Marking Pentecost and praying for a spirit of critical thinking

The school dormitory where a fire killed at least 20 people in Mahdia

The school dormitory where a fire killed at least 20 people in Mahdia, Guyana on May 22, 2023.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

Our horrified chat about the wolves of deadly cults clothed in church robes elicited several perceptive responses from you.

One crucial one was that I did not sufficiently explain the skill of critical thinking, which I thought may save us from falling prey to the “holy” murderers. I will briefly revisit this point towards the end of our conversation.

First, however, let me introduce three developments that are uppermost in my mind this weekend. I hope you will notice the connection between them and the problems we have been contemplating over the past few weeks.

The first event is the Pentecostal or Whitsun celebrations being observed by conventional Christianity tomorrow. Then there has been the startling report of a Guyanese girl student who set her dormitory on fire, killing at least 19 of her fellow students and seriously injuring herself and many others.

Thirdly, I heard a chilling warning from the United States Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, that social media pose “a profound risk of harm” to the mental health of our children and adolescents.

The Surgeon General is the top health and medical official in the US, and his word on the nation’s health is authoritative. In our global village, what happens in the US is as relevant to us as what happens at our doorstep.

Indeed, random as these happenings might appear, I see links among them, and a direct relevance to the sad matters of life and death that we were discussing last week. Starting from the spiritual angle, for example, the Pentecost phenomenon has become a matter of serious controversy.

Essentially, the celebration marks the experience, recorded in Christian scriptures, when Jesus’ disciples felt filled with and empowered by God’s Spirit, and they set out preaching the Christian message to all and sundry.

The Christians called the day “Pentecost” (derived from the Greek term for “fifty”) because it was fifty days after the Jewish Passover. To most Christians, “Pentecost” has, since the earliest days of the faith, been associated with the “outpouring of the spirit” that teaches, guides and strengthens their church. In recent times, however, “Pentecostalism” has encountered two main problems, mainly from the endlessly mushrooming sects or churches.

The first is that these new groups often try to monopolise the “Spirit”, claiming that any organisation that is not extravagantly noisy, wild and fiery is not “Pentecostal”. The truth is that every genuine Christian community is, and has to be, Pentecostal, spirit-driven. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is one of the core articles of the Christian faith. But then, you wonder if some of these new churches are even aware of the existence of these articles of faith.

For the other main problem of many of the sprouting faiths is their contempt and disregard for the age-old accumulated knowledge of the faith. Some self-proclaimed leaders of these new outfits even brag of their lack of learning.

But, as we hinted last week, a faith, or any other activity, where learning, studying and training are despised and neglected is bound to fall victim to undesirable and dangerous elements. Some scriptures advise us to “test the spirits”, for not all spirits come from God.

“Ashakum,” we Kiswahili speakers say, begging pardon for mentioning something that might embarrass or displease some of our listeners. My mentioning of the complications above are not meant to attack any organisation or individual.

Rather, I am trying to contribute to the continuing dialogue on how we can improve our faith practices and prevent wrong elements from using them to commit abominations like those from which we are still reeling.

Faith, the spiritual awareness that we are more than just bodies and social animals, is the greatest gift we have as human beings. But even the best endowments can be perverted, and it is a sad day when such a perversion occurs, as we have witnessed with our faith in recent days.

I related such sorrow to the two other events I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. The deadly Guyanese dormitory fire and the US Surgeon General’s dire warning about social media are both symptoms of the great gift of modern communication technology going wrong.

The Guyanese student, we were told, set her school dormitory on fire in a rage because the school authorities had confiscated her mobile phone. For being denied access to a phone, this adolescent was ready to commit mass murder and suicide in an inferno. This is not an evil but a tragic perversion of the precious gift of communication.

Indeed, what happened in that Guyanese city of Mahdia may be taken as an illustration of the “profound risk of harm” that modern communication facilities, including social media, pose to the minds of our children.

We obviously cannot turn the clock back and scrap all the ICT wonders around us. Nor can we fully keep our children off the plethora of communication channels. The best we can do is to advise and guide them on how to use them intelligently, wisely and prudently.

This is where critical thinking comes in. It is the skill that enables us to receive and process information usefully for successful living. I suggested that this is the most important skill, especially for our young people. We have vast masses of information, and misinformation, literally at the tips of our fingers. The challenge for us is how to receive it, evaluate it and apply it to problem solution.

An intelligent, educated person should be able to understand information, objectively analyse it, question or interrogate it, asking all the necessary what and why questions around it, and then reorganise it for productive usage.

Things are not true or false just because the pastor said so or because you saw or heard it on social media. Our survival and development depend on our ability to think for ourselves. This is what we teachers of the humanities and liberal studies try to teach humankind.

Hopefully, the Pentecostal Spirit will bless our efforts. Blessed Whitsun!

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]