Reason and Unreason

I came across a couple of essays in the last few day dealing with reason and relativism. First, there’s David Mills’ editorial “Standing for Reason” over at the Catholic journal Ethika Politika:

The Church makes the increasingly eccentric and bold declaration that the world has a structure and one we can understand through our reason. The moral law in particular is a matter of public reason.

It gets, from the general American point of view, worse. The Church also insists that we can know something about God, from which other things logically follow (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 31, 35, 50). And even worse than that, the Church claims that the arguments are very strong that God has spoken to us and given us a visible institution to guide us. Her theologians and pastors write as if the arguments were very good ones that ought to move the unbiased person at least close to agreement. Revealed truths must be held by faith, but reason can lead us to see that we have very good grounds for that faith.

Catholics used to speak like that as a matter of course. In the lectures Ronald Knox gave to Oxford students in the early fifties, collected in The Hidden Stream, he laid out the rational claims for the Catholic faith as if he were demonstrating a geometric proof. When I first read the book, formed as I had been in the secularist mind, I thought he was being presumptuous. Catholics couldn’t possibly talk like that normally. And then I kept reading and found they did.

For Mills, this realization was liberating — and it’s meant to be liberating for humanity as well. “A man is free to think anything he wants, because God has given him that power, but he’s not free to be wrong if he wants to be right. The Church treats the world as a physicist treats the matter he studies. He may not understand it well but he knows there is something there to understand,” he writes.

Over at The Imaginative ConservativeDwight Longenecker continues a long (and probably tiring) conservative argument against “relativism” — the struggle against objective truth — when he writes that absent “objective truth,” what becomes true is whatever or whoever can speak the loudest or exert the most force:

The cause of this indifference, rage, and ultimate violence is the lack of any objective truth; but lest we become too intellectual in our analysis we should make it clear that by “objective truth,” we do not simply mean verbal propositions that we believe to be factual. By “objective truth” we mean more than a philosophical treatise, a theological creed, or a political constitution. Instead, by “objective truth” we mean a cohesive and integrated system of thought which makes sense of every aspect of reality. This cohesive system of thought even makes room for that which is unpredictable and inexplicable by allowing for certain uncertainties. Finally, this “objective truth” is not only a statement of truth propositions and a cohesive system of analysis and integration, but it is also a model for life, a code of behavior, a chart for relationships, and a blueprint for community co-existence. In other words, for this truth to be true it must wear working clothes. It does so not only to prove its practicality, but also to prove its durability. The truth must work and keep working. It must be alive and active and real.

I must confess here I am a convicted post-modernist. When confronted with a claim that there is an “objective moral truth” absent revelation, my first response will always be “prove it.” You can assert it in any number of ways. But you cannot “prove” it, at least not in the way you can prove something mathematically or scientifically. (I suspect, in this, I am part of the problem Rod Dreher writes about as he reviews Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Sorry…)

I’ll go even farther — I’m a heretic, in that I’m convinced human beings cannot know anything meaningful about God absent specific revelation. (The church long ago ruled this view heresy.) Human reason, such as it is, can tell us nothing about the moral meaning of the cosmos. Or human purposes. Only the subjective encounter with God can.

I have two problems with this historic construct of “reason.” First, it is the product of a very specific time, a very specific place, and a very specific people — medieval Christendom. It was Christians talking to each other about the world and what they could know about it philosophically but it assumed both the revelation and the social structure — the church — that revelation brought into being. In effect, Christians could speak intellectually, and without reference to revelation, about the cosmos, creation, purpose, and ethics because they all existed in a society and culture which assumed the single most important revelatory claim the church has — the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection as the scheme God used to redeem and reconcile Israel (and humanity). And all the other claims that emerge from that.

You can easily speak of abstract human reason coming to knowledge of God when all the really important things we know about God are all revealed to us specifically and we already agree upon them. Reason here cannot stand on its own — I’m not sure there is anything to understand absent revelation — and it cannot point to anything remotely resembling faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

If anything, a reasonable faith points to Islam, which makes significantly less outrageous claims about who and what God is, and how God has acted in the world, than anything in the Bible. Or claimed as truth by the church.

Which leads me to my second problem with “reason.” It isn’t just a process, a way or thinking or arguing, but a set of conclusions as well. This is why many of the staunchest supporters of “reason” within the church are also strongly opposed to Islam, going as far as to claim Islam is “irrational,” in large part because the Muslim use of Greek thought — and Islam conquered a Greek-speaking civilization, acquiring Greek ways and means in the process; this is how medieval Islam got to look the way it did — differs markedly from the ways Western Christians use Greek thought. One way of using Aristotle is not objectively reasonable while another is inherently irrational. We are welcome to privilege our conclusions as Christians above the conclusions Muslims arrived at using similar sources and similar processes, but to call Muslims “irrational” because they don’t come to the same conclusions we do is foolish, because they begin with a very different revelation we do. (Some of the followers of Ayn Rand have taken this nonsense the farthest, claiming early on the in “War on Terror” the right of the “reasonable” to wage war and kill the “unreasonable” on that basis alone.) They assume, on the basis of revelation, some very different things about God, and about human beings.

In this, I am convinced that Islam is much more amenable to human reason than is the revelation of God to Israel in the Bible. It makes more sense rationally — from the absolute and indivisible divine unity of God to the nature of the revelation to prophets. Western Christians who believe otherwise — and yes, I know there are lots of you out there — have not truly grasped the scandalous and deeply irrational nonsense that is an incarnate, suffering, and crucified God. (Most bad Christians really are middling Muslims anyway, and that has been true throughout the encounter between the two faiths.)

In the end, the best you can hope for is a shared subjective, which is what I believe scripture creates. You and I can both assert “there is an objective truth,” but if we want to order the world that way, and the world around us does not share our assumption (as modernity does not, given that modernity makes its very own truth claims that are at odds with those made by the Church), we are reliant on screaming the loudest or threatening to kill our neighbors in order to get our way. (Because those who are “irrational” can be compelled, given that they would come to the right conclusions if they were simply reasonable to begin with.) Especially if we want to order the world right now and believe we are absolutely entitled to do so.

(And that is why I am not a culture warrior.)

This is why I don’t have much patience for natural law, natural theology, or other arguments from nature or reason. The revelation is what matters, because we cannot really know anything meaningful without it. We cannot even engage in any reasonable speculation without it.

* * *

NOTE: When Longenecker writes, “Instead, by ‘objective truth’ we mean a cohesive and integrated system of thought which makes sense of every aspect of reality,” what he’s really describing here is ideology. We should know from the unhappy history of the 20th century where ideologies — particularly comprehensive ones — eventually lead us. (And this is another reason I am not a culture warrior.)

3 thoughts on “Reason and Unreason

  1. I agree entirely (again). Shared subjectivity is absolutely true – or is that a paradox?

    Having engaged in arguments with scholars in the philosophy of physics, I know reason is impotent when it tries to go beyond the shared subjectivity of empirical phenomena and concepts which have been proven useful. When physics reaches towards metaphysics, it becomes ideology. The same is true even of mathematics, though the subjective quality of mathematics is so subtle that there is a magical feeling to it – the “aha moments” of discovery do feel like a revelation of an eternal ideal Reality. And even if in some sense one-plus-one will always equal two in every conceivable universe, that just becomes a definition of ‘conceivable’; or else it’s just tautologies going in circles.

    How much more so with God. When God wants to get people’s attention, he strikes out with the jawbone of an ass, not a philosopher. I suppose the two can overlap….

  2. Here is the complete Chesterton quote [from Ch. 8 of ‘Orthodoxy’], with enough Orientalist prejudice to make Edward Said turn smugly in his grave:

    “If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned we shall find the case the same. It is the same, for instance, in the deep matter of the Trinity. Unitarians (a sect never to be mentioned without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual dignity and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the accident that throws so many small sects into such an attitude. But there is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. The HEART of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world. For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea “it is not well for man to be alone.” The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)–to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.”

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