There is a common belief that Reason is an independent and neutral source of knowledge. It has truths or information which it provides to an individual. Hence, we tell a person to ‘listen to the voice of Reason’ or to ‘be rational’. We also speak of ‘common sense’ ideas, which refers to ideas or notions that we believe are generated purely from reason, without reference to some other source like revelation or experience. Even in the Christian community, Reason has often been thought to be a joint source of authority along with Scripture and Tradition.
However, this view is mistaken. As the late missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) points out in the passage below, human reason is never neutral. It always operates within a context:
“*Reason is a faculty with which we try to grasp the different elements in our experience in an orderly way, so that as we say ‘they make sense’. It is not a separate source of information about what is the case. It can only function within a continuous linguistic and cultural tradition. We learn to reason as we learn in childhood, to use words and concepts, those words and concepts which embody the way in which our society makes sense of the world. All rationality is socially and culturally embodied.
“…Reason operates within a specific tradition of rational discourse, which is carried by a specific human community. No supra-cultural ‘reason’ can stand in judgement over all particular human traditions of rationality. All reason operates within a total worldview which is embodied in the language, the concepts and the models which are the means by which those who share them can reason together. Christian doctrine is a form of rational discourse which has been developed in that community which finds the clue to the rationality of the cosmos as a whole in those events which form the substance of the biblical narrative and in the subsequent experience of those who have done the same.”
So how should we utilise reason? How can we properly apply this God-given tool for God’s glory?
- First, we should recognise that reason is a gift from God. This capacity to think about things and concepts, to infer conclusions from premises, and make deductions from what we observe around us – it is one factor which distinguishes us from animals. And it is a result of God’s gracious and sovereign choice.
- Secondly, since we were created to be entirely dependent on God, our reason will not function properly unless within the light of divine revelation. So we should immerse ourselves in God’s revelation, which we have in the scriptures. This is our primary means of understanding God’s mind. This has become crucial in view of our nature as fallen creatures.
- Thirdly, depend daily on the help of the Holy Spirit to go through life wisely. In our attempt to be free of God, we often act foolishly. But God gives his spirit to all who look to him for grace, and the Holy Spirit serves as their guide.
- Finally, Sharpen your rational capacity by using it. Like a knife or razor, reason can be dulled owing to disuse. When we allow ourselves to be fooled by captivating ads, seduced by exciting images, or charmed by lofty words, without critically engaging them, we are lulling our reason to sleep.
*Lesslie Newbigin, ‘Truth and Authority in Modernity’, Faith and Modernity. Regnum Books. 1997. 352 pp.