Was Rationalism Christian or Modern?

Larry D. Harwood


Abstract: Larry D. Harwood argues that rationalism, though often embraced by Christian thinkers, is more a product of modernity than of the classical Christian heritage. He points toward postmodernity as providing a means of escape from rationalism. Mr. Harwood is instructor of philosophy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Postmodernism is being debated among thinkers of all stripes these days, as Christian thinkers assess its compatibility with the Christian message. As in all such debates, definitions are crucial for presenting interpretations of how an emerging age relates to its predecessor. One general though fruitful definition sees postmodernism as an assault on the rationalism of modernity. It is perhaps only in this century, or even this quarter century, that postmodern perspectives stand a chance of competing with the powerful ethos of rationalism. In the 19th Century both Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer had to defer to the reigning rationalism of Hegelanism, while Nietzsche appeared to be talking to himself in his preference for the poet Homer over the philosopher Plato. In this essay my intent is to indicate that postmodernism is preferable to modernism because of the difference between them on the issue of rationalism. In postmodernism the tables are turned, and this transition presents new opportunities for the Christian message in the increasingly postChristian West.

However irrational postmodernism may seem to those dismayed by it, part of what is fundamentally at issue is the propriety of the modern notion of "truth," and its modern measure, or at times near equivalent, rationality. Fear of what becomes of truth when the presumed solidity of objectivity and rationality are questioned provokes intense debate in the philosophy of science, and of course, the perennial obsession of modern Western thought---epistemology. In modernity it was science that seemed to provide the greatest haven for objectivity and immunity from irrationality and subjectivity. While the postmodern turn may be derided as the literary turn and as but another "escape from reason," this is because science and philosophy in modernity have for the most part excluded forms of discourse other than themselves on any question of truth. Thus, claims that postmodernism presents no new thing are only half true. Postmodern candidates are by and large premodern contenders but in postmodernity they are revisiting the previously fenced conversation of modernity. This is why so much attention in postmodernity is given to the topic of the "other."

With postmodernism there is a loosening of commitment to rationality and science as the exclusive carriers of truth. This move was and is disdainful to modernists. Many thinkers, and paradoxically among them many repentant philosophers, are seen as undermining the traditional goal of thought and reflection in exalting such previously banished items as story, local narrative, poetry, and the nemesis of a presumed secured objectivity---particularity. Squeamishness over the character of the new inclusions, however, reflects the underlying belief of modernity---among non-Christians as well as our own---that modernity provides the best set of tools to achieve the goal. Such a view, moreover, reflects commitment to the rationalist obsession for the objectivity that feeds ravenous epistemological hunger. Postmodernism is the discovery that modernity had the mistaken belief that a guarded epistemological diet was necessary to maintain objectivity. The ethos of modernism and the reigning rationalist tradition arose in the West by a suspicion of poetry, art, religion, or folklore---and with it images and feelings---in pursuit of the commendable goal of truth. This rationalist frenzy reached its peak in the "scientific philosophy" of a group of thinkers who deluded themselves into thinking they were empiricists when in reality they were apriorists: the logical positivists. To the positivists there were truths unaffected or unamenable by anything human, while their disdain for non-observable entities and theoretical constructs was prompted by fear of objective truth becoming less by subjective input. These obsessions were so strong among positivists that they attempted to exchange the philosophical enterprise for the scientific one in the hope of insuring real truth and objectivity. This move was equivalent to one Plato had performed, except his exchange was to give up the poetic enterprise for the philosophical one.

Standing in the historical transition between the premodern legacies of the poetic and mythical traditions of ancient Greece and the birth of Western philosophy, Plato had to battle the power of the poets and the Greek mythical tradition for the rationalism and rational god of philosophy. With postmodernism there is a reopening of the "ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy" after roughly 2500 years in which philosophy, reason, and finally science in their various forms sought the attenuation or expurgation of everything not themselves on the question of truth. In the conflict between the two, there is some resemblance of postmodernism to the Romantic resistance to Enlightenment rationalism. But more important, postmodernism, as it aligns itself with the poets as against modern philosophy, begins to look as if it might be an ally of religion, but at some expense to reason. But for Christians who never believed in neutral human objective reason anyway, the "cost" must be assessed differently.

In the heyday of positivism, any philosophy---to include of course theology---that veered away from the logical and presumed scientific techniques of positivist philosophy was given the choice of calling itself "poetry" or "nonsense." The positivists judgment upon any discourse as "poetry" was for them an assumption of the difference, and the distance, between scientific philosophy and other forms of discourse. In postmodern thought, both this difference and distance is contested, and even being denied. This is a relief from a suffocating modernity. With postmodernism there is the attempt to overcome a perceived pretentious inherited rationalist tradition by posing it against other traditions of diverse discourse. One of these discourses is religion and this constitutes the chief opportunity presented by postmodernism for a hearing of the Christian message. Christians in many respects are in the position of the poets in the scenario I have depicted, and closer to their postmodern defenders than their modern secular denouncers, though any resemblance to the poets has gone unnoticed by the habit of looking upon pre-Christian rationalists, Plato as well as Aristotle, as having had a hand in bringing about the providential "fullness of time." But secular providers of providence bring their price: for Plato any hint of a connection between God and the colossal afflictions of Job in the Old Testament would make as little theological sense as did his own poetic inheritance. Thus, Plato felt justified in eradicating the poet's theology whereas almost two millennia later William of Ockham, preparing the way for the Protestant Reformers, will argue that such a move on the part of Christian medieval thinkers was an example of Greek philosophical compromise upon the freedom of the Christian God.

It was of course Kierkegaard who captures in his analysis of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac some implications of the freedom of God that largely failed to provide check upon the modern effort to define the identity of God in modern categories. The reticence of many modern Christians toward Kierkegaard is instructive in that the general reticence toward him is not because in his conception God is not personal or free---that He most certainly is---but because God does not seem rational enough or even rational at all.

The rationalism that Kierkegaard opposed in his day has been pummeled by Kuhn, Feyerband, and others to the point that we begin to see an historical reversal in the now wounded "sovereign reason" of modernity. Postmodernism now performs something of the same emaciation upon reason and science that reason and science had performed upon religious faith three centuries earlier. Science is now climbing down---or being pulled---from the herculean statement of Galileo that "the conclusions of natural science are true and necessary, and the judgment of man has nothing to do with them." The positivists in this century set out to prove Galileo's statement right, but had to progressively retreat from an apriorism that could not carry all the particulars of the empirical world in one concept.

The opportunity provided by postmodernism in a postChristian world of course distresses modern preservationists. I recently witnessed a Christian apologist trotting out his logical wares---syllogisms and all---to combat the relativism apparent in postmodernism. Such a response suggests that science and philosophy, both in the form of their methodologies but also the metaphysic of rationalism, were courted too closely by Christian thinkers in the modern era, and that without the tools of modernity the Christian message has no defense. Thus, with the presumed omniscience and competence and exclusivity of modern tools of truth now under serious question, rationalism, science, and much Christian apologetic can seem closer friends than ever given an advancing postmodernism. A failure of nerve is thus very possible as we perhaps face a new historical era. In the opposition to Galileo and heliocentrism, the Catholic Church remained in the medieval period well into modernity to a large degree because they had erroneously wedded a wrong Aristotelian philosophy and science to their theological enterprise. With rationalism now under assault, the question to be raised is whether Christians have wedded the Christian message to a rationalism and science from which it could be extricated.


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