Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Limits of Reason

Most Episcopalians are familiar with the so-called "three-legged stool" of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Others prefer to use the image of a tricycle, with scripture as the big wheel, and tradition and reason as the little wheels. But in either case, a threefold conception of authority is upheld as the norm.

Regardless of the image used, my understanding is that these three sources of authority cannot stand alone. They are interdependent. They overlap and mutually inform one another.

But in my experience with the Church, this threefold emphasis often breaks down into privileging one of these three as the sole or supreme source of authority, and often along ideological lines. And so many "conservatives" or "reasserters" emphasize scripture (if they happen to be more Evangelical or "Low Church") or tradition (if they happen to be more Anglo-Catholic or "High Church"), whereas many "liberals" or "progressives" emphasize reason (of which "experience" - an oftentimes ill-defined, slippery term - is perhaps a subset, and at other times perhaps constitutes a fourth source of authority).

In a brief piece over at "Covenant," Matt Gunter takes a look at the limits of relying on reason as the supreme or sole source of authority:

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 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 begs 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 wrote, “[R]eason 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 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 Ben 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 assume 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?

Gunter's piece underscores the dangers of affirming the autonomy of reason and/or its superiority to scripture and tradition. Gunter also provides a warrant for the conviction that we need the backing of all three sources of authority - scripture, tradition, and reason - coupled with communal discernment, review, and reception, before the Church can accept something as "meet and right."


plsdeacon said...

I would go so far as to say that "Reason" is the communal discernment of the Church today. When Hooker wrote "reason" he did not really think of "science" or "what do I think" or "what sounds right." He was thinking more of a "reasonable sacrifice" - something that God sees as meet and right. We might say "logosical" rather that "logical" - indicating the influence of the Logos or Reason of God rather than society.

It is with the rise of the Enlightenment and the scientific method and of "modern" thinking that we substituted "what sounds good to me" for "reason."

Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

"...detached and secularized reason that the Enlightenment elevated to the point of superstition". Definitely the quote of the week as far as I'm concerned, and fully applicable to a host of liberal Protestant theologians.

BillyD said...

"It is with the rise of the Enlightenment and the scientific method and of "modern" thinking that we substituted "what sounds good to me" for "reason."

I don't understand this. You make the scientific method sound as if it were the same as subjective opinion, when it is anything but. It doesn't matter "what sounds good to me" if the use of the scientific method proves it otherwise.

plsdeacon said...


I mentioned three things that are not the same. The enlightenment gave rise to the concept of "individual liberty" and that religion is a "personal" or "private" matter. These, by themselves, are not evil ideas. I am all for individual liberty and I don't want to coerce anyone to be a Christian nor do I want to be coerced into any faith. But all too often when people say that religion is a "personal matter" what they mean today is that a person's religion or faith should not have any impact on public policy or "the public square." I reject that notion of "personl matter." Our faith should change how we perceive our society and how we vote and influence public policy in our society.

The scientific method is a good way to find out what happens and how it happens. Hypothesis, experiment, evaluation, repetion, and reformulation based on the experiment's outcome (if necessary) are all good tools and necessary for scientific understanding. However, too many people equate "science" with jargon and have a very poor understanding of science or the scientific method, but they think they understand science today because they watch TV or read a blog with scientific language. They do not question the statements of "scientists."

"Modern thinking" is now based, not on the enlightenment nor on science, but on personal views of what is right and wrong - including what constitutes good science from junk science.

Phil Snyder