I suppose our current idea of church membership is a direct outgrowth of Protestantism and all the denominations that have come from it. Prior to that time, you just went to the closest church, since you probably had to walk there, and there likely weren’t major differences from one church to the next — one might have a better preacher, one a better choir, one might have an abbey attached to it, so there might be schools or a hospital, but those are all surface differences. Once you get to where there are different kinds of churches to choose from, and they have fairly essential differences in doctrine (and all the other churches are heretical, of course ;-) ) it becomes “necessary” to declare yourself. Seems more political than anything when looked at that way.

    Funny you should mention weddings. I have no problem with people wanting a religious blessing on their marriage, but the whole Church Wedding ideal (including getting official religious approval for the relationship) seems to be a close kin to wanting to live in a McMansion ghetto — everybody wants to be lord of the manor, only without the responsibilities that go with the position.

  2. it becomes “necessary” to declare yourself. Seems more political than anything when looked at that way.


    In Protestant circles, especially conservative ones, membership vows are treated as an oath of fealty — not to Jesus but to the leadership. Even aside from my qualms about swearing such an oath, I have never attended a church where the leadership was more qualified than I was to take responsibility for my spiritual condition. And competent or not, how could they have been expected to do such a thing without at least living in close community with me?

    The result is my vows were workable only if I didn’t take them seriously but instead shouldered the responsibility myself. And if so, then why take them in the first place?

  3. “[M]embership vows are treated as an oath of fealty — not to Jesus but to the leadership.”

    Exactly. I grew up Southern Baptist where you became a member based on your baptism (well, the congregation votes you in at the monthly business meeting), then after marrying we joined a charismatic church where you became a member (on profession of faith) by being received into fellowship with that local body, and they laid hands on you and prayed God’s blessing on you. It was very different when we joined a Presbyterian church many years later, but at the time I just assumed it was the right thing to do, even though I preferred the charismatic way to anything else I’d experienced. Interestingly, joining the Episcopal church felt more like joining the charismatic one.

    Last fall we actually left the Anglican church where we’d been members for seven or eight years because of the abuse of authority we were seeing, which was so atypical of Anglicanism in general. I don’t think we realized how bad it was getting until a new family joined and the priest read out membership vows to them, which completely caught them off-guard — apparently they hadn’t told them it would be that way — but they went along with it, because what do you do when you’re standing there in front of the congregation in the middle of a church service? But that’s when we started seriously questioning the whole thing.

    You make a very good point about leadership not being in a position to have real responsibility.

    When did church membership become a thing, do you know? I mean, beyond being publicly recognized by virtue of your baptism. I know Paul talks about occasionally needing to kick somebody out, but that’s for really flagrant, unrepentant sin that’s causing scandal among the unbelievers, so it doesn’t seem like quite the same thing. Jesus’ instruction to Peter to feed his sheep and tend his lambs presupposes that the pastor knows who the sheep are, and it seems correct that if you’re going to give someone responsibility, you need to give them a level of authority to be able to carry out their responsibilities. How much and what kind of authority does it take to feed and tend?

  4. When did church membership become a thing, do you know? I mean, beyond being publicly recognized by virtue of your baptism.

    Here’s a very representative example of how this topic is handled within the church. You would think that a scholarly Michael Horton, charged with giving a talk entitled “A Historic Look at Church Membership”, might actually tell you. Instead, he only says that Christians have always done this.

    Of course he is equivocating here. He gives examples of public declarations of allegiance to Jesus and assembling together with other believers for visible fellowship, neither of which I’d quibble with. But this has nothing to do with taking a vow of allegiance to a particular local body. I don’t doubt that there are examples of that as well that stretch back to the beginning of Christianity–people dearly love to form clubs, establishing Inner Rings to enter into. But Horton gives no Biblical support for taking such a vow. Every church function he uses as justification can be experienced or exercised without one.

  5. Kelly,

    After listening to some more of Horton’s talk, I realized that much of boils down to a simple question: How can we have a church if you guys won’t swear to stick with us through thick and thin? Much of his “evidence” consists of raising the specter of Christians forsaking the fellowship of believers altogether (towards the end there’s lots of disparaging talk of “internet church” and the like).

    Looked at that way, I’m not surprised that the folks in charge are so adamant about formal church membership and fearful of the alternative, since they’re also responsible for turning church into something that folks are not drawn to for its own sake, even believers. But I don’t see why all the functions of a church, even discipline, couldn’t be performed among a voluntary association of believers not under anyone’s authority but that of Jesus.

    Does a vow somehow make a wayward believer more willing to repent, or an assembly more willing to exclude a wayward believer, or to evangelize or serve the poor or … ? I don’t see why it would.

  6. Here’s an interesting tidbit from Izaac Walton’s biography of John Donne:

    “He was now entered into the eighteenth year of his age, and at that time had betrothed himself to no religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian. And reason and piety had both persuaded him that there could be no such sin as schism, if an adherence to some viable church were not necessary.”

