by Rev. John Zehring for The Christian Citizen
When I taught public speaking at a university as an adjunct professor, each student was required to deliver different types of speeches. They started with informational speeches, moved to special occasion speeches, and then were required to deliver a persuasive speech.
As an experiment, I made the students an offer (they had to connect with me beforehand to prearrange for this plot): I would increase their grade by one level if they delivered a persuasive speech so compelling that no classmate detected that the position for which they advocated was the opposite of what they personally believed. For example, a student who held that nuclear power plants are poisonous and should be replaced with alternative energy production would attempt to convince her listeners that we should loosen regulation and increase the number of nuclear energy plants. A number took up the challenge, and many succeeded at persuading their listeners into accepting the position opposite of their real belief. This raised another challenge for listeners: how do we know what to believe? How do we learn to listen evaluatively?
Consider the information wars of the past few years and how critically important it is for you and me to grow in our ability to listen evaluatively. The past four years seem to have sprung forth with fountains of misinformation, bent truths, lies, and a distortion of the facts. Some would say the former President of the United States himself generated lies and half-truths whenever his lips moved, along with his ever-changing press secretaries, his lawyers, senators like Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Ron Johnson, representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene, governors like Ron DeSantis, and, of course, Fox News. Others would impugn the credibility of President Biden, Vice President Harris, senators like Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, representatives like Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, of course, The Rachel Maddow Show. Who to believe?
Thinking evaluatively applies as well to our faith and religious leaders. Go to church on one side of the street and you’ll learn that the Pope will not allow priests to bless same-sex unions, because those unions are “illicit,” and hear those proclaiming the opinion that God “cannot bless sin.” Walk across the street to worship at a church with a rainbow flag flying proudly to welcome all – no exceptions – to be a guest at the Lord’s table. The pastor themself might be lesbian or gay. One theology views Jesus standing at the door with arms folded – including some, excluding others. The other views Jesus standing at an open door with arms outstretched and palms up, offering an extravagant welcome to all. All. No exceptions. Who to believe?
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “The function of education… is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” You and I are needed, perhaps more than any time in our memory, to become advocates for, champions of, teachers of, and practitioners of critical thinking and evaluative listening.
The essence of critical thinking centers not on answering questions but on questioning answers: probing, analyzing, and evaluating. Thinking critically is not the same thing as criticism. It means not simply accepting information at face value in a non-evaluating way. It means questioning the source’s motives, agenda, purpose, slant, or bias. Listening evaluatively acknowledges that we all have a bias – you, me, and even the writers of the gospels and the epistles. It asks what does the speaker or writer have to gain from you accepting their data? Whose interest do they have at heart?
Critical thinking means considering other sources. If you go sailing and see a water tank, you might guess where you are. If you see both a tank and a steeple, you can triangulate and know your location with precision. Thinking evaluatively encourages you to check a second or third source to help you take your bearings with greater accuracy.
How do we know who to believe? Whether a student in a public speaking class, a worshipper wondering about the message from the pulpit, a potential customer weighing a sales pitch, or a citizen considering the truthfulness of a politician speaking on your favored news channel, how can you listen evaluatively and critically to weigh the evidence? With an explosion of information sources bombarding us with data, it becomes indispensable for thinking people to listen evaluatively and to think critically.
Critical thinking means holding a healthy skepticism about surveys, polls, and statistics, realizing how data can be manipulated or taken out of context. For example, you can observe a man with one foot in the oven, the other in the refrigerator and assume that statistically he is comfortable. A survey or poll could be found to support almost any position.
Critical thinking looks for evidence. The Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Critical thinking is ready to change its mind if the evidence changes.
Critical thinking does not rest upon what it is told. Galileo was excommunicated for challenging the Church’s view that the sun, planets and stars revolved around the earth, but he was correct and they were not.
Critical thinking, like a detective, looks for what is not said or is not there. In one of Sherlock Holmes’ greatest cases – Silver Blaze – he solved the case when he realized that the silence he observed was the clue to the mystery, for it was the dog that didn’t bark in the night that gave it away. Ask about the data you receive “What is not being said?” What is your newscaster, preacher, sales rep, politician, or advice-giving friend not saying?
Critical thinking receives anecdotes with a grain of salt. Two or three of your friends may have had a bad experience with a restaurant, but that does not make it conclusive that it is a bad restaurant. Two or three dozen of your friends on Facebook may share an opinion, but that is not necessarily an accurate representative of the population. Critical thinking refrains from making judgments about what “people are saying” or “everyone is talking about…”
Listening evaluatively tests its questions with other people, in conversation and dialogue, and welcomes corrections, suggestions, and constructive criticism. It is open to learning, growing, and changing its mind. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “If any man is able to convince me and show me that what I think or do is not right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth, by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”
The word “why” is the most powerful tool in critical thinking’s mental toolbox – not to confront, challenge, or dissuade, but out of curiosity, to know more, to understand basic assumptions, to put in context, and to evaluate data and analyze its credibility. Weigh information with the questions asked by every reporter: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Listening evaluatively does not jump to conclusions without first allowing a fair hearing of the data. It does not prematurely reject a speaker’s ideas because of assumptions or prejudices about the speaker. It also filters out the sizzle as it zeroes in on the steak – preventing the mind from being swayed by the charismatic twinkle in the eye, humor, or a winsome personality.
Listening evaluatively is the mark of a thinking mind. After the wars of disinformation which we experienced in the past half decade, we must rethink how we listen and how we think. I crave evaluative listening skills for my grandchildren, for my neighbors and friends, for all who sit in the pews, for all who vote, and for all who watch, read, or listen to the news. But I cannot wish it for another until I engage in it myself. So, may I practice what I preach, and may all of us desire to grow in our skills as people who think critically and listen evaluatively.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash