The best of Fred Hutchison
Christ and reason: Why Christianity is essential to winning the culture war
January 24, 2013
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Originally published November 6, 2005

In my last issue analysis titled The Revolt against Reason, I wrote, "It is up to the conservative movement and doctrinally-orthodox Christianity to rescue the floundering cause of reason." It is indeed remarkable how Christians of many denominations have stepped into the fight against postmodern irrationality. However, a friend of mine was surprised that I included Christianity as a major power in fighting for reason. Indeed, some Christians have forsaken the cause of reason, thinking that it is a realm of futility and a distraction from the cause of Christ.

In this paper, I shall make the case that it is natural for Christians to fight for reason and unnatural for Christians to sit out the battle. The alliance between political conservatives and devout Christians is not only natural, but necessary, if we are to win the culture war.

Monotheism and reason

All forms of monotheism (belief in one God) have an affinity with reason. The greatest of the Greek and Roman philosophers – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – were all theists, and all stressed reason and virtue. Socrates and Plato were not true polytheists (believers in many gods), although they sometimes used the Greek gods as metaphorical and pedagogical devises. When developing metaphysical ideas, they often referred to one supreme God. Saint Augustine said that Plato is "almost ours." Aristotle was clearly a monotheist. Plotinus was a monotheist with pantheistic leanings. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were nominal pantheists, but had monotheistic tendencies.

All theistic civilizations have produced rational philosophers, most notably in Europe, Persia, India, the Byzantine Empire, Islamic civilization, and Israel in dispersion. No non-theistic, polytheistic, or animistic civilization has ever produced a world-class rational philosopher.

Western Christendom has produced more than its share of rational philosophers. The High Middle Ages (1050-1400) produced an astonishing number of philosophers of distinction, including Lanfranc, St. Anselm, William of Champeaux, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, John of Salisbury, Albertus Magnus, Siger of Brabant, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventura, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Of all the theistic philosophers who promoted reason and virtue, Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas were the greatest. For that matter, they are the two greatest philosophers who ever lived. We must not fail to mention great European rational philosophers of the Baroque and Enlightenment Eras, namely Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz, Wolff, Kant, and Edwards – Christians all.

Most of the philosophers named above were Roman Catholics, but the Protestants were not without rational philosophers of note. Leibniz, Wolff, and Kant were Lutherans. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Congregationalist minister, and was the most sublime metaphysical thinker America has produced. Kant was a world-class philosopher, but does not neatly conform to any category, so defining him as a rationalist is a borderline call. Most of the major empirical philosophers were British Protestants or skeptics, and some of the pioneers of science and mathematics were Protestants. The empirical philosophers made no metaphysical appeals to reason. Their ideas are useful, but are more practical and experimental than strictly rational.

After Edwards and Kant, metaphysics went into decline, and for last two centuries the West, the homeland of reason, produced no world-class philosopher who exalted reason. Other categories of philosophy were developed, but rational philosophy was neglected. There is a remarkable correlation between the decline of Christianity in Europe and the decline of rationalist philosophy. The decline of transcendent spiritual aspirations (the upward gaze of the heart) in the churches is another aspect of the decline of reason. The spirituality of the Middle Ages was characterized by an intense transcendent spirituality, and that era was densely populated with rationalist philosophers.

The early centuries of the Western Church emphasized theology instead of philosophy. Theologians made an appeal to reason for the teaching of doctrine, the defense against heresy, responses to the opponents of the faith, and apologetics (the rational defense of the faith). After the conversion of Emperor Constantine (280-337), the theologians took up the issue of how a Christian king should rule, and canon law. Saint Augustine (354-430), the last of the early church fathers, was the greatest of the early theologians in responses to opponents of the faith – apologetics – and how a king should rule. The theologians prior to Constantine specialized in doctrine and the defense against heresy.

The church was always able to find men with first-rate minds when it needed them. In a series of councils of the church, learned theologians were always available and able to refute the specious reasoning of heretics, They laid solid foundations for the key doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, expressed in the creeds of the church. (Orthodox literally means "right belief." Creed, or credo means "I believe.")

Transcendence, reason, and beauty

The Dark Ages ended and a new civilization appeared in Europe around 1050 AD, the beginning of what is often called the "high Middle Ages." The new culture flowered with incredible swiftness. By 1100 AD, major universities specializing in theology and philosophy were rapidly coming into existence. During the same period, a cathedral-building and monastery-building frenzy expressed a passionate love of beauty in architecture and sculpture. This historical period was typified by (1) the triumph of Christianity in Europe; (2) spiritual renewal, reform of the church, and moral reform; (3) transcendent aspirations; (4) the love of truth and reason; and (5) the love of beauty. This is how the mighty civilization and the (once) high culture of the West came into being.

