Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The "ism" at the end of the term "Rationalism" should alert us to an important element in this brief discussion. It is that we are here addressing primarily a definable outlook or movement of ideas. The concern is not merely about being rational in the way we view the world and solve life's problems. It has to do with an ideology.

As I hope to indicate below, the Rationalist thesis is at the heart of many of the difficulties people today have with Christianity. It is as though a great gulf has opened up between traditional Christian thought and much of humanity, especially in the West. This tradition is in essence an ideology opposed to Rationalism. So great is the gulf that the two sides have difficulty communicating. As a result, many debates prove impossible to settle.

Karen Armstrong in The Battle for God describes rationalism as a "confessional faith", one of several which sprang up in the civilised world and have continued to guide human beings ...

... Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East, monotheism in the Middle East, and rationalism in Europe ... accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different ,scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth ... [1] 

The Rationalist movement consists of those who assert that rational thought is the most important means by which humanity grasps the truth about reality. A thoroughgoing Rationalist will perhaps go further and claim that reason is the only valid way of understanding the world. There are other ways - but none can take the place of reasoned thought.

A question which immediately comes to mind is, "What is reasoned thought?" In other words, what sets a reasoned thought apart from any other thought? And once it is set apart, what is it about reasoned thought which makes it intrinsically better than any other way of thinking?

To illustrate: Some will claim that the sentence, "All dogs except crippled dogs have four legs." Fair enough. But others will say, "All dogs have a right to life." Which type of statement describes our world better? The former, say the Rationalists. It is an objective description, whereas as statement about right to life asserts a personal preference or priority. 

For example, those who  regard dogs as a culinary delicacy don't hold that value. They are not necessarily wrong in their approach. Whereas those who say, "All dogs have three legs" are not describing any known category of living things and can in theory be shown to be wrong. (Note: I have to say "in theory" because the only way to demonstrate the falsity of the statement would be to observe every existing dog at the same moment in time.)

Philosophers have haggled about this sort of thing for thousands of years without resolution. But quite recently a distinct departure from the past has come about.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was one of the first to systematically set out a new way of approaching the matter. He proposed that there are three main aspects of reason. First, we gather data for our thought processes from experience. We experience dogs (perhaps including one three-legged dog) and use that experience as material for thought. Second, our minds are such that we can think out certain things for ourselves de novo, for the first time as it were. Certain truths such as 
2 + 2 = 4 are simply true. They are axiomatic because they don't derive from experience. Third, we get some of our data direct from God, through a sort of intuitive process. The fact of dogs existing in the first place so that we can experience them is this sort of intuitive truth [2].

Later thinkers such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) were not keen to keep God in the equation. They appeared then to face a difficult problem. If some kinds of knowledge are innate in human beings where do they come from? In answer, Leibniz proposed that 2 + 2 = 4 is really a shorthand way of saying "If A is 2 and B is 2 then A added to B equals four". Putting this another way, we can't know that the addition of A to B is correct until we have grasped the principle of addition itself [3]. However, we are taught about addition as children - but who "created" addition? Or how did it come about?

This sort of knowledge is usually termed a priori. It has been pointed out that a priori knowledge isn't known by us until we have experienced it. You and I have first to see two objects, call each a "one", know that there is such a thing as "two" objects, and then experience putting "ones" together to get a "two" before we can understand addition. Thus from self-evident axioms we should be able to deduce more and more truths without turning to experience in any way.

Having pointed out weaknesses in rationalist arguments, many have of late nevertheless returned to a very similar conclusion, though on different grounds. It seems that a priori concepts are embedded in human language. Human language in turn is our way of expressing our perceptions of the world around us. That is, we perceive the world the way we do because that's how we have survived over an inconceivably long time - some millions of years. During that time we have evolved perceptions of the world, perceptions which include certain axioms.

Whether or not a priori truths are "out there" in reality, humans seem bound to perceive some truths as self-evident. The very structure of language (all languages) is built upon this perception. Thus it has long been known that language must use rules of logic to be consistently meaningful. Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead showed in the early 20th century that mathematics - a systematic type of a priori knowledge - derives from the logic of language [4]

Effective thought, they proposed, is built upon a single a priori truth that no word can mean two things at once. So if we use a statement labelled p then not-p (written ~p) can't be true at the same time p is true. For example, the statement that "X is black" can't be true at the same time as the statement "X is white." X might change colour from black to white at some point, but nothing can be both completely black and completely white at the same point in time. If we try to say it is, then language ceases to be useful.

