Shuck and Jive

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Happy International Day of Reason

While the superstitious offer their supplications to the god of empire, some of us are celebrating International Day of Reason. My goal for today is to come up with one rational thought. The odds are against me.

Today is a good day to plug the next book we are reading for our Thursday study group.

When Faith Meets Reason is a publication of the Jesus Seminar. It contains thirteen essays from religious scholars who strip down and bare their souls. Scholars gone wild.

Here is the blurb:

What happens to faith when the creeds and confessions can no longer be squared with historical and empirical evidence? Most critical scholars have wrestled with this question. Some have found ways to reconcile their personal religious belief with the scholarship they practice. Others have chosen to reconstruct their view of religious meaning in light of what they have learned. But most have tended not to share those views in a public forum. And that brings up a second question: at what point does the discrepancy between what I know, or think I know, and what I am willing to say publicly become so acute that my personal integrity is at stake? Being honest about what one thinks has always mattered in critical scholarship. In the pages of When Faith Meets Reason, thirteen scholars take up the challenge to speak candidly about how they negotiate the conflicting claims of faith and reason, in hopes that their journeys will inspire others to engage in their own search for meaning.
Scholars (like clergy, who are in fact the teachers of clergy) do know how to dissemble. Try to get a straight answer to questions like,
  • Did Jesus rise from the dead?
  • Is there really a supernatural being that interferes with the universe?
and see how much creative nonsense you have to sift through and still never get an answer. My answers to the above questions are no and no by the way. What other answer is possibly reasonable? That said we can talk about what "resurrection" and "God" mean or what they might symbolize.

Rarely are clergy or scholars forthcoming about what they really believe. This book is therefore refreshing. It comes with its own study guide. Recommend it to your favorite minister and ask her or him lead a study with it.

Or if you are anywhere near our mountain stream join us Thursdays from 10:30 until noon. We still start with the first essay on Thursday May 27th.

May reason be with you.


  1. I pray you'll stop making the baby Jesus cry and join the national day of prayer with Franklin Graham.

  2. Darn! I missed the National Day of Prayer yesterday. That means I won't be able to legally pray again until next year, right? ;)

  3. Y'all are most welcome to join the Unitarian Universalist Association as soon as the PCUSA throws you out.

  4. @Alan

    Right. The LayMAN will send you a script.


    Thank you! I am going to hang around as long as they will let me (to borrow a phrase from David Alan Coe). I do love the UUs including my friends here in East TN and I should give a shout to the Billings, MT UU Fellowship. They provided a nice place to land after my last adventure. But I think I have Presbyterianism in my DNA.

  5. Dear John,

    My answer to both questions is:

    I don't know.

    John, where do your get certyainty from? The universe contains far too much mystery and uncertainty and incompleteness for me to say so definitely that Jesus did not rise from the dead or that God does not interfere from time to time or even all of the time ... although I would rather call it intervention or creation or partnership.

    I have had experiences in my life which lead me to believe at least in the possibility if not the probability of miracles beyond our ordinary perception.

    I don't believe that the Church should insist on a YES answer to your questions. But, equally, I don't think you should insist on a NO answer.

    One of the foundations of Quantum Physics is The Uncertainty Principle (Heisenberg). And many Mathematicians endorse the Principle of Incompleteness (Gogel).

    love, john + + "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right.” – Judge Learned Hand

  6. Sorry. the Incompleteness theorem was offered by Kurt Gödel, not Godel.

  7. @John

    Great question.

    Obviously, I cannot be certain.

    But I am as certain that Jesus didn't rise from the dead as I am certain the Muhammed didn't take a night ride to heaven on a horse, that Krishna didn't come back to life after he was accidentally killed, that everywhere the Buddha stepped a lotus flower bloomed, that Noah built an ark and boated two of every species of animal, and so forth and so on. I cannot be certain that Jesus did not rise from the dead anymore than I can be certain that any other story like happened either. So, technically I am agnostic about it, but practically pretty certain it is fiction.

    As far a supernatural being intervening in the activities of the Universe, again, it is possible as any other thing I could make up, but for practical purposes I cannot think of one thing that ever happened in the universe that is best explained by the intervention of a divine being.

    In other words, no I cannot be absolutely certain, but I can be that certain and certain enough to say that these stories and doctrines are human inventions.

  8. @John

    I am just being honest. I agree that I don't think the church should insist on a yes or no to those questions. That doesn't mean I won't share my view. I think I make a pretty good case.

