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Holy Dissent and Self-Critical Thinking

Father Richard Rohr values how Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures introduced the gift of self-critical thinking into their relationship with God:

The Hebrew Scriptures, against all religious expectations, include what most of us would call the problem—the negative, the accidental, the sinful—as the precise arena for divine revelation. There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures; even Abraham rather cruelly drove his second wife into the desert with their child. The Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets as part of their Holy Scriptures. They include stories and prophecies that do not tell the Jewish people how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! It is the birth of self-critical thinking and thus moves consciousness forward. No other religion has been known for such capacity for self-criticism, down to our own time. [1]

The Jewish rabbi and noted theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel understood such self-critical thinking and dissent as central to Judaism and to all vibrant and healthy religion:

Inherent to all traditional religion is the peril of stagnation. What becomes settled and established may easily turn foul. Insight is replaced by clichés, elasticity by obstinacy, spontaneity by habit. Acts of dissent prove to be acts of renewal.

It is therefore of vital importance for religious people to voice and to appreciate dissent. And dissent implies self-examination, critique, discontent.

Dissent is indigenous to Judaism. The prophets of ancient Israel who rebelled against a religion that would merely serve the self-interest or survival of the people continue to stand out as inspiration and example of dissent to this very day.

An outstanding feature dominating all Jewish books composed during the first five hundred years of our era is the fact that together with the normative view a dissenting view is nearly always offered, whether in theology or in law. Dissent continued during the finest periods of Jewish history: great scholars sharply disagreed with Maimonides; Hasidism, which brought so much illumination and inspiration into Jewish life, was a movement of dissent. . . . Creative dissent comes out of love and faith, offering positive alternatives, a vision. [2]

Father Richard seeks a both-and approach that embraces self-criticism without falling into excessive intellectualism or despair:

Self-criticism is quite rare in the history of religion, yet it is necessary to keep religion from its natural tendency toward arrogant self-assurance—and eventually idolatry, which is always the major sin for biblical Israel. We must also point out, however, that mere critique usually deteriorates into cynicism, skepticism, academic arrogance, and even post-modernistic nihilism. So be very careful and very prayerful before you own any self-image of professional critic or anointed prophet! Negativity will do you in. [3]