One thing that I really enjoyed about Alan Jacobs’ new book, How to Think, is the way he puts regular words together to make up a new term. Some he borrows from other writers, but it really was pure joy for me to ponder some familiar and new usages of word pairings. There were some fascinating ones like “assignable curiosity,” “intimacy gradients,” and “intellectual sunk costs.” But I am led to think a little more on paper about his use of “Inner Ring,” “Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO),” and “mental purity.”
Jacobs spends a lot of time building on C.S. Lewis’ teaching about the Inner Ring, or “’moral matrix’ that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged,” reasoning that if we are so caught up in our own Inner Rings, we begin to look at outsiders to our Ring as Repugnant Cultural Others (55). Jacobs calls these Inner Ring zealots “true believers.” This kind of tribalism really doesn’t sharpen our thinking or properly love our neighbors. When this happens, we are not truly being loyal to our group or our belief systems that we hold dear because we bind one another to strict orthodoxy of the Inner Ring rather than to the truth and rather than freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened. Inner Ring tribalism also produces pretenders who never really grasp the truths we hold dear. Finding common ground with those who hold different convictions than us, even politically or religiously, does not necessarily weaken our own convictions. If they are in truth, they will be strengthened as we are stretched in our thinking.
How can we be healthier in our affiliations with one another? How can we have loving hearts and healthy minds? There are so many Inner Rings even in the Christian evangelical subculture. I know I have participated in Inner Ringmanship to my own regret. We also see polarizing Inner Rings with political affiliations, race, diets, social issues, and education. There are Inner Rings in church, at school, at work, and in our neighborhoods. Social media has become quite the Inner Ring facilitator. One of the toughest exercises in self-examination is to “distinguish between ‘genuine solidarity’ and participation in an Inner Ring.” (63) It’s the difference between true community and false belonging.
This was all going through my mind when I stumbled upon Jacobs’ use of the term “mental purity”:
You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open on your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign. Even if what you’re reading is Mein Kampf, because there are actually good reasons to read Mein Kampf. The true believer is always concerned, both on her behalf and on that of the other members of her ingroup, for mental purity. (138)
Mental purity sounds like a really good thing, doesn’t it? And it definitely sounds like something that I want for my children. But we have another term for this, which exposes the negative effects: living in a bubble. It’s funny that Jesus didn’t separate the church from the rest of the world after his resurrection so that we wouldn’t be so exposed to corrupting ideas and teaching. It’s funny how he has made many unbelievers smarter and more gifted than his people, so that we will benefit from, learn from, and serve with them. It’s funny how the church has never had mental purity. But we do have Christ, who is both good and omniscient. And we have his word, which is living and active. God calls his people to discernment which requires critical thinking, not to mental purity.
Even so, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just have to say, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap!” Sometimes crap is just crap. There are many books out there that will not engage us to be good thinkers and may actually make us dumber after having read them. You can’t engage much with fluff. And when it comes to something like 50 Shades of Grey, for example, we really don’t have any business reading it. It’s not only junk, and really bad writing, but it easily leads to sinful thoughts and actions. Discernment knows that there is such a thing as a junk pile. But this isn’t what Jacobs is talking about. He’s addressing this sense of tribalism that puts all outsider views in the junk pile and refuses to read those we even strongly disagree with for critical thinking. (I should also note, because I come across this quite often, absorbing everything you read is not critical thinking.)
While reading about mental purity, I couldn’t help but think about Inner Ring convictions on education. Within the church, homeschoolers, private schoolers, and public schoolers can encounter Inner Rings—especially among the parents. And our own convictions in these areas are often criticized as moral choices. I have friends whom I deeply care about in all three of these categories and I know that all three of these choices are susceptible to judgment as outsiders. As a parent who sends her kids to public school, I have felt the sting of RCO comments aimed at our education choices. And yet one reason my husband and I have made this choice is because of the mental purity fallacy. I struggle with balancing this all the time though. There is an important case to be made for stages of mental innocence in our children. They need to reach certain levels of maturity before they can even exercise discernment in separating truth from error and lies. And yet, as they grow, it is important for them to learn how to do this.
Parents are responsible for what we teach our children. We need to make sure that the good stuff is being put in. And there are evils that they should not be exposed to. It’s tempting for me just to teach my kids what to think. It seems a lot safer anyway. But in order to learn how to think, they have to interact with worldviews, belief systems, and other convictions that are different from our own. The fear is corruption. And this is a real concern—very real. I don’t want to downplay it. Although, on the other hand, I also don’t want to shield my kids so much from the outside word that they begin to think sin is what’s “out there” only later in life to fall into despair when they realize sin is saturated in their very own hearts.
In public school my kids have to wrestle with Inner Rings all the time. And they can be the RCO to many of their unbelieving friends and sometimes teachers. Sometimes they take solid stand and others they fall into being a pretender to an Inner Ring in which they do not belong. But in this, they learn about themselves and others. They’re also learning how to learn from others even while holding strong differences in other areas. They are learning about finding common ground. They still have a long way to go—so do I—but they are exercising these very principles that Jacobs teaches on the art of thinking.
I’m not against homeschooling or private schooling. And there are all sorts of other reasons one may choose that route, such as the methods used in educating, the curriculum, or the teaching itself. You can certainly teach the art of thinking at home and in private school as well. Each parent is responsible to make these decisions in humility. We should support one another in the church as we make these critical decisions, not divide over them. I love that my kids get to have good friends who are educated differently. Some of their homeschooled friends and private schooled friends share the most common ground with them, as they go to the same church. On Sunday, God calls all his people to his household to learn about him, to worship him, and to be blessed in him. This is sacred time and sacred space, as Michael Horton calls it. No one in God’s household is repugnant, “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). And Christ isn’t an Inner Ringer; he creates a genuine community—one that honestly and humbly engages with the world around it. He hasn’t given us mental purity, but he has given us the art of thinking.
*Originally published November 9, 2017.