"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 ...
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?
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
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 .
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
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
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
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"?
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
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". 
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").
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.
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:
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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 ... 
and certain things which don't depend upon human reason alone. To sum
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.
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.
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.
 HarperCollins, 2001
 See Cartesianism
 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?"
 In Principia Mathematica
 Bernard Williams in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed.
Paul Edwards, Collier-Macmillan, 1967
 Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
 J H Hill in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press