Friday, July 9, 2010

Reason and its Discontents

There was much discussion a month or so ago on the House of Deputies/Bishops listserve about the interpretation of scripture and the use of reason in that interpretation. Curiously, if not unsurprisingly, it became clear that for many it was not so much a question of how we reason with scripture, but how our reason stands over against scripture as an independent source of authorizing wisdom. I was reminded of this which I posted elsewhere a couple of years ago. I'm reposting it here:

It is no secret that interpreting scripture is not as straightforward as many have thought or would like to think. It is also true that the voices of tradition do not speak as one and sometimes vary a great deal. While both of these observations can be over played – neither is simply incoherent – one must acknowledge that both have their obscurities. But what about reason, that third source of authority to which Episcopalians and other Anglicans often appeal? There are some in the Episcopal Church who speak as though reason is the more straightforward reliable, and, ultimately, authoritative of the three. Is it more straightforward and reliable than scripture or tradition? In a word, no.

Simply saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" doesn't work. But, "Jesus came to take away our sins not our minds" is no more helpful and raises just as many questions.

First, it suggests that somehow our minds and our reasoning are unaffected by sin. But, our ancestors did not think so. Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker's contemporary and ally, said of reason, "[T]his light hath caught a fall . . . and thereupon it halteth." It is not to be rejected, and grace can "make it up" but, unaided, it cannot get us very far.

John Donne, who had much in common with Hooker wrote in one of his poems:
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend
But is captived, and proves weak and untrue.

More forcefully, William Temple (that most Anglican of Anglicans) wrote, ". . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt." Nature, Man, and God p. 368.

Second, it ignores the fact that what we find reasonable is shaped by our historical, cultural, and personal location. And any reasoning is part of a tradition of reasoning with a peculiar history rather than some abstract universal accessible to all clear-thinking people. As such, all reasoning is biased and those biases are subject to unveiling and critique.

Third, reason tends to get invoked in ways that are self-serving. As Curtis White writes in The Spirit of Disobedience, "Let's face it: clear thinking is anything that proceeds logically from my assumptions." I have wondered if that is not what the old motto, "The thinking person's church" has really meant. Curtis also quotes Benjamin Franklin, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Fourth, talk of reason assumes we know what "reason" is and what it looks like. It is true that the seminal Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, maintained an essential role for reason in understanding God and life lived light of that understanding. But, it is clear that what Hooker and those who followed him meant by reason (along with those he followed like Thomas Aquinas and the earlier church theologians like the Cappadocians - Macrina, Basil and the two Gregories) meant something quite different from what it has come to mean for us. For them, reason was reflective of, and oriented toward, God. Reason was part of a richly textured, multifaceted, imaginative, theocentric way of seeing and being in the world that included revelation -- in creation generally and in the church's teaching grounded in scripture particularly. That is different from the detached and secularized reason that the Enlightenment elevated to the point of superstition.

Appeals to reason are at least as contingent and uncertain as appeals to scripture or tradition. What we need to do it seems is explain to ourselves and one another what we think we are doing when we appeal to any of these or any combination of them. What makes such an appeal faithful and how does it keep us honest with ourselves, one another, and God?


Jim said...

Reason is as anyone who has ever met a lawyer should know, a tool that can be used to plot a course to a goal as readily as it is a tool to discover the landscape. I do not mean to dismiss the process of study and thought, but rather to suggest it needs a (here it comes) reasoned set of parameters.


Matt Gunter said...

Exactly. But, many speak as though we know exactly what we mean when we appeal to reason and that the conclusions of reason are straightforward. What they usually seem to mean is something along the lines of the Curtis White quote. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with them or comes at things with different assumptions must be unreasonable or unthinking.

In fact, of the three supposed sources of authority, "reason" is the most subject to caprice.