Editorial By David Kowalski
To be a good novelist one must first read good novels and to be a good essayist one must read the great essayists. It seems the latent abilities in us are stirred by exposure to and interaction with greatness. I believe the same principle holds with the ability to think well. Reading superior minds stretches our own as we must ponder the author’s argumentation and wrestle with all of its implications. It refines our own thinking if we must develop refutations for well-made arguments for positions contrary to our own.
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Our own reasoning will be mediocre if all we do is read the poorest of our intellectual opponents, fixing on their weakest points. Our thinking will be most insubstantial and fragile if we skip primary source reading altogether and read only other people’s critiques of our intellectual foes. Sadly, many people never rise above this lowest of positions.
To see how common this is, I suggest asking those you hear criticizing a particular thinker just which of his or her writings they have read. I have found that when I do this, a moment of embarrassing silence is usually followed by mention of something written by one of the disliked thinker’s critics.
I treasure encounters with superior minds — those whose thinking skills are better than mine. Let me say that superior minds are often wrong on particular points. This is so, first and foremost because the mind is subordinate to the heart and often reasons just as the heart tells it to.
Pride, emotions, upbringing, socialization, self-justification, and tradition all shape the heart and often distort reasoning. We all err at times — even the very best of us. Only God’s revealed Word is completely reliable.
Consequently, I do not identify great minds by the degree to which I agree with them. I classify minds as great when they most provoke my own thinking. To me, a superior book is one that has my notes written throughout the margins and the back pages. It is one that leaves me with better ways to express my own ideas, whether or not they are the same as the author’s.
Of, course, I most appreciate those authors who are able to persuade me that I am wrong on some point. These authors do not just enhance my thinking on already held views, they truly enlighten me.
Such was the case with George Eldon Ladd, for example. Many years ago, I was an amillennialist until Ladd overwhelmed me with the evidence for premillennialism. I have not always agreed with Ladd since that time, but I have always appreciated his ability to make me think.
The difficulty one has understanding an author is not necessarily a good indicator of the author’s thinking skills. They may simply employ too much specialized jargon that you are unfamiliar with. They may also use language in their own unique way — giving a false air of profundity.
I found this to be the case with Rudolf Bultmann. He sounds quite profound in his writing style, but once one makes the effort to really understand his points, they are exposed as painfully simple. Really good thinkers are usually able to express their thoughts clearly (provided the field they are writing in does not exclude the educationally uninitiated).
There are many good thinkers in print but a few of the minds that have most provoked me to thinking of my own are Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alvin Plantinga, Carl Henry, and C. S. Lewis. There are others, and authors who provoke your thought may differ from those who provoke mine. Just as a football team will never be thought great until it beats the best, our thinking will never be great until we have interacted with the best.
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