Magazine article Cross Currents

Cultivating Theology: Overcoming America's Skepticism about Religious Rationality

Magazine article Cross Currents

Cultivating Theology: Overcoming America's Skepticism about Religious Rationality

Article excerpt

It was John Locke who, in his famous "A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration" said, "every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error." (1) When it comes then to matters of religious belief, believers cannot help but brand other beliefs as heretical. Incapable of entertaining other positions with respect to their religious beliefs, believers are irrational in their religious beliefs. More significantly, Locke goes on to argue that the separation of church and state is premised upon this character of religious belief. If, he argues, believers are incapable of entertaining other believers' or non-believers' positions with respect to their cherished beliefs, then it would follow that believers cannot engage in any sort of public discourse surrounding these beliefs. It's just best then that believers leave their religion at the door of the house of public discourse. Public discourse, the basis of the social contract itself, presupposes the ability to engage in a rational conversation wherein I can hear the other's position. If I cannot so behave with my religious beliefs in hand, I best take off my religious hat when speaking publicly. Religion belongs at home because it is irrational.

That the relation between religion and public discourse in America is murky and confusing is, well, common knowledge. On the one hand, religion appears to be a much more powerful force in public discourse than Locke would have expected from a nation that claims to separate church and state. Not only does religious rhetoric decorate political speeches, it appears on our currency, it justifies and unjustifies wars and has mandated civil rights. Still, the Lockean profile of believers as irrational persists. Non-believers and liberal religionists both shy away from admitting religion a rightful place in public discourse. (While one might immediately understand a non-believer's hesitation to admit religion a voice in the public sector, one really has to wonder when liberal religionists are willing to leave their religion at home when voting on policy issues.) This tendency to dissociate religion and reason in America is partly a product of thorny relationship Americans have had with philosophy in general evident in America's pragmatist tradition. Still, the dismissal of religion as irrational exceeds the bounds of a pragmatist skepticism of metaphysical systems for James, Peirce and Dewey celebrated the labor of reason--and demanded that it be put to work and all identified and promoted forms of religious rationality. More importantly however, to dismiss religious belief as irrational is at once to deny the texts and traditions of the worlds' major religions as well as the pressing need to recover the these traditions' celebration of human reason as a vital aspect of the believer's worshipping life. In a time when religious belief is as much a powerful force in shaping events as it has ever been, we can no more luxuriate in a dismissal of religious belief as irrational. We must recover and attend to the reasoning funded by belief and showcase it as a call for a renewed strain of contemplation and inquiry in contemporary American discourse.

The list of religious texts that celebrate the role of human reason in the worshipping life would include of course, the Mahabarata, the Talmud, the Gospel of John, the Guide of the Perplexed, the Q'uran, the Summa Theologica and countless others. No list would be complete however without Augustine's Confessions and On Christian Doctrine. St. Augustine has long been credited with providing a basis for medieval Christian culture. Less acknowledged however is the revolution in religious reasoning effected by his work. (2) Too frequently hailed as the great synthesizer between Greek and Christian theology, Augustine's theological revolution has more to do with his scriptural hermeneutics than it does with any strains of Neo-platonism apparent in his work. …

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