Reason and Conversion to Christ


A longtime friend of mine (and former co-worker from my stagehand days) has apparently listened to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast a lot more times than I have (he claims seven times, poor fellow). He recently sent me a note entitled “The subjugation of reason” and gave me permission to publish an excerpt here, along with my response:

At your leisure, I would request a little more insight on what has been the most prominent question triggered in my mind by your words. If reason is to be subordinate to Orthodox teaching, tradition, and scripture, by what basis does one rightfully, or properly, choose to join the community of the Church? Setting aside reason for a moment, I’m left with feeling, emotion, and intuition; which are arguably more fallible than reason. To me it would appear that, while outside the Church, I retain the God-given volition to make the ‘correct’ (for lack of a better term) choice to be within the Church. Yet, upon joining the community I forever forfeit the right to make such pivotal decisions for myself, at least in matters of faith and worship.

You’ve hit upon something that in my experience doesn’t occur to most folks (at least, outside the rarefied intellectual world of Internet religion and the darkened but enlightened ethereality of stagehand converse), and that is the epistemological element in conversion. You’re right that there is a contradiction between debasing reason within the Christian community but at least tacitly acknowledging its place as a means to get inside it. The larger question here is what the place of reason is within the context of conversion and the subsequent life in Christ, which Orthodox teaching actually describes as an ongoing conversion.

Concerning reason itself and its usefulness in making big decisions, our secular world of course at least claims to have privileged it exclusively. Almost all of our political discussion is based in these kinds of terms (“what will work,” etc.), and these claims are based on scientific studies and the like. But one thing I’ve learned about science is that the true gurus of those disciplines, the people getting deep into the inner recesses of what physical existence is made up of, tell us that things there don’t really work reasonably or predictably. How much more should this be true when speaking of a complex creature like humanity? And thus, how much more is this true when speaking of humanity attempting to connect with Divinity?

Reason is a gift from God; indeed, it is His invention. Thus, to suggest that it should be “subjugated” is perhaps only necessary because of its current unnatural position of privilege. The proud man often needs to be humiliated a bit in order to have some humility, and reason often has need of precisely this, at least in terms of what one expects in the big moments in life. None of this is to say that I believe that reason in itself needs to be subjugated. It is one of our God-created energies, and, as such, is inherently good. I agree with your argument that reason is less fallible than feeling, emotion and intuition. But all are fallible.

Our error lies, I believe, in seeking absolute psychological certainty in anything, no matter what means we use to get it, logical or no. But of course there is much more to logic, to the Logos, than is generally thought of as proper to the discipline of logic in our own time. Human reason, along with our feelings, emotions and intuition, have need of enlightenment by faith.

And faith, at least in the Orthodox Christian understanding, is not mere belief in concepts we otherwise know are not true. Faith is rather the result of an encounter with the Divine, and just as is the case with any encounter between persons, arriving at it is not the result of any inner psychological process. I cannot have dinner with you by thinking about it and making decisions about it. I can only do it by doing it. But if you are the Thou of the transcendent, ineffable Divinity, then no matter what I do, I cannot have the encounter. To put it most bluntly, I cannot find God. But God has come looking for me.

This was true both for St. Paul on the road to Damascus and also for Ss. Luke and Cleopas as the Lord met them on the road to Emmaus and revealed Himself gradually to them. For both encounters, the fulfillment was finally sacramental, in baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. Yet both involved a lot of oral instruction, which of course employs reason. Yet this reality is ultimately mysterious and difficult to define in language.

One of the Church Fathers boldly describes the makeup of the human person as tri-partite: Body, Soul and Holy Spirit. Thus, it is revealed that a person who is whole is not just his natural, corruptible, mortal elements, but also requires communion with the Divine in order to be fully alive. Someone who is in a crippled state cannot be expected to make right decisions, hampered as they are by their fallibility. But if there is the communion with the Divine present, well, that is something else.

Thus, whether speaking of the initial conversion or the ongoing process of growing in holiness, the whole human person must be engaged, but that engagement only works within the context of communion with the Divine. Practically speaking, that means that, even when once inside the Church, we are not called upon to set aside our reason, but rather to be prepared to have it transformed, to realize that we came to the hospital to be healed, not to take up the job of hospital administrator. So there is the need for trust, but it is a trust based in experience, not blind belief.

This discourse probably seems circular, and it is, but then, so is human existence. The point, finally, is that there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason, and even feelings, emotion and intuition, in making decisions, even big spiritual ones. The key element is that there be humility in doing so, because humility is the only way to permit communion of any sort, especially the kind needed for communion with the Divine.

When I was a kid, having been given a solidly Christian identity by my parents, I came to believe that the big divide in the world was between believers and atheists. But there are of course very few actual atheists, and even the big-money ones of our own day are mostly just celebrities who will fade when their time comes. What I have learned, through making many foolish decisions of my own and also through my experiences with others and as a cleric, is that the great divide is really between humility and pride.

Pride insists that there must be some human power or set of powers that can apprehend all things. But this really is not so. We are limited creatures. No matter what self-esteem propaganda may have been tossed at you today on a billboard or on Facebook, you are limited. You cannot grow up to be anything you want. You are not limited only by your imagination. You have real limits that go beyond your will. Acknowledging that, and most especially acknowledging deeply within that you will someday die, will transform your outlook into something else.

Epistemology is quite critical, whether it comes in initial conversion to the community of faith or in the ongoing conversion that is needed to attain to authentic holiness. But let me suggest an epistemology of humility. Even if there is no God, such a posture will at least help you to see the flaws in your own reasoning. But if there is a God, then humility will open you up to divine illumination.

4 comments:

  1. I find this to be a very good description of the role of humility in relation to reason. I have shared it with my Facebook network — perhaps it will counter some of the “self-esteem propaganda” that inevitably makes its way into just about everyone’s Newsfeed, no matter the people who make up one’s network.

    Also, I wanted to leave a comment as well to commend you for coming up with the following phrase: “the darkened but enlightened ethereality of stagehand converse.” Made me smile with a bit of recognition, at least in terms of being aware of this world in the wings back during my theatre days, if not fully partaking of it, usually having been too busy with other stuff. 🙂

  2. Does the Christian community need to debase reason? This is typed in pure theological curiosity and without an incendiary tone or motive. Perhaps a more translatable version would be, “Does Christianity need to debase reason?”

    1. The answer is a most resounding “No.” But unfortunately, there are some heretics who have enshrined anti-intellectualism and its close cousin of fideism into their religion. They are not properly Christian, because they seek to deny a God-given element of human existence.

      There are also some who attempt to interpret the Orthodox Christian tradition in such a manner, that reason has no place in faith, but I think even a cursory reading of one of the Fathers would quickly put such silliness to rest. One can hardly find more reasonable men than Ss. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great or Athanasius of Alexandria.

      This is, nevertheless, a far cry from the modern RC conception, in which reason and faith are “two wings” (to use JP2’s language) on which we rise to God. Reason is not needed to rise to God. Quite frankly, one can be retarded and be a saint.

  3. Perhaps the most humiliating question I ever asked myself was, “how do I know I’m not a heretic?” Trying to answer it has been quite the struggle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *