Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on Tradition and Reason

Of all the things I've written in my life (and as an English professor, I've written a lot), I think that my post entitled "Tradition and Reason" is the most misunderstood. Joe Carter over at Evangelical Outpost seems to have understood what I was saying. I'm sure my writing is partly to blame for the misunderstanding, but the ideas expressed there are subtle for people who aren't often confronted with the messy ways in which knowledge is created. It's funny that I've only gotten two comments on the original post, because I will still occasionally get an angry/dismissive/puzzled e-mail about it. For some reason, as well as being easily misunderstood, people don't seem to want their reaction in the comments section.

Let me add two more cents to what I have already said.

Many of the e-mails I receive are confused about what I mean by "reason" in this case, and people will sometimes say things like, "Huh? How can reason be part of a tradition? Don't we reason all the time? Even babies reason, right?"

This confusion stems from a kind of sloppy use of terms that has its roots in the original article. We sometimes use the word "reason" as synonymous with the word "thinking." In this use, of course, my blog post doesn't make a lot of sense. My post, however, is reacting to "The Future of Tradition" by Lee Harris, and the way that Harris uses the term "reason" is not as "thinking," but as the system of Western rationalism, as evidenced by his first use of the term in the sentence:
In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

The use of the words "rational" and "enlightened," of course, refer to particular ways of thinking that grow out of 18th-century philosophy. My point (and my objection to the use and abuse of much post-Cartesian thought) is that you cannot undermine the foundations of an intellectual tradition using the tools of that tradition without calling into question the validity of those same tools.

How does all this fit into Christian thought (Joe Carter's concern)? In some ways, Christianity grows out of certain intellectual traditions that pre-date it, and in other ways, the teachings of Christ (and Paul) are a cataclystic re-direction. I don't think I can accept arguments that the teachings of Christ are ahistorical; presupposing an omniscient and omnipotent God who could have placed the Resurrection at any historical moment He saw fit, God would naturally choose the most advantageous moment for His plan. In other words, my suspicion is that God combined and redirected the Jewish and Hellenic intellectual traditions in a way so profound as to leave Hegel scratching his head.

With this in mind, we can look at the philosophy of someone like Boethius, for example, and see a Christian philosophy without seeing lots of references to the Church or Scriptures -- but we see that his thought grew out of and contributed to Christian thought. It was this very same Christian thought (particular ways of reasoning) that developed into the Western rational tradition.

Does this mean that Western reason is somehow God-ordained? Of course not. Other ways of thinking that also grew out of Christianity compete. Put a Baptist pastor, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and the Pope in a boat, and not only will you get three different opinions on certain issues, but also three very different ways of reasoning about those issues.* Neither am I certain that one of those particular ways of reasoning must by necessity be better than the others, since I see very different writers like Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John reasoning in very, very different ways, yet each arrives at the same place.

I remember realizing in high school math that I could use either algebra or geometry to come up with the answer to a problem for which we had to show our work. When I asked the teacher which he wanted us to use, he just answered "whichever is easiest for that problem." This was, to me, an important insight -- that I could use different ways of reasoning in different situations to come up with the same answer. Using algebra to get the right answer for a geometry problem was better than using geometry poorly to come up with the wrong answer for a geometry problem.

So, to clarify, I hope people don't read the original post and assume that "thinking" and "reason" are meant to be the same thing. Neither do I want them to think that I'm claiming Western rationalism as the end-all-and-be-all of thought. Furthermore, I'm not suggesting that truth is relative, but rather that there may be several different ways to work out the truth. By the same token, I'm not suggesting that every way of thinking is good, since some ways never seem to lead to the truth, or perhaps lead to the truth so inconsistently as to be practically useless (narcissistic relativism is a good example of this). What I am suggesting is that trying to use Western rationalism to denigrate the traditions that birthed Western rationalism is a bit like trying to walk away from your own legs.

*You'll also get the makings of a potentially funny joke.


  1. Joe and Sheldon,

    Thanks for the kind words. It's a really hard subject since it requires people to step out of themselves and their culture for a moment -- and that kind of moment is very difficult to achieve. It probably takes a feat of mental acrobatics so difficult that it is no bad reflection on those who don't "get it."

    For this reason, Sheldon, I'm probably not going to blog on the subject again any time soon ... I think it reaches a point of diminishing returns at some point. Of course, I have been tempted back into blogging on things I've sworn off before, so don't hold that as an inviolable promise.

  2. Anonymous6:17 AM

    A Baptist pastor, an Anglican bishop, and a Priest were in a boat.

    After sailing for many days they land on a desert island where they are captured by natives.

    The native chief says to the Priest: “You may choose death or UGGA BUGGA!”

    The Priest says: “Hmmm. I suppose I’ll take a chance on the UGGA BUGGA”

    The natives grab him and sodomise him for half an hour, and then let him go.

    Then they ask the Anglican “Death or UGGA BUGGA?”

    And he says, “UGGA BUGGA, please!”, and the same thing happens.

    Then they ask the Pastor: “Death or UGGA BUGGA?”

    The Pastor says: “Well, my religion (glances accusingly at the Anglican) still considers UGGA BUGGA to be extremely, highly, terribly sinful. I choose death”.

    The natives chief says: “OK, death. But first UGGA BUGGA!”.

  3. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Quite possibly the funniest joke I've seen in a while. Thanks for the laugh!!