The Thinking Non-Intellectual


ImageRecently you have seen a series of posts on Jeff Walker’s book on Ayn Rand. It was a fascinating read but it’s biggest impact for me has been the existence of a new term: the thinking non-intellectual. Walker used it to describe the type of people who were drawn into Rand’s orbit. Like any great term this one describes something that I had always noticed but never had the words to explain. The idea runs like this: a thinking non-intellectual is someone who is smart, who reads, who is attempting to understand the world around them; yet has never attempted to bring any type of discipline or order to this process.

The TNI (as we shall refer to them henceforth) would probably even scoff at the very idea of bringing such discipline to the art of thinking. They would have nasty terms for the elitist prick who believed that one needed to train one’s mind to the act of thinking. They would talk about this act in terms of brainwashing and declination. They would consider the person who talks about the need for a disciplined mind to be a traitor to simple, common sense thinking of that person’s previous tribe. It is also important to emphasize that both American political groups, and nearly all religious groups would have its share of TNI’s. The emphasis on thinking well but inside the common accepted terms of the tribe is not the province of just one group (although some groups may be more inclined to this type of trap). In this formulation the enemy of the TNI is the Thinking Intellectual (TI) or person who has sought to train and discipline his or her mind in an academic way.

I will never forget (and have repeatedly described) the time when I was at a going-away party before college when someone I respected sidled up to me and whispered: “don’t let them change you.” The idea being that the big bad professors would attempt to break me down and mold me in their image, and that this type of discipline would be bad for me and my eternal soul. It seems funny to me that we never repeat this advice to those going on to the military boot camp (or perhaps to a college athletic team); yet the very same process is occurring their as well. I guess since the change there is seen more in physical terms (and with an approved authority) there is little worry. Yet as I mentioned the same thing is occurring. Just as the military drill sergeant is attempting to build and instill discipline in his troops, a good professor is seeking to do the same with his or her students. Break the bad habits, the lazy habits, and the just wrong practices and instill good habits, and best practices for the life-long use and cultivation of one’s mind.

Yet I see it over and over as pastors and media members scoff at those who would attempt such a journey. The idea seems to be that a rigorous thought process that considers information in a systematic way, analyzing content, and seeking a dialetical synthesis that will be different from the lazy common sense approach to thinking is wrong, heretical, and traitorous to the tribe. Yet here is what we lose when we privilege the TNI over the TI:

1) The inability to compromise (and the inability to see the write-offs and trade-offs necessarily in life). Much of the gridlock in modern society can be found in the value placed on conformity and us-vs-them thinking. Just this week Time published an editorial in which a gentleman praised the Chinese Common Revolution and surmised that perhaps the GOP ought to look to it as an example of what they should do in the future. A little shaming and bloodshed (hopefully just rhetorical but this is the party of guns for everybody) would be good for the party because it would rid them of those pesty folks in the middle who think in terms of compromise and trade-offs. Yet life, all our lives, are about trade-offs. Every choice and action has consequences and repercussions. Some are good and some are bad; and often the same choice or action will bring some of both. The TNI just does what they want or thinks they want without considering this fact of life. The TNI believes that he or she has a good choice or action and doing that will bring only good, Yet the TI has learned the definition of the word: unintended consequence. When the Bible talks about “considering the cost,” this is what I think it means. We need to think through our situations and be willing to think deeply enough to consider blow-back and the reactions of others. When taken into consideration what seemed a good choice may be scrapped and what seemed a bad choice would be accepted. Additionally the knowledge that trade-offs occur takes away the fear of compromise. All of life is a compromise so perhaps we might seek are incidences in which the trade-offs provide some good for each person involved and minimal bad to all involved.

2) Likewise, we see an inability to think in terms of context. This is one of the hardest disciplines of the TI. The guys at homebrewed Christianity have discussed this better than I could, so for a definition and discussion go here. I will simply add that the inability to think in terms of context is the primary reason for the modern tweeter’s primary sport: snarking or trolling. The common denominator in all the comments that get blown up into huge, important stories is the inability of the speaker to have considered the comment in contextual terms. Therefore having a Satan character who looks like the sitting U.S, President is not seen as having any possible ramifications. There is wide history of how we talk about black men in this country that should inform how we talk about the nation’s first black president. I would argue that 99 percent of the statements that have gotten the GOP in trouble and their speakers called racists have occured because the GOP has not considered the context of race in America before asking for Obama’s birth certificate.

Likewise one might think that there is no harm in providing off-the-cuff comments about rape and abortion or some person of another race or religion. Yet if one stops to consider the context of a situation maybe talking candidly about the shooting death of a black man (by a white person) is not the best idea. Race, sex, gender, religion, all of these do not exist in a vacuum. One cannot consider Christian- Islamic relations without context, i.e. the Crusades and so forth. One cannot talk about race relations without context, i.e. slavery, reconstruction and jim crow. That does not mean we cannot have the conservation but we should do so with the realization that there is a context that precedes us.

Yes it is harder to think and talk in this way. But that is actually the point. Good thinking and good talking requires discipline. Just because we learned to talk and think as toddlers does not mean we should not allow maturity into the equation. Going back to the military comparison, I would dare say that many who enter the military learned to shoot as children. Perhaps they have even spent much time as youths hunting with their elders, but this does not stop our call for training and discipline in the art of going to war. Imagine if we gave our troops no training and no leadership but then sent them into Iran to destroy the nukes. They might have some success (they do know the rudiments of hunting and shooting afterall); yet invading a foreign land is quite different than hunting deer on your uncle’s farm. The same is true for entering the realm of rhetoric. You may have the rudiments of thinking down (at least from life); but the art of presenting one’s opinions and defending them in public is quite different from sitting in your uncle’s house reading one of his books.

Last week I got a flyer from a local church about their Easter service, and it made me sad. Why, because the flyer was geared to the me that would have existed in the 1980s; not the person is currently living in 2013. I got sad because it struck me how frustrating life must be for this church. They are acting on a 1983 gameplan in 2013, and that small miscalculation guarantees a high failure rate (sure there are perhaps some if not many in our neighborhood who have not changed their church going mindset since the 1980s and for whom the flyer might work if they are not already attending their own 1980s church). Yet many if not most of the people they are trying to reach will not even read the flyer must less engage it. And this church will be impacted by this. They will see their neighbors not engage or even attempt to engage them. They will see more failure than success. And in that failure they will be tempted by the greatest temptation of the TNI mind; the belief that those not engaged are stupid, immoral, or inadequate. This is what happened, as documented by Walker, with Rand and her followers. Their unformed and inarticulate responses to the world led to failure to convert others, and this failure led to talk about the stupidity and immorality of those who were not converted.

This path leads not to success (as the Time editorial implied) but to more and bigger failure. This type of thinking without thinking is growing in our culture and in our church. If we truly want our churches and our communities to succeed then it is time to say no the Thinking Non-Intellectual. It’s time to get back to disciplining both the mind and spirits of our congregations.

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