The Need For “Understanding” To Precede Criticism

I learned a lesson in humility from a book that I recently read. In the book the authors, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, speak about criticism and making judgments on books as well as other people’s opinions. The authors state,

“You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I Understand,’ before you can say any one of the following, ‘I Agree,’ or ‘I Disagree,’ or ‘I Suspend Judgement.'”

For myself I have had plenty of experiences where I’ve been critically questioned or criticized by others and I have also watched fellow students question teachers in a critical manner when there is plainly no foundation of understanding to what is being taught. As I ponder my years of schooling and pastoral ministry I have also come to the conviction that I have all too often followed this same course, passing criticism without proper understanding.

It seems to me, as well as the authors, that it takes a great deal of time, patience and listening before one can say, “I Understand.” For one to arrive at the point of understanding another person’s point of view takes more energy than it does to offer up a critique. Only when one understands another person, book or idea are they in the position to offer up an assessment. Only after there is understanding can a critique be offered up fairly, whether a positive critique or a negative critique. For when a critique is offered up without understanding the affirmations or criticisms are meaningless and unfounded, they are offered on the basis of a false understanding.

Adler and Van Doren offer up a bit of encouragement in handling criticism saying,

“You yourself may remember when an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or the most two, ‘I don’t know what you mean, but I think you’re wrong.’ There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent.”

Excerpts From:
How To Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren
(Touchstone Book, 1972), 143-144.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at:


The Need For “Understanding” To Precede Criticism — 6 Comments

  1. Excellent posting.  To gain understanding it helps to ask polite, pointed critical questions.   There’s always a danger that the questions are misinterpreted as hostile and judgemental.

  2. @John Rixe #3
    With all due respect, there is sometimes a very fine line between “pointed critical questions” and questions that are “hostile and judgmental.”

    For instance, can you be sure which category contains the comment I just made? 🙂

  3. You know Luther only went to the Marburg colloqy because his Prince made him go. He had no wish to discuss any further, and hearing their false understanding even better than ever before, did nothing for the fact of disagreement. I believe that Luther very clearly understood Zwingli’s position and in some ways that Zwingli would disagree with, yet Luther would maintain that it was so even though Zwingli thought he was not maintaining any such thing. Sometimes there comes a time to prejudge and stop wasting your time on trying to find understanding of something not worthy of understanding beyond the basic “this is wrong and it was 30 years ago.” Mark those who cause divisions among you and avoid them. Or, mark those who cause divisions among you and try really hard for years and years and years to understand them.

    On the other hand, I would call what these authors are suggesting, “repeat to me in your own words” as proof of understanding, active listening, a technique of communication, but not of understanding. You repeat even what you don’t understand and that gives the other person the feeling that he has been understood. You hope to keep the “active listening” going until you begin to have some understanding or you judge the other is grossly confused and you make an I statement. I feel confused when you say “…..” I don’t know what it means. Can you make me understand it? This is therapy though and not what academicians would do in ferriting out the truth, the absolute truth, and nothing but the absolute truth. Zwingli would have been insulted to be “actively listened” to.

    And, aren’t Lutherans the ones so famous for being able to say, “no, we don’t understand it, but nevertheless it is absolutely true.” Wasn’t Zwingli demanding understanding and wasn’t Luther saying, this isn’t about understanding, we will never understand it. To Luther, Marburg was a complete waste of his time.

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