There’s confusion today, among conservatives and liberals alike, about what it means to be critical.
The common notion is that a critic debunks the inflated, exposes the rotten, and challenges the naive and superficial.
There’s truth in that, though, of itself, this notion leaves much room for each of us, whether liberal or conservative, to do this debunking according to our own selective ideologies and to simplistically believe that everything we don’t like should be changed in the name of truth.
What does it mean to be critical? The word critical comes from the Greek word for judge, kritus. A judge, or critic, is one who hears evidence and tries, on the basis of that evidence, to make a judgment concerning guilt or innocence.
The primary part of this role is not debunking, bashing or challenging that status quo, but of exposing the truth, irrespective of where it might lie.
This means that a critic is a person who agitates for greater objectivity, depth, wholeness and aesthetics. He or she is iconoclastic. The critic smashes idols.
This, however, is a very difficult role and is rarely done well. Too many things conspire against true criticism.
In the writings of some of the great intellectuals of recent times, Einstein, Heisenberg, Durkheim, Freud, Jung, Lonergan, Habbermas, in the more popular insights provided by such things as the Enneogram and Myers-Briggs, and in the psychology surrounding dysfunctionality and co-dependency, we see how complex is the structure of human thought and feeling.
The insights which this wide variety of individuals and schools of thought provide might aptly be called meta-criticism for they show us how virtually all of our judgments are shaped and colored by limited perspective, temperament, ideology, self-interest, and sociological and psychological conditioning… not even to mention bad eyesight and intellectual density!
It is not easy to criticize something on any basis beyond our own self-interest and most criticism is, as somebody once put it, a form of autobiography. Given all that, it’s valid to ask whether it’s even possible to ever think a truly critical thought.
Perhaps that’s too radical a skepticism, given that there is within human conscience a critical faculty that has a grounding in something beyond temperament and historical conditioning. Be that as it may.
Minimally, what this does suggest is that we become more humble, careful, and self-critical in what we consider to be critical thought. Our criticism must be more reflective and based upon much more than ideology and our private likes and dislikes.
True Christian criticism must start where all critical thought must begin today, namely, with the admission that we, like everyone else, are far from objective. All of us think and feel through a certain symbolic system, a pre-ontology, a bias.
But this need not make us skeptical about attaining the truth. The task of being critical is not to rid oneself of all bias (an impossibility, even if it were desirable). The task of true critical thought is to have the right bias, to think and feel through the correct software. But what is the correct bias? What constitutes a good Christian software? What kind of thinking constitutes true criticism?
Jesus tells us that “the pure of heart will see God… and will see straight!” But what constitutes this purity of heart?
Hugo of St. Victor answered by saying: “Love is the eye!” When we are properly in love we see things the way God sees them. This is the genuinely critical eye! When we see things with proper compassion then, and only then, are we good judges, kritus, in the best sense.
John of the Cross says much the same thing when he suggests that we have purity of heart when our motivation is that of Christ, when our reasons for interacting with others and the world issue from a real desire to help bring about a permanent community of life among all people and all things.
When we think and feel like that, as Christ did, then our thoughts and actions are genuinely critical and we bash away at the status quo or try to conserve it on the basis of whether it is aiding or hindering this community of life—and not on the basis of temperament, personal neuroses, or the urge (that issues from the wounded narcissism in the little boy or little girl in each of us) to “kill the king.”
True criticism is, unlike so much thought and action which postures as criticism today, first of all, marked by a deep compassion. Beyond this, it is recognized by its openness, its respect for those with whom it disagrees, its self-criticism and its healthy sense of the importance of aesthetics and enjoyment.
True Christian criticism does not radiate panic, pompousness and cynicism, but rather charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, faith, mildness and chastity—and humor.