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It’s the Thought that Counts: Do Our Ideas Make Us Good or Bad People?

When I was growing up in the PCA (one of the conservative evangelical – read: fundamentalist – Presbyterian denominations, stands for Presbyterian Church of America), there was a strong sense that thinking the right things about God and about your position in relationship to God was a critical part of being a Christian.

A Presbyterian would never say that what you thought saved you because we know from Calvin that we can’t save ourselves and so you can’t just think your way to salvation.  But once you are saved, it’s crucial to make sure you understand your salvation in the right way.  As John Piper writes, “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people.”  You could tell whether someone really was a Christian depending on the tenets they held–whether the Bible was inerrant, whether Jesus’ death was substitutional atonement, whether you believed in heaven and hell, whether you were a universalist.  There was a strong sense that the way you thought about God (and yourself) would affect the way that you lived.  If you thought God was an angry and vindictive God that you had to make happy, then you would live in fear and anxiety.  You’d probably be critical of yourself and others — in other words, you’d live like an orphan, not a son or daughter of the King.  But if you believed that there was nothing you could do to win God’s favor, and thus nothing you could do to fall out of God’s favor, you would live a righteous life out of gratitude.  Thus, other denominations didn’t just have different ways of understanding Christianity, but they were not able to live the right way in relation to God because of the way they thought about God that made their Christianity the source of their bitterness and critical spirit toward themselves and others.


Westminster Theological Seminary

This made a lot of sense to me.  Perhaps that is why Socratic intellectualism–the idea that you live out of your conception of what you think is good–seems so convincing to me.  It suggests that the way you think affects the way that you live and if you want to live differently, you need to think differently and if you think differently, you could begin to live differently.  It also means that if you keep saying I know this isn’t good, I know this isn’t good, but you keep doing it, well, you’re lying to yourself, you don’t really know this isn’t good.  Socratic intellectualism seems able to account for the Freudian unconscious in a way that I’ve found useful as well (actually, I think there is something of this psychoanalytic concern for the unconscious in Christianity, at least evangelical Presbyterian Christianity, as well, where sin and “patterns of sin” are signs of some problematic way of thinking, and this might be why fundamentalist Presbyterians police the borders of the doctrine, well, religiously, as in the continued purging of professors at Westminster Theological Seminary where my grandfather, C. John Miller taught practical theology in the 1980s and other kerfuffles in the PCA. Just yesterday, yet another blogger posted about how Westminster is doubling down on its doctrinal policing.)

In my last post, I wrote about the tendency that people on the Left have to demonize those who disagree, and that Arendt’s insights about the banality of evil might offer some insight into considering positions that we strongly oppose.  But there were a lot of questions that that post left open for me.  I think someone might respond to my claim that anti-feminists are not trying to destroy your life by saying, but they are wrong, and their ideas hurt people.  When I say that their ideas hurt people, I don’t mean that because they think it is good to oppress women their ideas hurt people, but rather, because they think that women have particular natures that need to be cultivated in a particular way, their ideas hurt people.  I am not saying that their ethical claims are the problem, though they are, but rather, that the ideas behind those claims seem to hurt people.  This then opens the question, is it unethical or immoral to hold certain views of the world?  If people live out of the way they understand the world, and the way they live seems oppressive, then the  fault seems to lie with the way that they understand the world, and that is the root of their injustices.  My claim in my previous post was that the parallel problem between Eichmann and anti-feminists was a (blind?) commitment to another authority.  The ethical response would then be to encourage a practice of reflective thinking, tentativeness about the principles one takes as absolute.  A Derridian would surely say that such a response establishes thinking itself as the new absolute, which is of course right, and we wouldn’t have a way to guarantee that such thinking might not end us up in some position that would be unjust.  A person could become an anti-feminist because the person was an essentialist and was just convinced by Aquinas’ arguments that she regularly revisited rather than because she was trying to find an account consistent with a certain reading of the Bible that she just accepted as right.

So since I opened this can of worms, I’m going to blog a short series on this question, not so much with the goal of answering it, but rather illuminating the issues involved and the implications of possible answers: are you unjust or unethical just because you think that certain things are true?  And the converse, are you good because you think certain things are true?  And by thinking things are true, I’m speaking of ontological claims about the way the world is.  Of course, since I am an ancient philosopher, there will be some Plato and Aristotle involved.  I’m interesting in learning what readers’ initial reactions to this question are.


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