Thinking as Conversion: Book Review

Alan Jacobs. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Currency, 2017.

First published in The Christian Courier here:

How To Think is not about finding truth as much as it is about preventing us from shooting people with whom we disagree. The subtitle gives it away: a survival guide for a world at odds. It’s a short, punchy book not intended just for professors (although they, apparently need it the most. Thought conformity is nowhere more enforced than in the academy).

            Alan Jacobs is a Christian public intellectual now at Baylor University and he insists that thinking better is truly an art, not a science. So this book is not training in logic, nor is it a song of praise to rationality. There are no brain exercises in the appendix, although you’ll find a few basic rules of thumb there.

            Thinking is less about your brain, insists Jacobs, than about your whole self—relationships included. Thinking well is about becoming a certain kind of person in a certain kind of group—people who practise habits of self-monitoring and empathy for the different, including the RCO (“Repugnant Cultural Other”); people who are patient, prudent, and who with forbearance listen to those with whom they disagree. Good thinking is slow and often uncomfortable.

            If I were to compare it with the “cultural liturgies” project of James K. A. Smith, I would say while Smith seeks to uncover how people are formed by their practises into a particular social imaginary, Jacobs is more concerned about the practises that keep people in—or shake people out—of a narrow and rigid social imaginary. Jacobs unpacks how key words, metaphors, myths and labels steer our assessments of our experience, and how strong feelings like solidarity both help and hinder good judgment. Like Smith, the key focus is habits of the heart more than the raw power of the mind.

            One of the central examples in the book is Megan Phelps-Roper, bred into the infamous church of her grandfather, Westboro Baptist in Kansas. Known singularly for its “God Hates Fags” refrain, it brooks no compromise, mostly shouting slogans across the internet and through protest rallies. Yet it was initially an exchange with a Jewish web developer on Twitter that prompted the beginning of her re-evaluation of her faith. It was in pausing and listening to the Repugnant Cultural Other that Phelps-Roper began to truly think, eventually being shunned from her church/family, and leaving any Christian faith behind.

            “If you learn to think, to genuinely think, you will sometimes change your mind,”—insinuating that Jacobs sees thinking as akin more to doubting and conversion than shoring up your position. Thinking at its heart, is “the power to be finely aware and richly responsible”—a task that never ends. But as the Phelps-Roper case demonstrates, thinking better is not finally about “thinking for yourself” as some sort of lonely genius: its about thinking with a different group of people. Really, thinking with a more diverse group of people—while still holding convictions.

            Phelps-Roper, now with her own Ted-Talk, a book with a major publishing company (Unfollow), and a Hollywood movie on its heels, is thinking with a much more culturally elite network. If Jacobs is right, she hasn’t finally arrived as good thinker; this new milieu has its own liabilities of good judgment. But if love continues to guide her way, she will think better. Ultimately, this book is less about thinking and Truth and more about an epistemology of love. How to be a humble person who “does not seek so much to be understood, as to understand.” Good advice for a world at odds.

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