On Sophisticated Thinking

250px-Escher_WaterfallIn my time in Costa Rica, I was able to spend time with a good guy named Anthony Chamberlain.  He’s the director of the Latin American Studies Program for a U.S. collective of Christian colleges.  Students go to Costa Rica for a semester abroad program.  Anthony is USAmerican, but has lived in Costa Rica for 20 years, and has raised children there, so that’s home for him by now.

I talked with him about a number of different topics, from his observations about changes in students he’s noticed over the past twenty years, to topics of globalization, to Latin American politics, to theology.  I really enjoyed that time with him, and actually discovered that we’ve got a couple of common friends.

As our conversation progressed, one of the themes that Anthony touched on in multiple topics was the lack of sophistication that people tend to have when thinking about life and culture and work.  When we talked about political stances between the U.S. and Latin American/Caribbean countries, he suggested that there isn’t a lot of depth and nuance of thought by most parties – the PR generated sound bites you hear from the U.S. government about its involvement in global trade and politics are simplistic, black-and-white, and rarely give you a hint of what some other perspectives might look like.  Likewise, people from a Latin American perspective tend to be either completely pro-U.S. because of the need for trade and aid, or rally behind some of the louder voices that speak in opposition to the U.S.

When we talked about USAmerican young adults and whether they are more attuned to issues of social justice these days or not, and whether social justice is just a short-term fad, once again, a lack of sophistication came up.  When they see issues of poverty, disease, human trafficking, and violence, and decide to get involved, it’s often only in very shallow ways.  They might give money, raise awareness, or even go on a mission trip, but they don’t take the time to drill down on the root causes of injustice in order to understand what brought about the negative situations.

When we talked about Western Christian culture, the same thing came up.  Certain personalities will become popular and gain a following, whether it’s because they’re a dynamic speaker or writer, or because they’ve got the theology that’s resonating with people, or because they’re speaking out on political issues that people are itching to engage.  But once again, these people tend to gain their followings because people aren’t willing to do the work of thinking well for themselves – they just fall in line with those who say things on the surface that sound right.

I have to admit that I am guilty of unsophisticated thought much more than is healthy.  I found myself wincing a few times while Anthony talked, because he was right on the mark – I needed that.  I’m also aware of the irony of writing this post on a blog, which is typically the medium of shallow, reactionary thought.  Obviously, it’s good for us to form opinions and get behind causes when it comes to social justice, and there’s nothing wrong with following leaders who move in visionary directions.  But how often do we do these things out of laziness?  How often do we thoughtfully ask why things are the way they are, what a wide range of alternative solutions might be, and what the implications would be if our favorite solutions were employed?  How often do we go to our preferred news commentator because we are willing to blindly adopt her or his point of view as our own?

Part of this is a problem of information overload.  We are daily surrounded by dozens of social, political, cultural, and theological issues, and for some reason, we feel as though we have to have an opinion about all of them – whether they’re well-formed opinions or not.  It’s like we live in fear of being asked what we think about something and just saying, “You know, I haven’t thought about that enough.  Get back to me in a week or so.”

Perhaps it would better for us to sit down and make a list of things that we can a) care enough about to really learn about – including multiple perspectives, b) don’t have enough information about to be able to form a thoughtful opinion on, and c) be more interested in listening to opinions on than offering them.  This is what we call critical thinking.  Let’s give it a try, shall we?

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