Critical Thinking Versus Being Critical

I was taught to use critical thinking skills.  I’m not always good at it, but I do try to see all sides of issues, and I try to avoid being duped.  Critical thinkers should be able to step back and see potential problems within their own conclusions as well as the conclusions of others.  No one can be right about everything all of the time.  Nevertheless, we must make conclusions regarding values, principles and morality, especially if we claim to be Christian.  Such conclusions must be based on reason as well as faith.  Pope John Paul II said that faith and reason are the two wings on which the soul takes flight.  Hence, even Christians need critical thinking skills.  Being Christian is an intelligent choice as well as a choice of faith.  Being a critical thinker, however, is not the same as being a critical person, and many folks get the two confused.

Critical people tend to seek out and point out the faults of others.  They will look a person “up and down” in an attempt to spot a blemish or shortcoming.  They also tend to find ways to make “imperfections” known to others.  This is the attitude of the Pharisee whose prayer consisted of thanking God that he was not like the sinners around him.  It is an attitude of superiority which expresses contempt for others while “pumping up” one’s self.  Having a critical attitude is not the same thing as using critical thinking skills to arrive at different conclusions than others.

There are also people that, if disagreed with, will throw out accusations of hatred.  “Since you disagree with my conclusion, you must hate me.”  These people are dismissing the possibility that the conclusion that differs from theirs could have been arrived at through legitimate, critical thinking rather than through hatred.  Using critical thinking skills is not hatred.  In fact, it is a loving thing to do as it attempts to see all sides and operate justly rather than through pure emotion.

As Christians, we are compelled to use critical thinking skills but not to be critical people.   We are to be, as Scripture says, “Wise as serpents but harmless as doves.”  James tells us how difficult it is to “tame the tongue,” yet we must strive to “speak the truth in love.”  As soon as we use truth as a hammer to beat down or insult other human beings, we enter the realm of sin.  We must, at all times and with all people, act with charity (love).  Faith, hope and charity: the greatest of these is charity.  Think critically, but don’t be a critical person.  Critical people tend to attract other critical people, and that is not the mission of the Church.  Criticism doesn’t usually win people over.

Most of us are critical rather than loving at times.  That’s why we have the confessional.  And Jesus waits for us there, not to criticize us, but to love us and to help us think more critically about how we can be more like Him and bring others to Him.

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