The need for thinkers

Despite our roots in independent thought, Adventists today seem to be thinking less and less. How can we help our members to be thinkers?

Rhonda Arnold is the registrar at Takoma Academy, Takoma Park, Maryland.


One of the most important goals of education—and preachers as well as teachers are educators—is to teach students to be thinkers. A thinker is one who can examine all sides of a situation and arrive at a logical conclusion based on a personal philosophy of life. A thinker is one who is honest about what he or she believes, and acts according to that belief. "Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men's thought."—Education, p. 17.

Schools used to emphasize memorization of facts, figures, and events, with the idea that a good education equals a good memory for trivia. Note the great popularity of It's Academic and College Bowl during the fifties and sixties. These programs are still being sponsored today, but to a much lesser extent. Today's schools do not emphasize the skills of recall but the skills of thinking—such abilities as critical analysis, logic, and honest appraisal of both objective facts and subjective emotions. Thus, rather than requiring students to memorize the dates of Civil War battles, today's teacher demands analysis of the causes of the war or application of the problems in the 1860's to the current world situation. At test time the wise teacher will not ask his students merely to parrot back pat answers already provided, but will require the student to make judgments and then support them with sound reasoning. The purpose of this type of teaching is to get students to do their own thinking, and not rely solely on the teacher's thoughts.

This teaching method, however, is risky; it opens up the possibility that a student will ask a question the teacher cannot answer. It means that the teacher cannot expect students to swallow blindly whatever he or she says; the teacher, too, must be a thinker. It means that there may be noise at times in the classroom as students "battle" out the issues among themselves. Yet the rewards far outweigh the risks. Students who acquire the necessary skills for thinking are the ones who will be able to face a personal crisis or decision with calm assurance that there is a way to cope. These are not the "plastic" people with which this world is glutted, who have no principles, who cannot make intellectually honest decisions, who are not thinkers.

God has always wanted His people to be thinkers. Isaiah 1:18 quotes God as saying, "Come now, and let us reason together." When the Israelites were uncertain of their allegiance to God, Joshua said, " 'Choose this day whom you will serve, . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord' " (Joshua 24:15, R.S.V.). He could have said, "I, as your leader, will choose for you," but he didn't impose his decision on others. He wanted each family to make its own decision. Christ, in His ministry, asked many questions in an attempt to lead people to think for themselves. His desire was to confront them with Himself and His message, and have them come to their own conclusions.

In sharp contrast to Christ's effort to develop thinkers was the rabbinical system. These schools revered tradition—the thoughts of the fathers—and heavily emphasized memorization of commentaries on Scripture. Thus the students were inundated with the thoughts of others, a practice that encouraged them to be nonthinkers.

The early history of our own church is the story of thinkers. William Miller and his followers were people who searched the Scriptures for themselves and were not afraid to expound their conclusions, even when it meant expulsion from their church. These were people who did not think it unreasonable to spend entire nights agonizing in prayer over a puzzling doctrinal point, or to act upon their conclusions and not plant potatoes when they believed the Lord would come be fore harvest, or (the real test of a thinker) not to give up their studies when disappointed, but to dig in even deeper, agonize some more, think and pray, and revise their former conclusions. The results of these thinkers' efforts? A small group of New Englanders expanded into an organized church body of 3,500 in 1863, one that has exponentially in creased to a worldwide membership of 3 million today.

But the problem is that despite our roots in independent thought, today's Adventist seems to be thinking less and less. Many seem to be depending upon the zeal of former thinkers. We want to relax, accept the great traditions of the church, and let the leadership make our decisions for us. We have an irresistible urge to sleep.

I teach a youth Sabbath school class, and I see this attitude too often. If I ask the students, "Do you believe such and such?" they will sleepily nod their heads Yes. If I ask them "Why?" some will even recite the pat answers they've got ten from parents or previous Sabbath school teachers. But when I try to get them to support their views with logic, and with personal testimony, all too often I see a lack of honest thought. Their belief is not personally meaningful. I believe it is for this reason that many young adults drift away from the church. Those who return when they begin their own family often do so be cause of the life style rather than be cause the church has personal meaning to them.

Likewise, older church leaders reveal their lack of individual thought when they depend on General Conference committees to make such decisions as proper dress codes or what literature to teach in the schools. Not that General Conference committees stifle thinking; on the contrary, they stimulate thinking. But what a pity that only a small group does the thinking for an entire church! There should be discussion among all church members, not just a few. I am always thrilled when I hear my teen-aged Sabbath school members challenge one another's beliefs, ask probing questions, and then take time to study the issues. Sure, it's risky to encourage debate, to challenge the church's teachings with a healthy "Why?" But it is far more risky to encourage a Laodicean attitude of "I believe, but it doesn't truly affect my life." If our members are to survive the battering they have received and will continue to receive from the amoral seventies and eighties, they must know what they believe and why they believe it, and they must act upon those beliefs. In short, they must be thinkers. Frankly, I feel that this is the only hope our church has of surviving the blows of an increasingly secular world.

How can we teach our members to be thinkers? Actually, we can't. Only God's Spirit can enable one to be a thinker. That means each generation must experience a fresh endowment of the Spirit. I cannot depend on the zeal of my grand mother to gain entrance to the wedding feast; I must have my own oil.

There are some things we can do, however. We can help our members to ask more questions—prayerfully and honestly. Why do we believe? Where is the proof? Do we have any new light? What does God say? The church should not be afraid of questions; honest, prayerful questioning can only reveal truth. What has the church to fear? We can also provide opportunities for more fellowship among our members in small groups. We desperately need the old-fashioned home prayer meeting, in which the name truly fits the activity—lots of prayer. If our members would gather together in small groups in one another's homes and support one an other with testimonies, encouragement, prayer, and Bible study, I believe more would experience that fresh endowment of the Spirit that leads to true thinking.

When the lawyer came to Christ with the question "Who is my neighbor?" Christ did not hand him a report of the church committee on community out reach. Instead He asked, "What is writ ten in the law? How do you read?" The community outreach committee report may have contained the same answer that the lawyer found in the law. But Christ chose the method that made the young man think for himself. Can we, who minister in Christ's stead, do any less today?

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Rhonda Arnold is the registrar at Takoma Academy, Takoma Park, Maryland.

August 1979

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