Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reason and Faith

Yesterday some of us toasted Alexander Campbell's birthday.  Campbell was, as was true of many in his day, a Lockeian.  In fact, Campbell was, or at least sometimes appears to be, the religious equivalent of Joe Friday -- "Just the facts, ma'am."  Campbell's fact based theology was, at least in part, a response to the more enthusiastic forms of religion that were also making the rounds during the era.  Campbell's partner (sort of) in reform, Barton Stone, was a bit more open to enthusiasm, as seen in his embrace of the Cane Ridge Revival.  Campbell was a debater, Stone really wasn't.  Both believed in reason, but one gave greater credence to it than the other.

I came to the Disciples in part because of its embrace of reason.  I had spent considerable time (about 6 years) in a Pentecostal context, and in that context reason took back seat to enthusiasm.  I found the Stone-Campbell message I learned at Northwest Christian College (now University) to be refreshing.  My history professor, Dennis Helsabeck, introduced me to themes that made sense to me, and so I joined up.  Though it wasn't until the end of my senior year that I finally made the leap.  

But is reason enough?  Are facts enough?  As I came to the computer this morning wondering what I would write, I picked up one of the books I'm reading -- I'm always reading 4 or 5 at once -- that is entitled Transitions: Leading Churches Through Change, edited by David Mosser.   We all know that change is needed, but how do we make the changes?  Well, the section I'm reading at this moment is written by Robert Stephen Reid and deals with the issue of resistance, something anyone involved in leading a church through change has experienced.  

Reid notes that "reason . . . is the bedrock of persuasion."  And Campbell embraced this reality in his chosen method of "evangelism" -- the debate.  He notes that people expect good reasons for making changes.  But, we make a mistake, he says, if we confuse "reason" with rationality or facts.  He writes:

Actually, very few people are ever persuaded to change their minds because of the sheer logic of supposed facts.  (p. 177).  

Our politics should prove this statement to be true, if nothing else.  

So, what are we to do?  Reid suggests that we must also appeal to the heart.  But what does this mean?  Does it mean we abandon the facts or the search for truth?  

Reid offers a quote from John Henry Newman, a quote that includes these words:

Many a man will live and die upon an dogma:  no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.
So how do we find a balance that includes head and heart? 

2 comments:

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Bob, I can't speak to the main question you raise. What comes to mind, however, is a set of questions that H. Grady Davis posed in his 1950s book "Design for Preaching." Among these questions are "Is it true? Do I believe it? Will my people believe it?" Davis then raises the more challenging questions: "So what? Even if it is true, what difference does it make?" By answering this second set of questions effectively, preachers move a long way toward persuading their hearers. Many years later, J.-J. von Allmen in another book on preaching recommends that preachers use "evidential experience" as a primary method. He means by this, as I understand him, reports of how people like those in the congregation have found life, meaning, wholeness, etc. by affirming the way of seeing things that the sermon has presented.

John said...

I think that reason does not persuade. What reason offers is an articulation of either that which is already perceived to be true, or that which the hearer suspects may be true on a semi-conscious or unconscious level or even perhaps that which the hearer hopes is true.

The only time reason ever changes minds is when it is followed by otherwise surprising experiences which give credence to the reasoned analysis. As for the latter, I suspect that often the two, reasoned articulation followed by experiential confirmation, is serendipitous. And so was born the pious phrase, "there are no coincidences."

So I suspect the responsibility of the preacher is to tease out and articulate the suspect truths about the will of God based real world developments or to prepare the listeners to accept and embrace truths about the will of God which may not yet be evident but which are about to be graphically affirmed by real world events.