I believe the greatest gift my parents ever gave me was the love of critical thinking and a distaste of dogma. This isn’t something you could have expected from a family that would look comfortable on the front cover of a Garrison Keiler novel. Displaced Minnesota Lutherans, we were living in New Jersey when I first started using these gifts.
I can still see Pastors Zeeb’s face, set in stony frustration, as I refused to accept that only our particular type of Lutheran would be readily accepted in heaven. As a 12 year old in catechism class I rejected this notion based on local demographics. . Had we still been in MN, drinking the orange cool-aid provided in the church basement, I might have been lulled into accepting this contention. In NJ, in the mid 70’s, we were a minority of epic paucity. It was hard to believe that heaven was to be populated exclusively by slow-moving Midwesterners with strange accents like my parents.
At home, Dad encouraged my concerns, providing my earliest memories of intellectual debate. While he insisted I complete my religious instruction he never asked me to cut the Pastor any slack. Over time our discussions moved freely from religion to politics, economics and the merits of the Banana Splits vs. Bugs Bunny. What made the experience enriching was its safety. The right answers were not pre-determined and dissent came without punishment. Still, you had better be prepared to defend your position if you wanted his respect.
When I changed schools at the delicate age of 13, moving from New Jersey back to the Midwest, it was organized debate where I found my niche. In a prosperous suburban school populated with cliques that formed in grade school, critical thinking saved my sanity. It led me to friendships with teachers and students who gave everything a second and third evaluation, including me.
To come home with a debate trophy you had to go both ways. We competed to persuade a judge first from the affirmative and then negative of a national topic. After years of conversations with Dad, I was ready for the 1979 policy issue: “resolved, the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to significantly increase the energy independence of the United States.” We apparently did not resolve the issue of energy independence, but I know the few thousand of us who debated the topic 27 years ago are better citizens today for having understood the issue.
In a world that is shaped by conflict, we would all be better off if the coming generations could think for themselves. Our lives are awash with commercialized, well spun information and single issue rhetoric that muddies the big picture. I believe if more parents have self confidence to limit their own dogma and allow their children to challenge common knowledge, we as Americans could garner that same respect of our opinions that I found from my father.
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