  9. To try clarifying my belief, let me just say that I agree with you that all scripture is written by human beings and is subject to error of all kinds. Also, most of the stories presented are indeed fiction as we understand that term today. But when they told the stories to each other in ancient times, they easily mixed fact and fiction. I believe that we think and present things quite differently than the ancients did as well as today's aboriginals.

    And so, I certainly see no reason to idolize the Bible or the Creeds as if God speaks final truths through them. That's nonsense.

    On the other hand, I am quite impressed with the effort of anicent and aboriginal story tellers to describe reality. In some ways, I see their descriptions as better than our modern and post-modern descriptions. They had a lot to learn about reality and so do we.

    love, john + + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

  10. Actually, pre-modern humans (everybody up until Descartes) were perfectly capable to distinguish what was physically, touchably real and what was metaphor.

    To experience the world as "enchanted" -- meaning, full of spirit -- has always been an option. The problem has been with folks who want to make the metaphor stand on all fours, despite evidence to the contrary -- both in pre-modern and post-modern times.

    Describing the spiritual experience is very difficult to do. Somebody always tries to make it literal -- no matter when the experience occurred (10,000 bce or yesterday).

    Hence the legends about empty tombs, and getting blasted off a horse on the road to Damascus.

  11. Quoting John Dominic Crossan:

    Are we so smart that we take symbolically what was written to be taken literally? Or are we so dumb as to take literally what was meant to be taken symbolically? I think the second is true.

    I like that quote. Frankly, I think that some ancients did take the Bible stories as events and others saw them as fiction. Similarly to the different ways people see them today.

    I also think that if Christianity is going to die in the trench defending a literal resurrection or defending the concept of God as a supernatural, interventionist being, then, in my opinion, Christianity will simply die in the trench.

  12. @ John

    My one concern about the word reason it that it tends to mean a particular way of thinking that developed in Europe in the post Enlightenment period. (And ties in with European imperialism as something that must be taught to the ignorant natives) I wonder if the word means different things in different cultures.

    I think within the scientific community around the world scientific method is the same. But would all agree on what is reason? Or will influences from the various religious traditions taint the meaning of the word?

  13. I think Socrates used reason. We can play lots of games with definitions. What do you think reason is or what is an alternative?

  14. I would agree that the Greek philosophers used a particular kind of reason. But to what extent did the religions of Greece influence the Greek philosophers? Was Plato, for example using reason when he argued that the perfect form of each part of the physical world is in some kind of heaven and the physical form on earth distorted? (I think there is a possibility that Plato was influenced by Hindu religions) Or was Aristotle correct when he argued that the form created was in the world? (See his example of the acorn and the tree.)

    But would Muslim philosophers use the same kind of reason? They did back in their golden age. (and curiously the translations from Greek into Arabic was done by Christians and Jews) Would they today? The use of Greek reason in the Islamic would is now frowned upon.

    How about Confuscius and his followers? Does Chinese reason look like Greek reason?

    Is ancient Hebrew wisdom the same as Greek reason? Or ancient Egyptian reason? Or reason in India?

    I will freely admit that it is more probable that you have read more widely in these areas than I have at least in the wisdom traditions of the Eastern world.

    I think we can agree on one thing: in the high middle ages Christians used Greek Philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle) as a basis for theology.

    Since I grew up in the West my definition of reason tends follows that of the Greek philosophers, although I have tried to bring Hebrew wisdom to critique some Greek philosophy and definitions of reason.

    Further Greek reason that argues that yes and no must mean different things (sorry, I forget the name of the principle) can be used to argue that one religion is right and the other wrong. Best put in mathematical terms 2 + 2 equals 4. 2 + 2 cannot equal 5.

    Finally I have to say that the use of reason is always tainted my humans selfishness and sin. We do have a tendency to come around to the idea that reason supports what I think and not what you think.

    I know I didn't exactly answer you question. Rather I've tried to raise different questions. Mainly is Greek reason the only possible form of reason that is correct? Or is that a part of our Western heritage that insists that reason in other traditions must be wrong?

  15. I don't know what you are saying, Bob.

  16. Let me try again.

    Dominic Crossan used sociological studies of Mediterranean peasants living in villages as a basis to seek understanding original cultural context of the Gospels (and therefore our understanding of it). I am suggesting that culture and sociological issues may also affect how a culture thinks about and uses reason.

    I am also suggesting that using Greek reason as the basis for saying what is and what is not reason may be a mistake (a mistake often made by people from the West) and that we should compare it to methods of reasoning from other cultures.

    In other words we all have cultural baggage, including Socrates. I suggest there is no such thing as pure reason.

