quoted from article, “The Preferential Option for the Poor”, by R.R. Reno, First Things Magazine, June/July 2011
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN helped me see that I was complicit with the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error rather than finding truth is the great goal of life.
Like Plato and St. Augustine, Newman presumes that human beings seek to know the truth. Our hearts are restless, not with fear of error, but with a desire to rest in God, who is the fullness of all truth. The fundamental and fulfilling activity of intellectual life, therefore, is to affirm truth rather than recoil from falsehood. We want to know, not to know that we don’t know.
Newman recognizes the value of critical methods in our efforts to seek the truth. Those methods involve parsing arguments, examining premises, and testing hypotheses. In his sermons on faith and reason, he sometimes calls this use of the mind “strict reason.” It slows us down, filtering our beliefs according to stringent and exacting standards of proof. In this way we are protected from the danger of overcommitting ourselves and thereby coming to believe as truth things that are in fact false.
But Newman also sees the danger of this strict reason. It is critical, not creative. Its methods “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Clear-minded and scrupulous analysis clears the underbrush of error—a very good thing to do—but it cannot plantthe seeds of truth; it burns away the weeds but won’t fertilize the fields. To do so we must be receptive rather than cautious. We need to develop the habit of credulity, which literally means the capacity and willingness to accept or believe, for that is the only way truth can enter into our minds. To hold anything as true we have to be able to say, “Yes, I think that’s true.” Critical reason, by contrast, trains us to hesitate, interrogate, and withdraw our assent: “Hmm, I wonder if that’s true. Perhaps it’s false? How do I know it isn’t?” We don’t so much seek as wait—wait for compelling evidence or solid proofs.
Therein lies the danger of our enthusiasm for “critical thinking.” If we fear error too much and thus overvalue critical reason, we develop a mind active and able in doubt but largely untrained to move toward belief, which is, after all, the main work of the mind. A mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions runs the risk of ending up more empty than accurate.
In my experience it’s not just a risk but a reality. Although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is skeptical and cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that their minds can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequence is an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths—facts and theories unrelated to any deeper meaning—because those are the only truths of which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.