Sometimes a great man can embody all the best traits of a great culture, and we can learn about the culture by observing the man. Such a man was Jonathan Edwards.

He had transcendent spiritual aspirations that would compare favorably with a medieval saint. He was a highly original rationalist philosopher whose metaphysical ideas earn him a seat in philosophy's hall of fame. He wrote memorable lines about his enchantment with beauty in nature. He delighted in good and preached against evil with such fury that he was the American John the Baptist, without peer.

Concerning Edwards' spiritual aspirations, let me quote from his diary (1739):
    The first that I remember that ever I found anything of that inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in ever since, was on reading those words, 1 Timothy 1:17, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and forever, Amen." As I read the words, there came into my soul, and, as it were, diffused through it, a sense of the Divine Being.... I thought to myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be, as it were, swallowed up in Him.... And my mind was greatly engaged in reading and meditating on Christ and the beauty and excellence of His person, and the lovely way of salvation, by free grace in Him.
The revelation of God's glory first led Edwards into study, and then to a deeper discovery of beauty that he described in the same narrative of 1739.

"After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory on almost everything, God's excellency, His wisdom, His purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, the blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature."

Edwards had written a classic short essay "Beauty and the World" (1725), in which he described the harmonies of beauty and the spiritual qualities of beauty. But he was not merely an aesthete. He was a man of extraordinary intellect and an original expositor on the nature of reason and metaphysics. Leonard Ravenhill said, "Jonathan Edwards is not only the greatest of all American theologians and philosophers, but he is the greatest of our pre-19th century writers as well.

What did Edwards think of goodness? He said we owe a debt of gratitude to those who perform acts of goodness because of the blessedness it gives to us to see elements of the Divine nature reenacted before our eyes. What did Edwards think of evil? He preached a terrifying sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), in which he graphically described a sinner, hanging by a thread and dangling over the flames.

What has all this to do with the culture war? In Christianity we find the spiritual resources to support powerful rational minds. We desperately need this support in the present struggle against the forces of unreason. Christ strengthens and fortifies us to resist evil. We discover divine beauty as we worship Christ, which can motivate us to oppose a culture of ugliness and restore a culture of beauty.

Is atheism an enemy of reason?

Of all the people I have debated, the atheists have thrown up the most intense defenses against reason. Some of the liberals I have jousted with are not far behind in their defenses against reason.

Most children enter the age of reason (six or seven years old) as agnostics or vague Deists. Unlike the atheist, the agnostic does not rule out the existence of God, but is undecided about whether or not God exists. According to Christian Smith, co-author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, most American teens are vague Deists, including those from religious homes. What this implies about the religious education of our youth, I leave for others to explore. A Deist believes in God as Creator, but a being who nonetheless is distant and uninvolved with ordinary human life. If you want a sample of fuzzy, inarticulate Deism, visit any American high school.

Most atheists begin as agnostics or Deists, but suddenly rebel against the idea of the existence of God. This assertion of will is emotional and non-rational. "I will not accept the existence of God, and that is final!" Atheists may have various motives and feelings for rejecting God and not wanting him to exist, but reason is rarely a factor, in spite of their later rationalizations.

The notion that God will cease to exist through an act of willful denial is a species of magical thinking, like a child who supposes that the goblin will go away if he hides under the covers. Atheists often interpret a reasoned argument in favor of God as a personal attack on them. They perceive such persuasion as tearing way the blanket they are hiding under and having the dreaded goblin-god pushed into their face. Their favorite line is, "Don't force your religion down my throat." This is nonsense, of course. To reason and persuade has nothing to do with tying one to a rack and torturing him by forcing horrifying deities upon him. Atheism is irrational and paranoid, a pathology involving the plunging of reason into darkness.

There are exceptions to these generalities, of course. Oxford philosopher Anthony Flew became an atheist because he thought that the trail of science led that way. He recently became a theist, because he followed the scientific evidence to the conclusion that God as creator and designer must exist.

The higher powers of reason cannot rationally conceive of an empty world that magically or accidentally appeared without a Creator. One must block off the stairways to the sun-lit terrace of reason in order to coexist with this idea. Hence, the arbitrary insistence that there is no God is a revolt against reason. "And since they did not see fit to retain God in their knowledge, he gave them up to a debased mind" (Romans 1:28). (The King James Version uses "reprobate" mind.)

