A Brief History of Secular Discernment & Decision-Making


This is a post in our series on the Christian Practice of Discernment. 

Struggles around decision-making have existed ever since humans first had a sense that their lives had some sort of telos or purpose. Eventually, humans came to an understanding that each decision directly bears on the events and “story” that will come after it. And so they started thinking through principles that could guide this process. Later, Christians would contribute greatly to this discussion.

But before we can start exploring how the Bible and Christianity engages with decision-making and Discernment, we need to see how else it has been engaged throughout history. Today, we’ll look at a “secular”(*) history of decision-making and Discernment. Our next post will look through Church History.

the history

The early days of humanity (and admittedly, biblical history) of decision-making and discernment involved the frequent use of community, eldership, chance, and the “reading of signs”. Communities would seek out wise men and oracles; ancient accounts are full of stories about this (even the Bible). Often, these wise elders specialized in looking for signs in chance and nature.

But pretty soon, wise men and women noticed the limitations of this and so they began thinking through principles to guide one’s decision-making processes. From the ancient world through the Enlightenment, people established varied and widely different ideas about how people should go about making decisions.

Such principles ranged from Lao-tzu’s Fourth Century B.C. idea of “nonwillful action” (just letting events happen as they will without choosing at all), to Plato’s emphasis on the soul’s perception of the Forms, to Aristotle’s focus on empirical knowledge and deductive reasoning. But still, these “principles” were abstract and were based off of using the decision making principles of the wise elders establishing them.

As Europe began to emerge from the Middle Ages, and the Enlightenment came upon them, this began to change. Thinkers started putting more confidence in the individual’s own faculties, and suggested using more rationalistic and reason-driven principles by which to discern the correct choice in a given situation.

Discernment moved from being the business of elders or philosophers to the concern of scientists seeking universal principles for all people at all times. This was incredibly influential. Principles such as Occam’s Razor, the scientific method, the calculation of probabilities, and lists of Pros and Cons (a technique attributed to Benjamin Franklin) still drive much of how we discern in the modern world.

As the 20th-century dawned and went through a World War, these thinkers began taking these “universal principles” and exploring how individuals might relate to and muck up these otherwise “pure processes”. The realities of unknowability, uncertainty, and the corrupting self-conscious undermined much of what the Enlightenment project achieved. Carl Jung wrote during this time:

We should not pretend to understand the world only by intellect; we apprehend it just as much by feeling. Therefore, the judgment of the intellect is at best, only half of the truth, and must, if it is to be honest, also come to an understanding of its own inadequacy.

And so with the hope of a full rationalistic account of Discernment and decision making escaping us, we turned to what has become our most recent hope in enhancing our decision-making skills: technology.

Much of the more recent history of human endeavors in Discernment have to do with computing and weighing both objective and subjective factors. Recent studies have demonstrated the incredibly powerful ability of technology to augment and support our decision making. And this isn’t just giving about us more information to aid our decisions. Some of this technology seeks to weigh all factors–both human and objective–and and then actually tell us what will achieve the best possible outcome.

a quick Christian assessment

The one thing tying all of these approaches together—and the primary differentiation between this and the Christian account—is the impersonal and arbitrary nature of these “secular” principles of Discernment. Humans have been seeking external, impersonal principles to guide decision making since their very beginning. And yet, Christianity offers a terrifyingly personal approach to Discernment.

That approach, and the history of interpreting that it will be the subject of our next post.

(*) A quick note: I hate how much baggage that term “secular” has, and if you’re part of the Not-Christian crowd, know that when I say that, I’m not implying any moral difference there. I simply mean the term as “outside the Church”, as in the difference between “sacred” and “secular” music. It’s just about where things find their “home” and origination. It has nothing inherently to do with “good” or “bad”.


One thought on “A Brief History of Secular Discernment & Decision-Making

  1. Pingback: A Brief History of Christian Thoughts on Discernment | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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