    Is that better?

  17. OK.

    Sounds rather postmodern of you, Bob. How far do you take this relativism of yours? When I assert via reason that Earth revolves around the sun, is that only my western cultural baggage speaking?

  18. An interesting question, John. Do you know that the earth travels around the sun by reason alone? I suspect that you know it by deductive reasoning, based on the evidence at hand or more probably because you got told in school it was true, unless you repeated Galileo's experiments).

    I suggest that you couldn't know the answer by reason alone without the evidence.

    You do raise an interesting question: if the scientific method grows out of a particular kind of Greek philosophy (and I'm not sure if it does or not) then that would suggest that, at least for scientific purposes, that particular kind of Greek philosophy is the correct reasoning. I don't know for sure but suspect that if any Greek philosophy is at the root of the scientific method it is Aristotlean.

  19. I have done no experiments. It is because I was told it. Most things I trust, take it on faith if you like, because I was taught it.

    It appears that I have no idea what you mean when you use the word, reason. Define it however you like and I will see how far I can go along with you.

    What I would really like to know is what is your point? Are you saying something that relates to my post? I am not getting the connection so I really don't know what I am arguing with you about.

  20. So far I don't think that we are arguing.

    First, I suspect we agree on the definition of reason as we come from the same culture. I was wondering if different cultures reason in different ways and brought up the subject as I am certain you know more about different cultures than I do or at least about religion in different cultures than I do. So when you raised the subject of reason day I raised the question.

    I use the word reason in fairly traditional ways for western culture. Deductive reasoning moves from theory to hypothesis to observation to either confirmation or lack of confirmation. Inductive reasoning moves from observation to pattern to tentative hypothesis to theory.

    These is a third type that I think is rather dangerous to use in science and that is scholastic reasoning. In this the person makes assumptions about the nature of reality and then tries to make reality fit within those assumptions. This is done by some who claim to be doing science, particularly when a new hypothesis is raised that doesn't go along with what they were taught. Invariably scholastic reason when applied to science ultimately fails. Religions to an outside observer also operates by scholastic reasoning. Except that of the outside observer, of course.

    I originally raised the question after reading your blog on reason day because I wondered if the reasoning of scientists in India or China, for example, is affected by culture or not. Or if the word reason is defined in different ways in different cultures. I thought you might know more than I did!

  21. I finally did the logical or reasonable thing and googled asian reasoning. At this site:

    I found this: "Asian thought is holistic and drawn to reality as an integral whole and to interdependencies and relations among objects and events. By contrast to Western modes of reasoning, Asian thought depends far less on categories, formal logic or isolated objects. Asian reasoning is dialectic, seeking a middle way between opposing concepts. By contrast, Westerners focus on distinctive objects and isolate these from their context, use attributes to assign them to categories, and apply rules of formal logic to understand their performance."

    The article is on knowledge management.

  22. If I am not too late for International Day of Reason, I humbly submit the following thoughts:

    Much serious thought has been devoted to the subject of chocolate: what does chocolate mean? Is the pursuit of chocolate a right or a privilege? Does the notion of chocolate preclude the concept of free will?

    I leave you to your thoughts.

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  24. I think there must be a distinction between philosophy and reasoning and logic. Reason and logic are the methods of philosophy, but they do not constitute necessarily the content of any give philosophy. Philosophers start from different worldviews and intellectual frameworks, and these carry assumptions that in turn reason and logic utilize in developing formal philosophies. But I think it is an error to assert that Asians use one form of logic and reason and Westerners another. They reach different philosophical positions, but utilize similar methods of reason and logic.

    For example, both the Asian Buddhist and the Western Christian who are practicing scientists may hold very different philosophical views but they most certainly understand the usage reason and logic and how reasoning is applied with consistent logic to the problems they attempt solve. We cannot prove with absolute certainty Jesus’ resurrection. That is a matter of belief. One can muster to their own satisfaction what they personally feel are rational reasons for believing the resurrection was real (i.e., so-called reliable witness from the early community), but this can just as easily be countered by equally reasonable arguments those eye witnesses are were not reliable. Here we have two different belief positions, both attempting to use reason and logic to reach reasonable beliefs, but each starting from different assumptions.

    I think the problems start when either scientists or religionists depart from the facts, for each can only be self-critical of their facts. When they become overconfident and dogmatic they equate assumptions with facts and their reasoning becomes illogical by quickly departing from the stage of facts, and their reason thereby rapidly abdicates to dogmatism or degenerates into a consort of false logic.