Reason and belief

faithreasonIn the March 2013 issue of Quadrant, “one of Australia’s leading intellectual magazines,” Michael Giffin made a plea for rationality in his article The Church, Its Enemies, and Child Abuse. He points out that “unfortunately (the media) reports (child abuse) in a way that, in the public mind, links it predominantly with the Catholic Church, as if that’s the principle institution with a case to answer.” Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican diocese of Sydney so one can assume that he is not a mindless defender of the Catholic Church. Instead, he is pointing out the dangers in a very complex and emotional discussion. “It’s hard not to feel danger looming, when listening to (ostensibly educated professionals involved in identifying and prosecuting child abuse) as they bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality.”

The source of the danger

My friend Father Brendan Purcell is a respected professor of philosophy. He has examined the source of dangerous irrationality in an article on Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. He uses another atheist’s own words to convict Dawkins of the very crime that he and the author accuse believers of. Richard Dawkins quotes Sam Harris, another atheist who wrote: “‘We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.'” [1] Father Purcell then uses three quotes from the distinguished modern philospher Wittgenstein to point toward the irrationality in Dawkins and Harris’s own position:

  • It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life remain completely untouched…
  • One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn’t put the question marks deep enough down. [2]

Brendan points out that Dawkins is being at least inconsistent if not irrational in his position. “Would Harris or Dawkins find that there is ‘no rational justification’ for these experiences of Wittgenstein? If there is even a possibility that they might be valid, it does not make sense to call them delusions, with all that word’s connotations both of a serious lack of interest in intellectual inquiry and a fear that such experiences may not in fact be true at all.” [3] Why would educated, even brilliant professionals like Dawkins, or the others that Michael Giffin refers to, “bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality”? I think my friend Brendan points directly at the source of the issue — “fear” of the consequences of following rational argument wherever it may lead. Dawkins is afraid that there may be a rational case for religious belief. The professionals that Michael Giffen refers to — lawyers, scientists, lobby groups and others engaged in the child abuse issue — are afraid that they might have to admit that as an institution the Catholic Church is no more guilty of child abuse that many other secular organisations.

The quest for authenticity and truth is the antidote for such fear

The basic stance of rationality is that a person should remain open to the implications of the evidence  of his/her experiences. The challenge is ‘remaining open,’ as well as recognising that one may have prejudices and biases like every other human being. Bernard Lonergan calls this situation ‘general bias.’ He writes, “To err is human and common sense is very human . . .Common sense is incapable of analyzing itself.” It takes rigourous self-discipline to examine one’s commonly held beliefs, and to arrive at one’s authentic beliefs. Lonergan describes the journey toward authentic belief as “always precarious, ever a withdrawal from inauthenticity, ever in danger of slipping back toward inauthenticity.” [4]

I think it is clear that authenticity is not a state easily obtained. All human beings must engage in a lifelong quest for truth, which they can genuinely and authentically “bet their life on.” I admire Father Purcell’s gentleness with Richard Dawkins, in surfacing what Dawkins may have great difficulty in admitting to himself — that a belief he has espoused his entire life may not stand the test of reason. Brendan is being a true pastor in his gentleness, encouraging Dawkins to “rethink” his position on God, to be open to a very different possibility and to “bet his life” on the truth of that.

Every Christian must engage in a quest for authenticity. Our beliefs can become ‘common sense,’ especially today when we are surrounded by a culture that holds materialism and success in such high regard. Why not go along with these secular beliefs, at least part way, and achieve a measure of comfort and worldly success? Doing this allows us to provide a safe, secure and comfortable life for ourselves and our family. That can’t be bad. Nonetheless, we must deal with the demands of being a Christian if we are going to be authentic. “Take up your cross and follow me” is a pretty clear invitation from Jesus. (It is no longer seems to be a clear demand of many Christian churches sadly.) Our quest for authenticity must include this aspect of the kingdom; else we have invented a pseudo-Christianity to make ourselves feel good. The quest for authenticity always involves suffering; how do we include that possibility in our lives? To me, the only answer lies in prayer — God forgive me for I am a sinner. Help me to see how to live according to your Holy Will.


 [1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 149e; Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 62e. I owe the suggestion of these Wittgenstein references to Edward Oakes: ‘Edward T. Oakes and His Critics: An Exchange’, First Things 112, April 2001.

[3] Brendan Purcell, Dawkin’s Fear of Reason

[4] Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection


Deconstructing belief

elijah on the mountainWarning. This post may upset your accustomed way of thinking about your beliefs. However, in the spirit of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I offer some reflections on the state of belief in the post-postmodern world. In a nutshell, belief is under attack from every direction — but we can also ‘deconstruct’ those attacks as well.

Getting your arms around belief.

I am a voracious and eclectic reader. Not only of what is currently being written but also what was said centuries even thousands of years in the past. I feel sometimes like I’m standing on a small island of belief in a furious ocean of contradictory ideas from reading all these books. But I also sense that it has always been this way, for every thinking person, and there’s some comfort in that. [People who are ‘aggressively non-reflective’ live on a solid but illusory continent of their own making, built out of sensation and experience. In my opinion, they are simply postponing the inevitable question of ‘what does it all mean?’]

We are now at a point where all the conflict about the rationality of having a belief has arrived at an impasse. We are entering what I wouild call the post-postmodern era. Consider several quotes about our current situation:

  • “By the late twentieth century [the Western mind] had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.” [1]
  • “A new integration will be based on the rejection of all univocal understandings of reality, of all identifications of one conception of reality with reality itself. It will recognize the multiplicity of the human spirit, and the necessity to translate constantly between different scientific and imaginative vocabularies.” [2]
  • “Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. . . There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.” [3]
  • “There is an enormous difference between the dead letter and the living word.” [4]

What these authors seem to promise about belief is that new beliefs emerge constantly in human history, even now, if we are open to that possibility. My question is, what does this mean for Christians?

Christian and secular belief

Because we are human, we experience the storm of ideas in the era in which we live. Christians would like to believe that our little island of belief is built on rock — the solid foundations of the Old and New Testament as well as the Church’s careful study and insights into these. But even inside these solid beliefs there is, as Derrida pointed out “a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity.” And as Bellah also pointed out, the “living word” can’t be contained within human structures of knowledge. In our belief, Jesus is the eternal living Word — and God is not finished with our understanding of what He is doing with us and the world.

What does all this mean then? For one thing the foundation to Christian belief is very different than the basis for secular belief. Secular belief struggles with questions about what is real and true. Christians struggle with questions of what ultimate reality and truth is saying to us. One makes human knowledge its foundation, and the other uses human knowledge to understand what its foundation (God) is saying. Essentially one foundation is built on ever shifting quicksand and the other is built on eternally reliable rock.

My take away about belief in the post-postmodern era is that Christians must ever seek to understand in the light of the latest human knowledge what the living God is saying in our time. Does this mean giving up our beliefs? No, but it does mean distinguishing between what is of God and what is of man in our beliefs. This requires reflection and prayer, in a time of great conceptual storms that seem to be on the verge of overwhelming our little island of belief. What is God saying? As it happened to Elijah, it is happening to us: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ The Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, nor the fire but in a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” [1 Kings 19:11-13, condensed]


[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind

[2] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief

[3] Terry Eagleton, reviewing a biography of Jacques Derrida in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 2-3, 2013

[4] Robert Bellah. Beyond Belief