Saturday, 26 April 2008

Thinking Faith - a relativisation of reason

The Jesuit on-line journal Thinking Faith carries an article "Reasonable Catholicism: Interpreting the Whole Text". In some ways, this article makes interesting reading. I ended up feeling, though, that it presented a very tired argument. That having been said, why do I think it is worthy of a critique?

Firstly, the author is currently a university chaplain working with Catholic students. An article in an on-line academic journal may not be a fair indicator of his apostolate with the students. If it is, though, I feel that the students deserve better than this.

Secondly, the question of the relationship between faith and reason is a prominent theme for Pope Benedict XVI. The relativisation of reason that I believe is expressed in this article can completely undermine how Pope Benedict, and indeed Pope John Paul II before him, is understood on this issue.

The tiredness of the ideas presented in this article is summarised in the introductory paragraph (my emphasis):

If the Christian faith is a ‘religion of the book’, a tradition handed down through the centuries, how are we to make sense of that book and that tradition
when we speak today in a very different language?

Unstated, but implied, is a questioning of the ability of language to express reality, a questioning of the ability of reason (seen as a faculty of the human person) to know the truth of the world. A very tired idea!

The article is not based on a coherent idea of what reason is:

This leaves ‘reasonable’ still surprisingly vague. Unfortunately, one of the things that we are going to have to cope with is that ‘reason’ is not as precise a concept as we would all like it to be. ... The vast edifice of teaching that articulates the ambiguous narratives of scripture into a coherent whole itself needs interpretation in the light of new reason and reasoning. It is essentially incomplete. ... But then are not all commandments within the tradition, even those most fiercely proclaimed, subject ultimately to the test of reason? Or, more disturbingly, are they not subject to the test of reasonings (plural) that may differ substantially from that reasoning in which they once were grounded? Things that seemed sacred and secure, a clear pathway to God, are called into question by those who have a different account of human flourishing. Entering into the dialogue of reason, once again, has a cost.

I think these citations, from three different parts of the article, demonstrate starting from an imprecise understanding of what reason is (failing to give an account of reason as a faculty or ability of the human mind ordered toward knowledge of the world in which we live). The ambiguity created by this starting point allows the recognition that the ability to reason can be exercised in different ways ("new reason and reasoning") to instead be expressed as if it were a completely different and novel thing altogether ("new reason and reasoning"). And it finally leads through to a relativisation of reason (as ability to know the truth of the world about us) to "reasonings" (different ways of exercising our ability to know). What is missing is a properly developed account of reason as an ability of the human mind, and of what constitutes a proper use of that ability and an improper use of it (the idea that some lines of argument or reasoning are correct and others are wrong).

It is perhaps part of the logic if this article that a relativisation of Scripture, and the miracles described in Scripture, to our contemporary reading of it is also apparent in the article (see paragraphs 8 and 9). This is not to deny that we read Scripture in the light of reason, or that we can see in Scripture messages or signs for our life today. But, to escape this becoming a form of relativism, it is important to have a sound understanding of the nature of reason that is absent from this article. A relativisation of tradtion and magisterium also follows in the next paragraph (paragraph 10).

The final paragraph, though quite poetic in nature, has a fundamental flaw. It carefully ignores the nature of "the texts" of Scripture and tradition as revelation, and how certainly we read them in the light of reason, but also in the light of faith. It praises reason, but leaves us to ask where and how it relates to faith. The"M" word (magisterium) is missing.

Throughout the Christian era and before it there has always been more than one way of being reasonable. That diversity is reflected in the texts, whether scriptural or dogmatic which attempt to articulate a narrative or a teaching, and point us towards the dynamic reality of our relationship with God. It is the challenging, but liberating work of Christian reasoning in every age to interpret the whole text so that its deep truth may be recognised and so can set us free.

No comments: