Thinking is difficult and dangerous

Right now I’m reading Alan Jacobs’s new book How to Think, which is excellent. I’ll write more about it once I’m finished–which won’t take long, since it is a blessedly brief 160 pages–but I wanted to endorse a theme he gets to right away, one which underpins many of his observations, namely that people too often forgo thinking for partisanship, preferring to embrace off-the-shelf beliefs rather than working out their own. This isn’t particularly new, but Jacobs is unusually sensitive to the fact that partisanship has practical benefits that can be lost once one starts to question the party line–you can easily get tossed out of the party.

A few years ago I was talking with a parishioner from a congregation both highly educated and conservative, the sort that wants to embrace Wendell Berry but finds him prickly at times. My friend said, “Did you hear about the Georgetown College lecture where he mentioned same-sex marriage? Looks like we’ve lost Wendell Berry.” I was startled, but differently than my friend expected–I was startled by my friend’s immediate, unthinking assumption that Berry must be wrong. if someone I admire as much as I do Berry speaks publicly on a matter and says something I don’t agree with, I assume I must have missed something and I want to know what it is. It may turn out that after revisiting the matter with Berry’s statements in mind I decide that Berry is actually wrong, and I need to adjust my estimate of him. But what I expect is that my high estimate of Berry is right, and I am about to learn something new that will bring my thinking more in line with his, or at least change it for the better in some way.

My friend and his congregation had embraced a party line regarding same-sex marriage, which not only saved them the very real trouble of thinking through the issue in detail but also gave them a team-building rallying cry, and a simple shibboleth for deciding who is in and who is out of the group. Berry was in until he said something that didn’t fit easily into the party line.

There is a spectrum here, I think, with my friend at one end and me at the other. In between you’ll find folks like this writer at First Things, who wants to grapple with what Berry has to say, but also worries what effect such grappling will have on the team. I sympathize with the difficulty that independent thinking poses for holding a team together, but my preferred solution is unacceptable to most people–no teams, just friends and neighbors.

One thought on “Thinking is difficult and dangerous

  1. Interesting. I’m not this up on Wendell Berry that I’d heard of this difficulty. (Not that it bothers me — I think of marriage primarily as a property arrangement.) But to your larger point — it seems to me often that there’s a missing humility in people who automatically apply the party line. I’m increasingly troubled by people everywhere who only see the world in terms of an ideology that disregards facts on the ground. And I can accept that there’s more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy, and this demands thinking for myself. But it does make me an uncomfortable friend, I’ve learned.

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