Creative Thinking

The Missionary's Most Needful Preparation (An Address at Blue Ridge Educational Convention, August 19, 1937).

By L. H. CHRISTIAN, Vice-President, General Conference

Whether or not the missionary succeeds at his task, depends to a large degree upon the gift of creative thinking, the ability to solve new problems and to find a way to proceed under hard conditions. We have seen represen­tatives of the advent movement sent into places so baffling and delicate that no one was able to give them any instruction or help. Unless they, under God, could discover the solution by their own thinking, they must fail. Both they and the work were not only in deep perplexity, but in real peril. Under those circumstances, too, we have observed that indispensable as is a well-rounded college training, both theoretical and practical, the real deciding factor is always the mind, the thinking of those in charge.

We should carefully consider the mind of Christ. "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," is the divine injunction. As we do this, four outstanding points appear: (1) The thinking of Christ was full of unselfish service. (2) His complete mastery of every situation and His tact in dealing with all kinds of people and conditions were unfailing. Christ was never puzzled or surprised. (3) His keen­ness of thought was revealed in the marvelous questions He asked and the answers He gave. (4) Above all, the mind of Christ had that larger gift of dynamic thought, that stirring to action, which led people into doing and daring for the right. The thinking of our Saviour was in touch with God, the Author of thought, in such a way as to inspire others to creative thinking.

Adventists stress strongly the value of caring for their physical bodies. We agree that this is of utmost importance. But although good health is an inestimable boon, all will admit that a strong physique with a small, dull mind, is infinitely less desirable than a weak body with a keen, well-trained mind and a, rich store of useful knowledge. To me it seems that both our teachers and our ministers fail to set forth as they should the importance of clear, godly thinking. In theory, we all grant that the spir­itual and intellectual are far more important than the physical, but do we not sometimes forget it in practice?             

The "Testimonies" point out the value of car­ing for the body, but they emphasize yet more the importance of mental training: "Mental cul­ture is what we, as a people, need, and what we must have in order to meet the demands of the time."—Vol. IV, P. 414. We teach our stu­dents to work. We teach them Bible and his­tory, Greek and Latin, mathematics and science, and other important things. But as I meet the students from our schools, going into the mis­sion field I have observed that we have failed to teach them how to think. We should give earnest attention to the responsibility of train­ing the mind. The image of God is, first of all, the character and likeness of God in the soul. The heavenly gifts of mind and heart, rather than mere knowledge, need to be exalted today. Mind and knowledge, though they cannot exist apart from each other, are two different things. Mind is like the trained hand or eye; knowledge is like a tool. All too often I find students from our schools who have acquired many facts but have failed to learn how to apply those facts. They have the tools, but the skill in using them is lacking. They make one think of a man with a coal shovel, who, if he goes to school two or three years more and takes advanced univer­sity work, often gets only a larger shovel. Just as such a man can use a shovel, but not the finer tools with which goldsmiths work, so these stu­dents have acquired facts, but not the costly treasures of soul culture and ennobling, crea­tive thinking.

Characteristics of a Well-Trained Mind

In speaking of a well-trained mind, I wish to mention a few characteristics of such a mind. First of all is humility. One marked weakness of modern thinking and thinkers is pride of one's own conclusion, with confidence in one's self and contempt for others. A second attribute of a well-trained mind is honesty. Real honesty in thinking is seldom seen. Many confound honesty of research with prejudice, precon­ceived ideas, and a love of empty honor. Honest thinking loves the truth, loves it more than life itself. It not only loves truth for the truth's sake, as is so often said; it loves truth because truth exalts God, helps man, and humbles the thinker.