So it seems that Descartes and Leibniz were trying to express something about human nature which subsequent thought and research have broadly supported. As good philosophers usually do, each built a large, complex castle of words and concepts upon this foundation. These philosophical systems are generally today identified as Rationalist.

A further difficulty arises at this point, however. Given that a priori statements do reflect the way we perceive the world, do our perceptions accurately reflect the reality "out there"? 

This is a critical question for all Christians. This is because it is claimed that Christian doctrines embodied in the Bible and the worldwide Church offer ultimate truths about the world to humanity. Any ultimate truth can remain ultimate only as long as it reflects reality with absolute accuracy.

The elements of the claim of Christianity to be absolute are based on a type of thought utterly foreign to Rationalists. This is broadly termed "revelation" - that is, truth derived, one way or another, direct from God. It is mediated either by the Bible or by persons to whom authority is attributed. Thus a cleric or a "prophet" may be seen as having power to declare what God is saying to the Church or, indeed, to humanity at large.

Rationalism, in contrast, recognises only data derived from an examination of nature and which is processed by reasoned, logical thought. Today we know this process as "the scientific method". This turns out to be a broad spectrum of methods aimed at [a] reducing or eliminating human bias and [b] discovering the rules or principles by which physical things (including living beings) work. So-called scientism suggests that Rationalist thought and method used on empirical data derived from the scientific method are able, given time, to provide answers to all questions.

Nevertheless, it now appears unlikely that science will ever produce a unified "theory of everything". Nor will knowledge systems such as psychology, history, archeology, which use quasi-scientific methods and reasoned deduction. This is because scientific methods always produce results which, by definition, are provisional. All scientific knowledge is always open to revision, new data and creative insight - no matter what some scientists might say. 

Once more in contrast, the conclusions of traditional Christianity are by definition cast in concrete. The Church's doctrines about Jesus, God and itself are absolute truths (at least in theory, and ignoring considerable differences between various Christian parties) for all humanity and all time - no matter what some theologians and clerics might say.

The outcome is a desperately uneasy relationship between irrefutable tradition and reasoned conclusions. A side-effect of this unease is the entirely negative evaluation of Rationalism by many Christians who perceive the former as

... an anti-religious and anti-clerical movement of generally utilitarian outlook, laying great weight on historical and scientific arguments against theism. This use of the term [Rationalism], a popular rather than a technical one, seems now to be obsolescent, its place being taken by "humanism". [5]

Christian resistance to Rationalist approaches and methods takes various forms. An extreme form is what is generally today known as Fundamentalism (once again, note the "ism"). 

Fundamentalist views contain what I consider a quaint contradiction. As I pointed out above, Rationalists insist that good argument - and therefore effective thinking - happens only when the rules of logic are obeyed. That is, language tends to become self-contradictory if logic isn't adhered to. At worst, failure to be logical results in meaningless communication. Reason goes far further than mere logic, but cannot succeed without it.

Fundamentalists insist that the contents of the Bible have been given to us direct from God. Thus it is "God's Word" even if it has passed through some intermediaries such as those who put pen to paper or the various prophets. Supremely, though, it gives us a word-for-word record of what Jesus really said. In the gospels we have an accurate account of what Jesus did in his lifetime. 

The Fundamentalist stance is that because this is revelation comes from God it must be true - because "God" is defined as a person who is unable either to make a mistake or tell a lie. Therefore one can't claim that the Bible is God's Word and at the same time insist that some parts of it are mistaken or wrong. Though Fundamentalists would perhaps not refer to it, to do that is break the cardinal rule of logic encapsulated in the p~p law of contradiction (sometimes referred to as the "Law of the Excluded Middle"). 

So if the Bible reports that on a particular occasion the sun stopped still in the sky, then that's exactly what happened. If a gospel reports that Jesus walked on water then that miracle actually happened. If Paul and the gospels report that Jesus came alive again after having died, then there's no point in denying that it's possible. In other words, they are applying exactly the same logical standards as do Rationalists, but this time in order to support a non-rational way of interpreting the world.

But, to be fair, a majority of Christian thinkers today seem to have adopted the Rationalist agenda. The Bible and all Christian teachings are rightly subjected to the same tests for truth as anything else. If, for example, the gospels say that Jesus came alive after dying then three primary questions must be answered according to the Rationalist thesis:

[1] Is the Bible being subjected to the same high standards applied by reputable historians to historical data? Whether these historians are Christian or not is besides the point. A primary indication that the Bible has been adequately assessed is the emergence of a strong consensus in support of the evidence, maintenance of consensus over a long period of time, and the absence of a substantial minority refuting the historicity of the Bible. In some instances, the historical evidence must be extraordinarily powerful. For example, that the Resurrection is good history is so unusual an historical claim that both the evidence for it and any consensus of historians must be correspondingly strong.

[2] If the historical record of the Resurrection stands up to all that can be thrown at it, does it harmonise with everything else we know about the universe? Is the reconstitution of a human body possible, given what we know about human physiology? If everything we know about the physical world does not allow resurrection from death, we may not be justified in concluding that Jesus came alive after death.

[3] It might be that reality is far more extensive than we realise. What if it comprises a "spiritual" dimension not accessible to scientists? If this is true, then an entirely new and unknown set of "rules of being and argument" may apply. The spiritual reality may, in other words, impact or run into ours from time to time in ways we can't understand. We should not be dismayed, therefore, if certain things happen in our physical reality which can be neither understood by us, nor analysed in physical or human terms.

This last point is, as far as I can tell, the approach of a large majority of Christian thinkers who have adopted otherwise Rationalist approaches to problems of Christian teaching in the 21st century. This solution is often summarised by the assertion that, "Scientists can only answer 'what' questions. The Christian faith answers 'why' questions." This sort of knowledge is often referred to as "knowing by faith" as contrasted with "knowing by reason".

This is put in a somewhat different way by A E McGrath:

... it should be noted that the term [rationalism] is often used in an uncritical and inaccurate way, designating the general atmosphere of optimism, grounded in a belief in scientific and social progress, which pervades much of the writing of the [Enlightenment] period ... Rationalism in its proper sense is perhaps best defined as the doctrine that the external world can be known by reason, and reason alone. [6]

Christian reaction to Rationalism has taken two main forms. One branch has perceived revelation as affirming what is already available to reason. So, for example, William Tindal in 1730 wrote a book entitled Christianity As Old As Creation. A second form has (and still does) made Christianity a matter of "the heart" as well as mind. 

This latter view amounts to a division on the world into two spheres. It becomes essentially a dualistic rather than a unified way of relating to reality. The gaps left by reason in the Christian pattern are filled by things spiritual and emotional. The best-known example of this overall reaction is usually termed Pietism. McGrath remarks that

... this movement placed considerable emphasis upon the experiential aspects of religion ... [which] served to make Christianity relevant and accessible to the experiential situation of the masses, contrasting sharply with the intellectualism of ... orthodoxy, which was perceived to be an irrelevance.

Yet another way of expressing the limitations of Rationalism in relation to revealed Christian knowledge was proposed in the 20th century by Karl Barth (1886-1968), a Swiss-German theologian. He suggested that revelation is internally consistent. Though it must constantly be tested and analysed using rational means, it doesn't in the last resort depend upon reason for its truth. It depends instead upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the point in history where time and eternity meet without merging. Reality is, at it were, completed only when faith joins reason at this definitive point. A resurrected Jesus, rather than human reason, becomes the ground of our being.

The upshot of the above observations is the claim that

... there are certain things that can be known about God by the use of human reason alone, without the aid of revelation or the activity of the Holy Spirit ... by the use of rational arguments based upon the implications of certain concepts ... [7]

and certain things which don't depend upon human reason alone. To sum up: 

There is a clash in the Church between Rationalism and revelation. Some resolve the clash by separating reason from faith. Others abandon reason in all things Christian, while retaining it in things secular. Others, recognising the power of rational thought, think through the doctrines of Christianity without abandoning fundamental doctrines. Yet others attempt to face up to the consequences of rational thought and empirical evidence and attempt to restate Christianity. 

Rationalism is the doctrine that we can understand our world only by thinking about it. Some of that understanding seems to come from a priori truths. That is, some truth derives from an evolved way of perceiving reality. But these perceptions require empirical backing because of human bias. This backing is provisionally derived by using scientific methods. 

Rationalism consists of hard and soft versions. The hard version claims that truth, provisional or otherwise comes only through rational thought. 

The latter extends beyond, but depends upon, logical language. Soft Rationalism preserves reason as the primary means of establishing truth, and empirical evidence as the main source of reliable data. But it acknowledges that there are ways of addressing reality other than by pure reason.
[1] HarperCollins, 2001
[2] See Cartesianism 
[3] Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame pointed out that Leibniz had not answered the problem. We still have to ask, "From where did we get our understanding of addition?"
[4] In Principia Mathematica
[5] Bernard Williams in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. Paul Edwards, Collier-Macmillan, 1967
[6] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
[7] J H Hill in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press Ltd, 1983

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