What is reason? Reason is the power to determine, by thinking, what is the case. When you are balancing your checkbook – you are using reason. You are saying if this happened, and that happened, and the other happened… I wrote this check, I made that deposit, there was this service charge, there’s this much going in, this much coming out… then there’s this much in the bank. That’s a use of reason. (Some of us may not be familiar with that particular case.) Anytime you’re trying to puzzle out what is happening in the middle of an event on the freeway sometime, you’re using reason. Other examples include trying to understand your child, or grading a paper. Of course those are loving activities because we want to be able to find contact with the mind of the other person involved, and it’s a great use of reason.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is the capacity to represent things as they are, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. We learn a lot about evidence by looking at how the tradition of knowledge has developed in the Bible and from there on. When God comes to Moses, he identifies himself in terms of a previous experience with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Moses is a point of reference as the “structure of verification,” if you wish, for religious authority, and revelation moves down through time until it comes to a head in Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus comes, he fits himself perfectly into the revelation that had already been given and completes it. That is an appropriate basis of thought and experience. If you want to know what God is like, you have to take it in those terms. You’re not going to be able to derive a knowledge of what God is like simply from a blast of your own experience or from some clever thinking that you did one day after breakfast.
Reason is not inherently bad. Knowledge is not a bad thing, it is a good thing.
Reason is simply a natural ability; the ability to know is a natural thing. It is like the ability to grow corn, cook chicken, and do all the other things that we need to do to stay alive – there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s good. God made it, it is good. Like all of the aspects of the human being that God has created, they’re good. But it may be taken as a place to stand independently of God, and even against God, which it also has in common with all other human abilities.
Noah Porter realized the significance of this, when he said, “Everything teaches theology, it’s just a question of which theology.” We all teach a theology, because when you teach a subject matter in a way that God is irrelevant, you are teaching a theology. And the Christian theology is precisely that God is not irrelevant to anything.
The problem is that reason can be socially corrupted. The deeper issue here, as always, is “What is to count as knowledge?” Most in the academic world simply define knowledge in such a way that what can be known is something that God has nothing to do with. But that is not a discovery! That is a decision. They did not discover this, they decided it!
Well, this has not exactly worked out. But Liberal thought as it’s historically understood, including Liberal theology buys into the idea of the scientific, and of knowledge as defined by the scientific, and puts it in another category in opposition to faith. I think many of you know that story.
The reaction, on the part of Fundamentalism was mistakenly to attack reason. The very idea that rational thought is wicked (and you can quote verses on that), that the imagination is evil, and the idea that there is nothing good in human beings, leads to trying to blot out every element of creativity in thought and action. I was in a very confused tradition: I’m Southern Baptist. In that tradition, we will preach to you for an hour that you can do nothing to be saved, and then sing to you for half an hour trying to get you to do something to be saved. That is confusing!
So there are real problems here. Mistakenly, the Fundamentalists’ general reaction was interpreting the problem to be reason, not wrong reason (of course there were exceptions). It’s like the people who quote Paul from Colossians II about “vain philosophy,” and suppose that the answer is to respond with no philosophy at all. I hope if I advise you against vain clothing you would not suppose it is appropriate to respond with no clothing at all.
The next stage is how reason itself, left on its own, left without the life-giving sustenance of the content of Scriptural revelation, falls victim to Empiricism and Positivism. The patron saint here is Nietzsche. The idea is that everything is an expression of power, so then all of the very real problems in our culture about diversity, oppression, and so on, are brought to bear on this, and the idea comes to be now that even truth is oppressive. Logic is a “male conspiracy”… You actually hear these things said!
Reason itself is a part of the problem, because reason gets formed in a cultural way, so that those in power can oppress the weak. And guess what? There’s a lot of truth to it. A lot of truth. But fundamentally, it is used to undermine the role of reason as an authority, and reason cannot sustain itself because it does not fall within the naturalistic worldview. So it is pushed over into that worldview, and standards of reason and rationality are then treated sociologically or behaviorally.
Reason cannot sustain itself on its own, as no natural created power can. Reason was never meant to function on its own, any more than any other of our natural powers – sexuality, abilities to cultivate the landscape, to work with chemicals and physical powers, and so on. None of that was ever meant to stand alone. Reason wasn’t either. It won’t stand on its own.
Reason must be redeemed.
Reason must be redeemed because it falls under the influence of fallen patterns in our social context. Let’s look at a passage from C.S.Lewis’ wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters. This is a prophetic book. I’m stunned when I read Lewis, especially these letters. I see Lewis as standing mid-stream, where everything we’re discussing now is sweeping past him and he’s standing there knowingly watching it come. What he says is prophetic because it has become increasingly true.
In the first letter you have Screwtape saying:
My dear Wormwood,
I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading, and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you suppose that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time, humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not, and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we’ve largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed ever since he was a boy to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” as “outworn” or “contemporary,” as “ruthless” or “conventional.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true. Make him think it is “strong” or “stark” or “courageous,” that it’s the philosophy of the future, that’s the sort of thing he cares about. The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too! Whereas in really practical propaganda of this kind I’m suggesting, He has been shown for centuries to be greatly inferior to our father below. By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have strengthened in your patient, the fatal habit of attending to universal issues, and withdrawing his consciousness, his attention, from the stream of immediate experience. Your business is to fix his attention on that stream. Teach him to call it “real life,” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real.”
You see, the flow of human events around academics proves that they too are sinners. They too are ready to give in to the pulls and pushes of the social context. Only the strength of a greater community that is provided by Jesus Christ can stand against that. And that’s why Paul refers to the church as “the pillar and ground of truth” (I Tim. 3:15).
It is only the person in a redeemed relationship to God that can stand for truth. Truth is too hard. You often hear the verse quoted to the effect that “The truth will make you free.” The truth will not make you free! That verse doesn’t say that! Read the whole thing! It’s about discipleship: “If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-33)
But today we no longer have to know the truth. On the elevator in the Humanities building at USC it just says “…The truth will make you free.” Truth will not make you free – it’s probably better said “the truth will make you flee.” Truth is hard to live with. And that is one reason why there has to be a community of redemption that comes down to earth and provides a context in which people can truly walk free, in the truth, because they are supported by their spiritual redemption before God in relationship to Him. They’re living in what I call “a conversational relationship with God.”
http://www.dwillard.org. Used by permission.