Jonathan Edwards wrote an essay titled "On Being" (1721). He begins:

"That there should absolutely be nothing at all is impossible. The mind can never, let it stretch its conceptions ever so much, bring itself to conceive of a state of perfect nothing. It puts the mind into mere convulsions and confusion of endeavor to think of such a state, and it contradicts the very nature of the soul to think that such can be, and it is the greatest contradiction, and aggregate of all contradictions, to say that there should not be....So we see it is necessary some being should eternally be."

Edwards, a man of extraordinary rational intelligence, found his mind utterly baffled with the idea of an empty void. It is an idea contrary to reason. In contrast, the idea that an eternal being has always existed is a necessity for the highest flights of reason. Like aircraft, which cannot fly in a vacuum, the flight of reason requires the atmosphere of an eternal omnipresent deity.

In contrast, an atheist must believe in a cosmic void prior to the mysterious appearance of the universe and an empty vacuum beyond the galaxies. Furthermore, the human mind must reason in a dark, empty, inner room unsupported and uncomforted by a divine presence. Edwards said that such an idea produces "convulsions and confusion" in the mind and a "contradiction" of the soul. Indeed, when one debates with an atheist, one finds a mind entangled in convulsions of thought, confusion of concepts, and contradictions of what it means to be human. In accordance with Romans 1:28, the atheist has a debased mind. Such ruined minds are quite common among postmodern liberals who are fighting against reason in the culture war.

Reason and God

Logical argument can establish that the existence of God is reasonable and probable, but cannot decisively prove the existence of God. A little faith is needed. However, reason can function unimpeded in the full expanse of its powers while assuming that God, the Creator, exists. A divinely created world, made for a purpose by a God who is there, is easy for reason to accept and lean upon. The very existence of reason in the mind of man, and the self-conscious awareness of that reason, is a wondrous reality, and is hard to account for unless there is a Creator. Reason has eternally existed in the mind of God, and he created man to have a miniature, earthly version of this reasoning faculty. "And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). This is why Jesus said that the great commandment of the law was "Thou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).

How can we love God with all our minds if we suppress or neglect the life of the mind? The heart, soul, and mind of man are created in the image of God and therefore, He is the Great Original after which our faculties of heart, soul, and mind were fashioned. These faculties were designed in his image in order to follow after Him. We fulfill our design by loving Him with our hearts, souls, and minds. We sabotage our design by refusing to do so. Our highest and best thoughts reach up to Him, and find a blessed communion with the Father of our minds and our being. Although His mind is infinite and ours is finite, we were made after His kind. Human reason rejoices to know that it is not alone. We do not reason alone in the dark prison of a forsaken mind. We are children of light and journey with rejoicing towards the light with our hearts, souls, and minds.

A wise saying that emerged from Reformed theology was that we should learn to "think God's thoughts after Him." This concept probably goes back to the French Calvinist Peter Ramus (Pierre de la Ramee, 1515-1572). Ramus proposed a new system of logic and rhetoric that seeks "reality" as that reality exists in the mind of God. The Puritans used the concept for the structure of their sermons and as a guide for organizing society. Jonathan Edwards incorporated the idea into his philosophy.

Contrast the opening of the human mind to the mind of God with the closing off of the mind against God by the atheist. Instead of thinking God's thoughts after Him, the debased mind fights against God's thoughts. The powers of reason are crippled by throwing up barriers against the places where the atheist forbids reason to go.

I have found atheists to be just as passionate in spurning reason as they are in spurning God. As a person with braces on his crippled reasoning powers, the atheist is amenable to participation in the postmodern rebellion against reason.

Beginning again in the wasteland

After the rise of atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism during the French Enlightenment, the West produced no more world-class rationalist philosophers.

Reason, of course, cannot rise to its highest potential without faith, and without the metaphysical anchors supplied by the existence of God. Why cannot the Christian philosophers of the modern era rise up to match the rational philosophers of prior centuries? It is possible, but very difficult. The ubiquitous presence of cynicism drains the intellectual energies in fending off irrationality in the culture. The mind is distracted from the mountaintop of reason by constantly having to quibble over first principles with skeptics. The strange absence of transcendent spirituality in the modern churches leaves the individual believer to a private quest to find God in the fullness of his majesty and glory, as Jonathan Edwards did.

The task of this generation of Christians is to restore transcendent spirituality to the churches, to win the culture war, and reclaim and reestablish reason throughout the land. This will make it possible for philosophers of a future generation to again produce works of world-class rational philosophy, which is part of the heritage of the West.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31