Thoughts on Thinking


Recently I was privileged to have lunch with Pete and Shirley Brownhill founders of Youth with a Mission (YWAM) Perth.  Before we took leave, Shirley gave me a book whose title, Memory and Identity (MAI), implied psychology.  She said, “You’re a reader.  Let me know what you think of it.”  Perhaps my past life as a psychologist had prompted Pastor Shirley.  I was flattered she sought my opinion.

The author was not a psychologist.  The author was a Pope, John Paul ll.  His book was more about history and politics than psychology.  But I found it interesting to say the least.

The first chapter had some fascinating things to say about Genesis 1, 2 and 3.  What’s the meaning of “tree of knowledge of good and evil”?  Why was “knowledge of good and evil” the forbidden tree?  I’d always known the point was Adam and Eve disobeying God by eating forbidden fruit.  That was their sin.  But “knowledge of good and evil” had always seemed OK to me.  What was wrong with knowledge?  MAI gave an answer to that question on page 7:

The Book of Genesis speaks of this: ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Gen.3:5), in other words you yourselves will decide what is good and what is evil (italics mine).

So according to MAI, the fruit of the “tree of knowledge” didn’t just supply knowledge, it also allowed us to invent our own ideas of right and wrong.  I haven’t checked with other theologians about this interpretation but it makes good sense to me that, before coming to Christ, I came to grief by forming my own morality, my own ethics, my own ideas of right and wrong.   Nor did it help much that I also accepted the man-made morality of other professionals who in turn had mentors who, since the fall of man, had done what seemed right to them at the time.  “Professional ethics” was one thing, “personal morality” was another.  As long as a psychologist didn’t bring disgrace to the profession, he could do pretty much what he pleased.  What I pleased was not right or wise and I became addicted to alcohol and drugs.  Praise Jesus for setting me free.

John Paul ll goes on to show how the mass-murders of Nazism and Communism were the result of men deciding for themselves what was right and wrong.  Huge numbers of innocent people were murdered in the twentieth century.  MAI goes on to say it would have been worse if the Lord had not limited evil and ensured positive eventual outcomes.  The horrors of Communism and Nazism are vivid memories to my generation (my YOB, 1929) and it was with great relief that my cohorts and I experienced the defeat of Hitler, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline and modification of Communism elsewhere.  Who can fail to thank the Lord for mitigating evil in my century – and in me!  I thank the Pope for reminding us of God’s grace at the international level.

On the other hand, what MAI said about Polish, European, and church history didn’t resonate with me because I lack a firm “national identity”.  I migrated to Australia thirty-five years ago and became a Christian at age fifty in Melbourne.  I have Australian citizenship but the Aussies call me a “Yank” because I’m American born.  Although I possess dual citizenship, in my heart of hearts I am neither Aussie nor Yank.  I don’t really belong anywhere – except in Christ.  My identity lies in Him.  Don’t get the idea I am a case of thinking makes it so because the reverse is true: my identity is a God-given reality, whether I know it or not.

MAI Chapter One makes that point in a way that struck me as brilliant.  It traces current evil ideology back prior to the so-called “European Enlightenment”, where the philosopher Rene Decartes postulated a philosophy based on his own doubt.  Decartes said he could doubt everything except that he could doubt.  Therefore, he could not doubt his own thinking.  The phrase cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), the premise of Cartesian philosophy, became the foundation-stone of today’s secular world-view.  According to this weltanschauung, existence depends on thought.  According to the Bible it’s the other way around: we think because we exist and we exist because God created us (and everything else).

Jack Jones, editor of, pointed out to me an amazing irony in Decartes’ famous dictum.  Jack said: God’s name YHWH is rendered in English as “I AM” and translated in the King James as “LORD”.  So cogito ergo sum makes the great error of saying that God is a product of our minds: He exists only because we think He does.  The Truth of the Bible is that we have minds because God existed before we did.  He chose to create us and give us the ability to think.

So only because of Him (the great I AM) do I exist, let alone think.  His son, Jesus, has made me to be an outsider, ambassador, a sojourner, a temporary visitor who does not always think like the locals.  I don’t completely identify other than with Him.  At age 85 I’m beginning to see how nothing matters much but Jesus and the people He puts into my life.  Despite living in an increasingly godless society, my Bible is the inerrant Word of God to me.  The culture disputes but I affirm.  What I think is unimportant compared to what He thinks.

MAI went on to say: “The only way to overcome this dimension of original sin is through a corresponding armor Dei usque ad contemptum sui – love for God to the point of contempt of self.”  The author then spent several chapters on the importance and mystery of God’s redemption of mankind.  

“Contempt of self” sounded extreme to me.  Modern psychology taught self-esteem to be necessary to prevent mental illness.  A corresponding protestant viewpoint said it was good and God-given.  Indeed, one of the most prominent protestant ministries of the twentieth century, Robert Schuler’s Hour of Power, which began in a car-park, preached success a la the Power of Positive Thinking of Norman Vincent Peal, grew and grew to the point where broadcast every week from the magnificent Crystal Cathedral, featured self-esteem as a blessing.

So here were the two extremes: utter contempt of self vs utter elevation of self.  But what my Pentecostal Church had taught me, it seemed, was something in between, a transformation, through which I become less as Jesus becomes more.

Still if I were forced to choose between the extremes, I would do well to remember that Robert Schuler’s ministry is now bankrupt and his Crystal Cathedral bought by the Catholic Church and renamed Christ Cathedral.  Isn’t there a lesson in that?  Comparing Big Ego with Humiliation, the latter is closer to my need – humility.

I am grateful to His Holiness for writing a book that makes me think!  And I’m grateful to God that although He knows my every thought, He still wants me to tell Him what’s on my mind.  Since you, the reader, have persisted this far, let me say I am grateful to you for your interest and might hope to read your thoughts on such matters.