The Limits of Reason

Photo by Algars Mahinovs

Earlier today, as I was reading some secondary literature about David Tracy, I found my way to an interview with him that was published in the Christian Century back in 2002. The interview was about shifts in his (then) current thinking from his earlier work in books such as Blessed Rage for Order. One way of characterizing this shift is to say that Tracy’s early work was a modernist project grounded in Enlightenment thinking, whereas his more recent work takes a more postmodern direction. Of course, Tracy is quick to qualify such a description:

I don’t care about the word postmodern. I do care about the shift to the other and not the self. The shift is about undoing the arrogance and limits of modernity, especially reason.

It occurs to me—though I generally consider myself shaped by postmodernism—that much of my theological thinking relies heavily on reason. I want a faith that in some basic way makes sense. It seems to me that God gave us brains to use, not to check at the door when we go to church.

But it’s important to attend to the limits of reason. It is undeniable that much spiritual or religious experience is beyond understanding. Religion brings us, despite our desire for rational explanations, into mysteries that defy logic, or even words.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to retreat into dogmatism. A healthy and humble appreciation for the limits of reason does not necessitate blind or uncritical faith. But it is good to remember that there is much about life that we cannot understand or fully know.

It was a happy (or providential?) coincidence that these considerations today were accompanied with putting together a video about Paul’s mystical experience as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 12:1-13. Paul had an encounter with the divine that he could not fully understand or explain. Reading this reminds me that lots of people in the world have these kinds of numinous experiences. I’ve never heard God speak to me in an audible voice or felt like I was transported to another place, but I have certainly felt God’s presence in powerful ways that transcend what I consider normal experience. And I generally don’t question the validity of others’ reports of mystical experiences.

When it comes to matters of ultimate concern, I suppose the truth lies somewhere between the rational and the ineffable.

Comments

  1. Fascinating reflection — made more compelling to me by the use of the X-files music. Nice editing!

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