Monday, June 8, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #19 (Thoughts on Thinking)

Using one’s mind actively to form connected ideas about someone or something – that is thinking. It perhaps will come as no surprise that you will be doing a lot of thinking in seminary. At least, that will be the goal.

Thinking is integral to our time in seminary and God calls every one of us to think and to do as well as we can. In fact, we know we are to love God with our minds as well as our hearts, souls, and strength (Luke 10:27). Thus, we can love God with our minds and our thinking.

As I think about thinking, I realize there are likely two dangerous poles of habit when it comes to thinking in seminary.

First, there is the danger of become a cold, impersonal intellectual. You are right to realize that becoming a cold, impersonal intellectual is not the goal of seminary. This tendency is quite contrary to the goal of seminary. After all, cold, dispassionate intellectuals rarely exhibit the kind of love for people that is called for in scripture. This approach is characterized by becoming impersonal and exalting reason above love.

And yet, there is a second error – one that will dog you if you begin to struggle with the intellectual work of seminary. It is the mistake of embracing a red-hot zeal that is “not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). How does this happen? Ah, it all begins with the realization that Jesus did not call his disciples from among the cognoscenti and intelligentsia of his day. No way! He called his ‘uneducated’ disciples from places like “Fishington” and “Backwatersville” – and these fellas weren’t thinkers, they were doers. 

“That’s what God wants!” you’ll say to yourself. “Not someone to parse Greek verbs, etc.!” And then you’re off to the races, rationalizing all kinds of bad intellectual habits. But be warned, sometimes when the going gets tough, the seminary student gets going…running right away from their book work towards something else. And you’ll begin to become zealous for things quite anti-intellectual. You’ll begin to eschew the things of the mind and favor the things of the heart. That’s the risk at least though.

This dichotomy is fallacious and wrong-headed. The abandonment of thinking is the destruction of persons. Yes, there is more to personal relationships than thinking, but they are less human without it. God honored his image in us when he said, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). Should we do less?

Take home point: you should think and use your mind to the glory of God, okay?

Now, let me remind you of something I said earlier in the book: professionals are focused. In other words, their minds are focused and disciplined. As I previously said, there are lots of ways to be focused, several methods I have already mentioned are: 
  • Exercise: a fit body and a fit mind are a wonderful combination. Neuroscientists have known for a long time what most of us are just figuring out – it’s easier to focus your mind when you take care of your body.
  • Meditate: a 15-20 minute session of meditation each day is perfect for increasing mental focus. Google search this one and find out how it’s done.
  • Eliminate Distractions: If you are a student in seminary, this needs to be a priority in your life. Granted, you will likely have other things you need to take care of – family, perhaps even a job, etc. – but your work in seminary needs to be a high priority. Cultivate focus by eliminating distractions. Try this: for one week, keep a detailed record daily of how you spend your time. What did you do from one hour to the next? What activities did you do from first light of the morning until you went to sleep at night? At the end of the week, take a look at how you spent the week. How much time are you spending on your primary task: seminary? How much time are you spending in Internet surfing or entertainment? When you are reading or writing, do you have distractions like Facebook or TV pulling your mind away from your work? Finally, are you scheduling your time well (more on this later) so you are getting all the reading, writing, etc. for seminary completed? Eliminate distractions to increase your focus.
But now I want to think a little bit more about thinking. What is thinking? How do we do it? And how do we do it well for success in seminary?

What is it?

In the Bible the concept of thinking involves using the mind to generate plans, to judge and weigh matters, to recall memories, and to believe or reject ideas. The seat of human thinking in the Old Testament is primarily identified as the heart; the Hebrew לֵב (lēb, “heart”) can be translated as either “heart” or “mind” and generally indicates the innermost being; in other cases the soul (נֶפֶשׁ, nepeš) is identified as the seat of thinking (e.g., 1 Sam 20:4; Esth 4:13; Lam 3:24). 

In the New Testament, the word καρδία (kardia, “heart”) is used like Hebrew לֵב (lēb, “heart”) to represent the seat of thinking in the innermost parts of man, though νοῦς (nous, “mind”) also serves in this capacity (Luke 24:45; 1 Cor 14:14; Rev 13:18). 

Additionally, the verb φρονέω (phroneō, “to think”) describes holding a particular view or opinion but is seldom used as an equivalent to ḥāšab in the Septuagint. Even though thinking from both an OT and NT perspective occurs in the innermost part of a person’s being, God can influence it. For example, God enables David to understand the design of his temple, which he passed on to Solomon (1 Chr 28:19). In the NT, too, Jesus opens the disciples’ minds (nous) so that they can understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45; see also 1 John 5:20). 

How do we do it?

When one thinks of thinking, it is hard to avoid the idea of the intellectual. How do we do ‘thinking’? We do it like an intellectual. In many ways, the calling to seminary is the calling to become an intellectual.