    Walton goes on to say that he studied “the body of divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt the reformed and the Roman Church.” He’d been baptized in the RC, but obviously he was eventually confirmed in the Anglican, which is what I assume Walton meant by betrothal. But this only aligns him with the Church of England as opposed to the Roman Church. I’m pretty sure that they didn’t have any formal membership in the parish church — you just belonged to that one because you lived within that geographic region.

    Anyway, that’s probably what was in the back of my mind when I said I figured it was a Reformation-era development.

    I don’t think I’ll listen to that video — it doesn’t sound like it would add anything to my understanding.

  7. I don’t think I’ll listen to that video — it doesn’t sound like it would add anything to my understanding.

    Good choice! I find this sort of investigation extremely frustrating and discouraging, since it usually lowers my opinion of teachers who are often quite good in areas where they are knowledgeable. Horton is a thoughtful and careful guy, but this particular talk is a sloppy mess that only the already persuaded will find palatable.

  8. I found myself nodding my head through a lot of this post.

    I’ve been reading you off and on since … 2005, maybe? I’ve read a few books because of recommendations you’ve made (esp the series about the woman who moves to the Appalachians and has to accommodate herself — great tip, btw.) I’ve always respected what you write, although you and I could not be further apart politically and (possibly) religiously (that’s always harder to tell). I lost track of you when you abandoned your own domain, but thought about you against recently and googled you and ended up here. Anyway — I think how you write is really effective and even though I often have disagreed and commented relatively seldomly, it always makes me think. I remember a post a long time back about pricing for eyeglasses, for instance, that had that effect on me.

    I hear so much of what you are saying here and in my own settings, I’ve always been somewhat of a “heretical” blogger (not going with the common wisdom, either on academia, where I started, or on much more trivial stuff, which is where I am now). But I agree with the general point of the first part — if I can’t figure out how to communicate what it is I believe (whether or not anyone will agree), I don’t know what it is that I believe. I have to take the objections to what I am going to say seriously and that means I need to be very critical of my own views. Sometimes this happens as a matter of course (recently I quit professoring and started a job as a university administrator, which has really changed how I see the institutions of higher education), sometimes I have to force myself. I think it’s very hard, however, to root a persistent cognitive error in one’s own mind. In any case, if what one believes (however provisional that is) is part of one’s identity, then writing reinforces that process for oneself.

    I agree that a lot of times discussions end up not being discussions but turn into identity battles. I don’t know why that should be so much more frequent on the Internet than it is in my real life — maybe because we’re not seeing the person react, across from us, to what we’re saying, maybe because we encounter people on the Internet whom we wouldn’t normally meet in real life (I can safely say that you and I, despite a strong common interest in theology, the church, religious community life, would never have met each other face to face under normal circumstances). In a way, the strength of this kind of contact (being confronted with unexpected things) is also its chief danger.

    I often find myself in identity battles when I haven’t realized I was in one until it was “too late” and tempers were raised. Sometimes this is because I don’t realize what is at stake for the other person; just as often it is because I don’t immediately realize what is at stake for me.

    (fwiw, in my previous life I was an academic church historian, and IMO you’d have to really interpret the facts “creatively” to say there was anything like church membership is today before the Reformation. But I’m not that interested in that question.)

  9. (fwiw, in my previous life I was an academic church historian, and IMO you’d have to really interpret the facts “creatively” to say there was anything like church membership is today before the Reformation. But I’m not that interested in that question.)

    Thanks for mentioning this.

  10. Servetus,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment at length. I enjoyed what you wrote. And I apologize for taking so long to respond. This week was a little busier than usual–every three months I visit my dad in El Paso for three weeks, and Wednesday was a travel day–but the delay probably had more to do with my shifting attitude toward writing online. More about that in a later post.

    You write, ” … even though I often have disagreed and commented relatively seldomly, it always makes me think.” That makes you my ideal reader! All I’ve wanted to do in my own writing is to encourage thinking by setting a good example. Even if it were a popular stance, it doesn’t usually lead to online interaction–if you are in fact led to think, I don’t expect you to tell me about it. I only share my own thoughts when I think they will be edifying, and I hardly ever have something worthwhile to say to the person who inspired them.

    You also mention that we are far apart politically. I assume you mean in some fundamental sense, since I make it a rule not to comment on the politics of the day. I have some vague and mostly abstract beliefs about some political systems being superior to others, but they are far outweighed by my conviction that politics are irrelevant and best rejected outright. It’s a contented rejection, though–I can’t think of a historical political arrangement under which I would have chafed. My interests lie elsewhere.

    I’m still pondering the rest of what you wrote, and will respond to some of it in other writing, either here or wherever I decide to focus next.

    By the way, I’m not trying to be mysterious about “next”, I’m only thinking that the streamlike nature of a blog isn’t suited for what I’d like to do in the time left to me, and I am considering moving the content to a more static and organized format, perhaps a wiki. But that’s only for new content, plus whatever I decide to salvage from this blog through rewriting. The blog itself will remain as a historical document.

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