Independent thinking also belongs to a well-trained mind. That does not necessarily mean opposition thinking, but it does mean that we ourselves try to reason from cause to effect so as to reach a definite conclusion. Genuine, in­dependent thinking remembers that its objec­tive is not to break, but to build. Such thinking is both tolerant and intolerant—tolerant of other persons, but intolerant of all pretense or falsehood. Another crucial test of a well-trained mind is its ability to blend knowing with under­standing. The noted Clemenceau once said of the French statesmen, Poincare and Briand: 

"Poincare knows everything and understands nothing; Briand knows nothing and under­stands everything." The Bible makes a differ­ence between wisdom and knowledge. We are told that "the wise useth knowledge aright." "Through wisdom is a house builded; . . . and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches." Prov. 15:2; 24:3, 4. However, a well-trained mind involves something even beyond logic, reason, knowledge, and understanding. It has breadth of view, and is sensitive and sympathetic in its understand­ing. But it has, above all, the ability to think in such a creative way that it must influence ex­istence. It is thinking that touches life with such a vital spark that it in turn makes others think with an inward urge and really accom­plish things worthwhile.

In speaking of modern thinking and trends of thought, two great dangers should be men­tioned. The first of these is negative. thinking. The very essence and spirit of present-day re­search, of most science, and of a large share of philosophy, is skeptical and destructive. Says one writer:

"This whole wave of radical analyses, characteristic of modern liberalism, is negative. . . . It cannot lead us out into paths of dynamic living. It cannot arrive at a satisfying synthesis or give positive, daring faith. This tendency has worked havoc in the higher grades of our public schools. Its worst effects have been felt in Christian and other colleges and univer­sities, where professors have shocked student after student out of their orthodox home training, and that of their local church. A modern equivalent was not even considered. Clever, smart, 'half-baked' men who had had no contact with life and its maturer responsibilities, or who were older and bad avoided them—in the very halls built with contributions of the faithful common folk, turned out a host of youngsters who were nothing more than unprincipled sophists."—"Christianity in America," p. 45

Perils in Modern Thinking

Another pitfall of present-day thought is a barren, intellectualism. I confess to a grave concern here, not only for our schools, but for our church. It is so easy to mistake scholarship for education and to make titles or degrees the test of men and the measure of our schools. On this danger of modern, worldly trends in church and school we quote further:

"An aristocracy of the intelligentsia is still threaten­ing the foundations of Protestantism. The evangelical conception of a revealed gospel, the Word from and on God, as the central authority to which all men must anchor is being threatened by an intellectualism which is dissolving every axiom of the faith. As a result, Protestant Christianity becomes primarily intellectual. .. .

It culminates in an ecclesiasticism of intellect as dogmatic as that of Middle-Age ecclesiasticism, or of seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy. Or it sub­stitutes intellectual and logical consistency for ethical and religious righteousness. It saps religious vitality and ethical radicality. It levels and dilutes God and other objective verities to the level of the possibility of mental acceptance. It dissolves the dualism of God and man into an intellectual monism that is sterilizing in its effect on prayer, preaching, worship, art, and all phases of Christian truth. . . .

"When intellect becomes an end instead of a means, however, it results in an egotism far more sinister and subtle than the egotism of physical power. Ulti­mately this intellectualism fails, flounders, and ends in either stern stoicism or futile cynicism. This ele­ment of superiority is more strongly pronounced in young scholars than we realize. .

"This intellectual drift within Protestantism has gone so far that it has become stale. A dark and impenetrable cloud seems to have settled upon the intellectuals. A frigid paralysis is evident. Intel­lectualism has no power to save itself, It has gone to seed. It has lost its Master."—Id., pp. 42-46.

These weighty words merit and challenge our thoughtful attention. One of the reasons why the need for well-trained, creative minds has to be stressed today, is the state of modern thinking. Thinking today is superficial. It is think­ing that is no thinking. Modern thinking is crooked. By that I do not mean dishonest. I mean it begins wrong, follows a wrong road, and comes to wrong conclusions. Modern think­ing is muddled and confused. These terms do not mean the same thing. Muddled thinking pretends to be profound thinking, and is indeed often taken by the uninformed for deep thought. It does not express itself clearly, so as to be understood. Clear thinking answers clear-cut questions. Muddled thinking, like muddy water, is shallow; yet we cannot see the bottom. Much of that which calls itself philosophy is really only muddled thinking. Confused think­ing is excited, discordant thinking. It runs amuck, like a chicken with its head gone. The mass mind and even the mob mind—blind, stupid, wild—is the most dangerous specimen of a confused mentality.

