On Impulse and Reason
In her recent post, “The Dangers of Experience,” Shannon Greene uses the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to criticize what she sees as a “heavy push” towards pentecostalism within her denomination, the Church of the Nazarene. For those who don’t know, the Wesleyan Quad is a tool Christians can use to better “evaluate and guide” their faith. It emphasizes a balanced, multifaceted approach to faith, and there are four important factors to it: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience, both as individuals and as individuals in a community.
These terms are pretty straightforward in meaning, but if you’d like to gain a fuller understanding, I suggest reading Shannon’s piece. (It pairs well with a jelly donut.) She does a better job of explaining the Quad than I could, at least without extended quotation, and anyway her piece is not a buffalo and I am not a Shawnee hunter honor bound to use each atom of its body. My purpose here is simply to comment on what Shannon has to say about the dangers of an excess of Reason and nothing more.
Shannon, like a good many other Christian writers I’ve encountered, seems to misunderstand the mentality of nonbelievers. (Of course, I may equally be accused of misunderstanding the mentality of believers, but that is neither here nor there.)
It is worthy to quote Shannon in full (bold sections original to Shannon):
Modernism has shown us how a focus on reason can lead people astray from the Christian faith. During the Enlightenment, an over-emphasis on reason caused many skeptics to question the truth of the Bible. Reason has led many scientists and philosophers to reject Christianity or turn to atheism. This makes sense, because a Christian faith without Scripture, tradition, and experience is illogical. There is something about the beauty of the Psalms that cannot be quantified, or the experience of receiving communion that cannot be calculated, or the fellowship of believers within a tradition that cannot be measured. These intangibles defy reason, but they are what makes our religion one based on faith and trust.
I’m not sure what Shannon means by the word modernism, but that is not important. What matters here is that Shannon seems to subscribe to a myth that many nonbelievers, myself included, like to cling to the notion that nonbelief in the case of faith and religion is more logical than belief, or that there’s more logic to it. But this view of nonbelief, apart from being false, distorts the nonbeliever, makes him seem less human. This is almost a caricature, a nonbeliever who says, without irony, that as a true skeptic, he spends half an hour each day looking into a mirror and doubting himself. But this is not life as lived, and reason, logic, the rationale, none of these is the genesis of nonbelief. Whatever we might call reason comes later, once the choice has been made and an explanation must given. Ultimately, the origins of nonbelief are as logical as the origins of belief, which is to say not at all. Let me explain.
First, we must consider the logic of the topic at hand, belief in God, and how any belief, however appealing, eventually crumbles. I will try to stick to the metaphysic and avoid ontology altogether.
I prefer to think that there is no evidence for the existence of God, because even if this evidence did exist, we wouldn’t be able to qualify it as such, and certainly we wouldn’t be able to say that this evidence lends credence to the truth of one faith or another. Because of this I say we may as well assume that God doesn’t exist, to live as though there is no God, which means that we have no obligation to follow the scripture of any religion, though of course we may choose to do so if we find a particular moral code helpful or worthy.
The Christian, in order to be a Christian, would have to hold the opposite position, that God can be felt in a cool summer breeze, that it is obvious that there is a God, that it is obvious that the Gospel is true, and because it is true, we sure as hell better obey the commands the Gospel contains.
The Christian and I are thus forced to regard each other as fools. For if he is not a fool, then I am wrong. And if I am not a fool, he is wrong. To be both wrong and cognizant of this wrongness is an absurd position. I’m not saying that I would never hold such a position; rather, it is easier for me to call the Christian a fool.
All the same, no matter how right I feel in my state of declaration, I cannot help but recognize that I am a fool no matter what I do. The Christian says that there is a God and that this God’s nature is defined by the Gospel. I say this isn’t true, and I have many splendid reasons for saying so, just as he has many splendid reasons for sticking to what he sees as the truth. But at the end of the day we are both fools, because neither of us has any reason to call the other a fool. Mr. T pities the fool, and so do I. There is no evidence one way or the other, and thus we are all doomed to be fools. God may very well be at the end of a dark tunnel, but there is not enough light to know for sure. The best we can do is to not be fools by self-deception; we ought to be fools by nature; at any rate, regardless of what we do, the human condition makes fools of us all.
But none of this explains why one person chooses belief while another rejects it. I think on my own history, how my family is for the most part Christian – at least I can’t think of anyone in my family who rejects the faith – and yet I emerged an atheist.
In fairness, I must admit that when I did regard myself as a Christian, I didn’t follow any semblance of the Wesleyan Quad. I’ve belonged to a number of churches or church-based organizations, but my ventures were sporadic. I was never a part of a consistent community of believers. Additionally, I didn’t read the Bible until after I had come to the conclusion that I am an atheist.
Then again, I do value tradition, albeit the fact that I do find fault with many traditions and thus reject them. As for reason, I’d like to think that I’ve always had plenty of that, and I can wonder if I’d be writing and living as a Christian if I had had more balance earlier in my life, balance that could turn my shaggy mane of reason into a crewcut.
But such a conjecture would be pointless for many reasons but primarily for this one: I have no memory of any moment in my life when I believed in God, when I thought that this God was the God of the Gospel. Granted, I can’t say that such a moment never occurred. I can only say that I can’t remember, and that, to me, amounts to the same thing. If I have no reason to believe that I ever believed, then I might as well say that I never believed.
This is, of course, a choice, and just the same I could make the converse choice and try to invent a memory of my belief. From there I could call that memory true, and I could be, and always could have been, a believer. But that is not the choice I will make, at least for the time being, and I can’t imagine myself making the choice to act differently, but with the same goal in mind, the goal of achieving a restored Christian faith. My impulse is, and has always been, to reject all faith. There is no reasoning involved here, and there is no logic to impulse. Impulse is yes or no, do or don’t. That is all.
So now I must wonder where this impulse comes from, where any of our impulses come from. For I can say for sure that I had the impulse to not believe before I ever read a word from Nietzsche. I remember my grandma scolding me when I was six or seven because I said Jesus Christ the wrong way, the way that makes some Christians utter the bizarre phrase, “Don’t use the J.C. word!” I remember not understanding what had offended her about those words, which is natural for a more or less ignorant child. But I also remember not caring and not feeling guilty after my offense had been explained to me. Already Christianity was something I could shrug off. It didn’t matter to me. And I have to wonder why.
I also have to wonder if I’m the only one who’s felt this way, though I feel confident saying that this is unlikely. What seems truer to me is that, when we consider the Enlightenment thinkers who turned away from Christianity, most people will choose rational behavior over their impulses. In a society openly hostile to homosexuality, for instance, it is in the enlightened best interest of any gay person to act straight. And in a Europe where non believers could expect death, torture, or persecution, it was in their enlightened best interest to pretend to be Christian. The Enlightenment era did not change any of that, it didn’t alter human nature; rather, it was an era when non believers could be honest without fear. Certainly there was no logic to their actions, and certainly there has never been any logic to belief or nonbelief. Choice is all about when and where. If my grandma had slapped me for what I said, then I may have felt it in my enlightened best interest to pretend to be a Christian. Happily, she didn’t do this; instead she gave me the right to choose to follow my impulse. The only difference between me and my grandma is that our impulses differed, but it all amounts to the same thing: no one reasons until there is something to reason about; human nature is impulse followed by explanation; it is never the other way around.
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