In his wonderful book, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as Christian Life, James W. Sire defines an intellectual in this way: 
An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implication, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up their pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.
A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.

I love this: a Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God. Amen! So, how do we start forming ourselves as Christian intellectuals while in seminary? Good question. If we can answer that question we’ll be a little closer to an answer for “what is thinking?”

Tip #1: Realize that much of what we calling ‘thinking’ is not thinking.

Oswald Chambers, in his book The Moral Foundations of Life, said “A great amount of stuff we call thinking is not thinking, but merely reverie or meditation.”

I agree with Chambers. Thinking is a linear kind of work that will in many ways consume you. And that’s what moves you beyond, as he says, mere “reverie or meditation.” As you chase a line of thinking and actively mull it over (both consciously during one’s waking hours and subconsciously during your sleeping hours), then you are thinking and not engaging in mere meditation. 

Perhaps you are used to considering thinking as mere meditation. What’s the difference? When I think about an idea – really think about – I do what Sire defines in his portrait of the intellectual. I develop, criticize, and clarify ideas and I turn them over and over in my mind. And we move beyond mere meditation, we even engage a topic more deeply, reading potentially multiple books about the idea.

For example, I have spent a lot of time thinking about Karl Barth’s theology in the past three years. Not only have I attended lectures and conferences on the great man, I have read around 15 secondary works on Barth and have read his entire Church Dogmatics – a multi-volume work of great length. I have consulted his works when I have written my sermons, and I have written blog posts on his theology. When it comes to Barth, I have not merely meditated on his theological project, I have thought deeply about it, and will continue to do so. 

The work I have invested in the theology of Karl Barth is the kind of work that you will be investing in your seminary degree. You’ll be doing lots of thinking, chasing an intellectual line that winds through the curriculum of your school (and degree program) until you have deeply engaged all the thought represented therein. 

Tip #2: Think habitually.

Never stop thinking. Do it daily and don’t be a slouch. Like a muscle, your mind will work with mechanical precision if you use it habitually. 

That Netflix binging you love to do so often? Ditch it friend. Binge watching is defined as viewing between two and six episodes of the same program in a single viewing. The tendency to binge watch is driven by the fact that writers, calculatingly trained in human tendencies, create cliffhanger moments at the end of each program so we, the viewers, experience a compelling desire to view the next episode.

Of course, this marathon of TV watching has its physiological and neurological effects. At the end of the binge marathon we feel sluggish, and for good reason. Our metabolism has slowed, our circulation is decreased, and we morph into the love child of the couch potato and the channel surfer. Our brains have lapsed into alpha wave patterns, we experience decreased attention span, we think less critically, we process most of the information we have received programming in emotional ways, and are responding to the binge-programming in ways that mimic an addict.

Not good.

Instead, make a habit of thinking and feeding your brain on good food – a diet of books, educational programming that causes you think critically, and listening to music that is not just essentially bad poetry set to even worse music. In other words, make thinking deeply a part of your daily life. And do it every day.

One way to assess whether you are thinking habitually is to look at your “intakes.” How many books have you read in the last month? Or how many articles have you digested? I can usually tell when my thinking is falling by the wayside because there are lots of non-productive activities lying in my wake. 

Another way of assessing whether or not you are thinking as a habit is to track your productivity. How many papers, school assignments, etc. have you pushed out the door in the last month? Have you been productive or have you been procrastinating? I like to think that I think best on paper, meaning, I think best when I write. So, how is your writing going? Are you thinking through your pen enough?

Ultimately, no one becomes an intellectual or a scholar by just reading and forming an opinion about something. I think of this as mediating. To actually think about something, you need to structure your thoughts into something more logically and systematically robust. You need to make this kind of mental work a habit.

Tip #3: Think actively.

I remember the first time I thought of myself as an active thinker. It was my first semester in college and I was a biology major with a chemistry minor and I needed to learn the Krebs cycle. 

The Krebs cycle is the pathway for the breakdown of sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids in the body. It’s one of the most important biochemical reactions in the human body and we were learning it right up front in my degree. At the time, for a freshman biology student, it was a complicated reaction and I have to work hard to learn it.

In mastering it I learned to think actively. 

Active thinking begins with being able to explain a question and understanding why it is important. If I asked you to name something significant about the date June 6, 1944 and you could not, I would assume that you had not done a lot of thinking about D-Day during World War II. That doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is safe to say you have not done a lot of active thinking about this seminal event.

Let’s bring this kind of engagement into the world of the seminary. Have you thought about natural theology? The doctrine of God? How human beings are saved? What God was doing as Jesus Christ on the cross? The nature of human sin? As I said just above, active thinking means being able to explain the question (not always an easy task) and understanding their importance.

Not only that, active thinking means being able to present answers to questions, and then work to consider less obvious alternatives that might be different than the answers you came up with. Then it means being able to discern between the two (or three, four, or more, possible answers). Additionally, active thinkers will be contend with and rebut the criticisms of their positions, or be able to modify the original answers in order to deal with these criticisms.

So, active thinking can be work.

Remember when I said earlier in the book that by definition the academic study of any subject will proceed along the lines of detailed analyses and questioning? That’s because academic study in seminary is one long exercise in active thinking. So active thinking will come in very handy as you pursue your academic study of the bible.

Tip #4: Think in silence (at least occasionally).

One of the more problematic barriers to real, habitual, and active thinking is noise. Why? Because noisy environments are ubiquitous today and solitude is a rare commodity.

So make your way to the library once in a while during seminary. I know it probably doesn’t need to be said, but the library is a great place to think. After all, the spirit of the place is devoted to active thinking. Consider also finding a quiet room at the church, or a café, or arboretum. You get the point.

Or perhaps take a walk (a la Darwin) on a hiking trail where you can get away from people and commune a bit with nature. The combination of thinking about a question or problem and the exercise of walking are enough to likely get the deep thoughts flowing.

If you love working out, put on some repetitive music (electronica, etc.) on your iPhone and let your earbuds whisk you away to a deep thinking place while pounding the treadmill. Strangely enough, repetitive music that we don’t need to think a lot about (so our minds can devote themselves to other things) can be its own form of ‘silence’ in our noisy world. I realize I might get pushback on this one – “background music is not silence,” they’ll say – but work with me here people.

Tip #5: Pay attention.

By now, most people are familiar with the Invisible Gorilla test, made famous by a video available on YouTube. The experiment was devised by Dr. Christopher Chabris and Dr. Daniel Simons, based on some earlier work Dr. Ulric Neisser.

People who participated in the study were given a task that was very simple. All they had to do was watch a video of people passing a basketball, and count how many times the players wearing white passed the ball.

As they were doing this task though, in the middle of the video, a person wearing a full-body gorilla suit walked into the scene, turned and faced the camera, thumped its chest at the camera, and then walk off the other side - a total of nine seconds later.

And what the researchers found was that remarkably half the people they showed the video to just didn't notice the gorilla, and if you asked them about it, they would say, “I missed what?” You could show it to them a second time and they might see it, but even then they would sometimes accuse the researchers of switching the video since they didn’t see it the first time.

The point? Well, there are actually a couple of points. The first, contrary to where you think I might be taking this point, is that human beings are actually very good at paying attention to something. For example, in the video viewers are watching the ball flying around to the people in white shirts, as they were tasked to do, and then obviously other salient things are happening in the video, such as a person in a gorilla suit standing right in the foreground.

What we’re not good at is multitasking. That’s the point of the Invisible Gorilla test. We cannot do three, four, or five things at the same time as well as we can do one thing. So if you are doing important work, it’s time to shut down email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. When we are multitasking we don’t notice the mistakes we are making.

Don’t chuckle at this one. I’ve seen too many seminary students with Facebook up while a lecture was happening. The struggle is real. Pay attention by avoiding multitasking. If thinking is your task in a given moment, then just do thinking. By doing so, you will be a better thinker.

Tip #6: Engage the machinery of thinking.

Finally, I want to make you aware of something I have found to be helpful as I’ve engaged in the intellectual life – using the tools of the trade. For example, if you are going to be a thinker, you need a way to capture your ideas. Carry a notebook around with you, have one by your bedside, or use your phone to take an audio note when inspiration strikes. Why? Because ideas come and go and trust me, you will not likely remember the brilliant thought you were having last night at 11pm. 

About ten years ago I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done and it has revolutionized how I think about technology and systems for enhancing my creative life. As Allen contends, we need a way to “capture” the ideas in our heard. This is where technology comes into the picture. That notepad or moleskin notebook is our way of capturing thoughts. Or maybe it’s a napkin from Starbucks. Whatever. Just capture the thought and then get it into your productivity system so you can do something with it. What is the next step you will do with the little idea that just popped into your head (what Allen calls the ‘next action step’)?

In my productivity system, the scrap paper with my brilliant little thought gets catalogues in some way, usually by entering it as a note in Evernote, or as an item in the Mac app, Things. Either way, I’ve capture the idea, rescued it from the cocktail napkin, and I have it waiting in a queue for the next things I will do with it, the next action step.

The point is, to be a better thinker, engage the machinery of thinking. When I was trying to master the Krebs cycle as a freshman biology student, I used a whiteboard and markers. That was the technology I needed to do my best thinking. Today, I do my best thinking with an open Pages document on my laptop, where I will parse my thoughts and actively think while writing.

Perhaps you do your best thinking in solitude, or when engaging in a conversation with a colleague at a coffee shop, or when using mind mapping software in your computer. Do it! Engage the machinery of thinking.

In the end, thinking is like exercise, an active process that requires work and concentration. To be successful in seminary, you will need to devote consistent, non-distracted time and energy to the endeavor. If you do so, you will be successful.