Creative thinking is what our missionaries need. They meet entirely new conditions in the foreign field. I have seen them fail again and again to make a way through perplexities, just because they had not learned to reason from cause to effect, and to solve problems. It is pitiful to see them stand thus helpless. They have learned some Greek and Latin; they know some Bible, science, and history; they can work —but they do not think. There is, however, something even more unfortunate than that about the plight they are in. They do not know how to stimulate in other minds the gift of thinking originally, carefully, and in the fear of God. The Lord loves and blesses right think­ing. "He bath no pleasure in fools." Bed. 5:4. We once sent a young man, freshly graduated from one of our schools, to an almost impossible mission field and task. We could give him no help or advice at all—neither on how to get in nor on what to do if he got in. Smiling, he said: "I am thinking. I have spent days just thinking on this problem, and when I come to a stop, my wife thinks on. We have found four ways to enter, and we know God will guide us. We are going in, and we plan to stay." They did go in, and they are still there—thinking and succeeding.

Old Controversies and New

I must give another cogent reason why well-trained minds are needed today. The world is all athrob with frenzied, conflicting ideas. Old errors as to the supremacy of the state and other controversies have been revived, and new, unheard-of issues and claims are being ad­vanced. Our students should be prepared to meet these. The human race is in great dark­ness. Mankind is being led astray today by false doctrines, false philosophies, false sci­ences, and false interpretations of history. Let me refer only to the last. There is the militant interpretation which idolizes generals and dic­tators. This is what brings on tension, re­armament, and war. Then there is the economic interpretation of history, that materialistic phi­losophy called "communism." What havoc has it not wrought among the nations? Another is the racial interpretation making everything depend on blood, soil, and race. Closely akin to that is destructive nationalism. There are others, but these alone have murdered peace, nourished hatred, banished liberty, and led the nations to the present world fear and collapse.

We have need at this time not only of bal­anced men and women, but of warmhearted men and women, who are taught in such a way that the deep fountains of their souls have been broken up. The youth should be set on fire, not with wild enthusiasm, but with that fire which burns deeply—the fire of some high ideal, some great thought, some dynamic pur­pose that will lead them to accomplish mighty deeds for God. What a teacher gives his stu­dents out of his head, important as that may be, is very small compared to what he gives them out of his soul—that is, of his own inner­most life. We had a number of good teachers in Union College when I was a student, but when I remember them, I think first of two who brought something into our lives that other teachers did not bring. They made some­thing grow that caused us to feel and think differently. They sowed a seed that the Lord wanted to develop into creative, original, sym­pathetic, well-balanced thinking.

I am not a critic of our schools. I believe in them. But sometimes it is hard to know just what is taught. I do not think it wise or even ethical to ask students about the faith of their teachers—as if they were to watch for heresy and report it. Although we should never en­courage students to doubt their teachers, and though students who do criticize usually are not the best, we must be frank with our students and keep their confidence. Out of the fullness of their hearts students do reveal things. In seeking for prospective missionaries, I have talked with scores of students. In these inter­views, it seems that the students speak now much more of their teachers' degrees and uni­versity standing than they did years ago. Our schools have become scholastic-minded rather than mission-minded. But I wish our students were more impressed by the impelling power their teachers have brought into their hearts to live that deep, creative soul-life that God will give to everyone. To our teachers comes this divine message: "Let the heart of the instruc­tor be linked with the hearts of those under his charge."

There was something living in the instruction of Jesus, that is lacking today. There was a power in His teaching that urged men to think, to love righteousness, to hate iniquity, to decide aright. It stirred them to action and service. Some may say that a creative mind is a gift of nature which cannot be imparted by others. That is true, but only in part. It is well known that parents can influence and train their chil­dren to independent, careful thinking. Parents could, no doubt, do even more of this than teachers, but because parents sometimes do so little, teachers must always do more. We do most sorely need instructors who impart to their students a love for genuine thinking. This one great need is so overwhelming that our schools will fail unless it is realized. We would not belittle true, modest scholarship or the value of acquiring knowledge, but we would stress a hundredfold more the necessity of getting close to our students and awakening in their souls the impelling power of creative thought.


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By L. H. CHRISTIAN, Vice-President, General Conference

December 1937

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