Reflections on "Reason"

Jean Bethke Elshtain, IjthadReason, 7/29/2010

To the extent that a rich understanding of reason has faded in the West, to that extent we are increasingly ill-equipped to engage in serious dialogue with those in other traditions who have not cast faith and tradition to the side, those who seek to reconcile reason and tradition or faith. Yet it is dialogue we seek and require at present. Serious and lasting engagement is possible but only through the lens of reason not narrow rationalism.

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Subjects: International civil society, Islam/West

More by: Jean Bethke Elshtain

Nineteenth century European intellectuals were an optimistic lot. Even the pessimistic Freud opined that the "still, small voice of reason" would one day triumph and we would have put to rest puerile superstitions – by which he meant religious faith. Freud, Marx, John Stuart Mill – all were part of a great 'rationalizing' effort that, to their minds, required severing religious belief, construed as irrationalism and, in Mill's terms, the "worst part of human nature", from intellectual effort in general.

This insistence that religion consisted of superstitious faith, a leap into the darkness, would have stunned previous great thinkers in the history of the West. From St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, reason and faith were construed as collaborative rather than conflicting. Augustine's famous, "Credo ut intelligam", or "faith seeking understanding", pertained.

What might be called the triumph of reasoned faith is surely to be found in Aquinas's monumental Summa Theologiae. Human beings were defined as creatures who sought meaning and truth. The conviction pertained that God created us so. God gave us minds to use and we should use them to good purposes, not ill. God Himself is the apogee of reason, the very height of reason, even as God is also the summit of love. God created the universe and man from a surfeit of love.

Further, God created a world accessible to reason. God set in motion the laws that govern the universe. Human beings can discover or discern those laws through the use of reason. Aquinas divided law into four connected parts: eternal law, divine law, natural law, and civil law. The law that governs human societies should reinforce and reflect the truths of the natural law. Again, it is vital to underscore the fact that severing reason from faith would have made little sense to Aquinas or to anyone in the Thomistic tradition, as it came to be known.

The history of the severing of reason from faith is a complex one. There are many parts to the story, including the rise of a theological position that construed God as the site of sovereign and even capricious will rather than reason and love in their ultimate forms. Even as developments in the natural sciences reinforced the view that God had created an orderly universe whose laws could be uncovered, known, and applied, there were some who, while acknowledging this orderliness, began to argue that God need not be involved at all. Perhaps some natural forces, as yet unspecified, accounted for the coming into being of such laws. Then, too, changing views of human nature came into focus. The idea that God was sovereign over man grew unacceptable to some, for this belief was a blow to human pride. Advocates of human self-sovereignty began to insist that man himself is sovereign over himself and all he surveys. This sovereign self is a rationalist – for it is important to distinguish rich understandings of reason from contemporary rationalism.

For the rationalist, who came into clearer focus with the European enlightenment, faith belonged in a category that was either not-reason or opposed to reason. Reason was stripped down to certain ratiocinations that demanded severing that which was rational from that which was not. As this position triumphed among an elite intellectual class, faith fell into disrepute, as I have already noted. To be rational meant one could not also be a believer. It also meant that one see tradition as a source of error, something to be 'overcome' rather than engaged.

At the same time, there emerged schools of legal thinkers who held that what we call 'law' is just the 'interest of the stronger'. This is an ancient view, of course, one articulated by Thrasymachus in his dialogue with Socrates in Plato's Republic. But this cynical view of law becomes an entire school of legal thought in modernity: Law is the command of the stronger. It follows that law, too, is severed from ideals of natural law and of truths that cannot be confined to one culture, one tradition, or one time and place.

The upshot in Western modernity is that reason is collapsed into a narrow rationalism. Faith is construed as the unreasoning beliefs of those who somehow cannot overcome childish fantasies. It follows that any consideration of 'reason' from the side of Western realities and assumptions needs to come to grips with this divide and to discern ways to bridge the destructive gap. That is one possible task – and a task which the Malta Forum and its parent, the Center for IjtihadReason, may be able to advance.

A second is to grapple with how the law is understood.

At one point in American history, it would have been considered preposterous were an individual to assert that the founding of America had little or nothing to do with natural law. But one glance at the Declaration of Independence demonstrates the falsehood of such a claim: "We hold these truths to be self evident . . . ," proclaimed the American Founders. And the truths in question are truths that all men and women can discern and live by.

Third, reengagement of understandings of reason with questions of political and social conflict should prove enlightening. For the narrow rationalist, conflict and war are outbursts of irrationalism. But the Western tradition of reason held that conflict, including war, should be subjected to reasoning and ethical scrutiny to determine whether the use of force was justified and, as well, whether the use of certain weapons or rules of engagement passed the test of reasoned ethics.

The narrow rationalists have addressed these questions and when they do, their arguments tend to be cast in a rigid framework linked to the work of Immanuel Kant, one that insists that there is a grid of categorical imperatives that all must subscribe to – no matter what the consequences. Those working with the tradition of reasoned ethics called 'just war' argue, by contrast, that one must consider the possible consequences of actions within the framework of basic ethical stipulations.

To the extent that a rich understanding of reason has faded in the West, to that extent we are increasingly ill-equipped to engage in serious dialogue with those in other traditions who have not cast faith and tradition to the side, those who seek to reconcile reason and tradition or faith. Yet it is dialogue we seek and require at present. Serious and lasting engagement is possible but only through the lens of reason not narrow rationalism.

The lens of reason, understood as I've here articulated it, in engagement and in conjunction with the lens of ijtihad, may serve to lift up and enrich both of those related ways of understanding the world.

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