Renewed Reason?

In Reformed Catholicity the authors speak of reason as if it were fallen and also redeemed. In the same paragraph they say reason is also a grace. I cannot describe how irritating that is to me, but I do want to sort out why I do not think that way.

In the first place, what has fallen has to be an agent: a being with a will. To hypostatize reason in this way is to speak absurdly of it. If there is a hypostasis of Reason, it is the Logos, and no proper theologian would say he has fallen. Angels can fall, and many have chosen to do so. Humanity can fall, and indeed we have. Animals are not fallen however, and neither are trees or mathematics. Nor did that which we call reason, which is simply sound thinking. Sound thinking has not fallen because it cannot have chosen what is wrong and somehow become unsound reason, the only reason to which the unregenerate have access. I do sometimes wonder, observing Christians who think only they can think correctly as they are trying to think, whether the reverse is not true: that there is somehow an unreason to which the regenerate have a special, privileged access.

There is not, of course, but it does show the false premise on which they reason: that one has somehow to be regenerate to think properly. This is contrary to experience: sinful human being can reason properly. Sin has not destroyed the activity of thinking as such. There is no trick to it, there is no special grace by which people get things right. There is sound reasoning, there are valid premises, and that is all. To introduce more categories than sound and unsound reasoning, valid and invalid premises, is to confuse the issue, to render it mysterious when indeed there is no mystery. And that is half of the whole problem.

The other half is that reasoning agents have agency, and because they have agency, they do not approach the activity of reasoning without some kind of desire regarding the outcome. There are things they want and things they do not want, there are things they prefer and things to which they are averse, there are things they like and love, and things they dislike and hate. It is here that the problem arises. When thinking clearly about something does not yield the desired result, we start distorting the activity. It is not that we can’t think clearly, it is not that we cannot obtain clear results from a difficult series of thinking, it is not that we can’t figure out valid premises. No, it is that even when we get the premises right and follow the path of careful thinking scrupulously, we may not obtain the outcome which for reasons of the heart we desire. We find ways to get what we want, and these are not always reasonable.

Allow me an illustration from the late Justice Scalia. He said he loved working at the Supreme Court of the USA: best resources available, best help possible, best colleagues for a legal conversation, great thorny issues with amazing arguments. Most of the time, he said, it was exhilarating: the thinking was top-notch, the reasoning was meticulous, the decisions were made obvious. The problem would only arise when certain hot-button issues arose, and then it was as if it were another place altogether, as if minds were lost. Agendas crept or stormed in; the human agents doing the legal reasoning on the basis of evidence, precedent, argument and law had desired outcomes which interfered with the clarity, however difficult, of reason.

There is nothing as such wrong with human thinking, with reason or our ability to do so. It is like human vision. Of course there are those who have problems with their eyesight all the way to blindness. But on the whole, most of us can expect to see adequately, to use our eyesight to negotiate life, to read, etc. That there are problems is a result of sin, obviously, in general. There are other physical deformities, but we do not need to think that only regenerate people can see clearly, that being a Christian in any way affects your eyesight. It is the same with our apprehension of thought, our deductions and logical conclusions, except that the stakes, for the desiring heart, are higher.

We know, we can think, we can figure out how to have integrity of argument, how to discern valid premises on which to proceed, all that. The problem with us is not that our reason has to be renewed, the problem with us is that we know things that our hearts still unreasonably wish to reject. But we do not equally reject all reasonable things always with our hearts. That is why in our present condition neutrality, disinterest, these modest academic virtues are precious quantities. This would never be the case if we were not fallen, but it is because we are. The ultimate solution is that we need renewed hearts, in which we are speaking not just of regeneration, but the long transformation which is only complete at our glorification. We can expect to desire better in this life, but not to desire perfectly.

Glorification is something none of us presently enjoys. And it is the neglect of this last fact that so irritates me about Christians. The only advantage we have is a slight possibility for humility, and that tends to get swept away when we essentially assert that we are magically more qualified to think than other people are. There are some premises we have accepted, and these are valid, and that is an advantage. There is a new ordering of our desires, which allows us to accept a few extremely crucial outcomes. There are undeniable advantages, but these do not work out to a categorical difference when it comes to thinking which would sort the regenerate from the unregenerate. There is still, when it comes to reason, only sound and unsound reasoning. There are problems to which only certain premises apply, etc.

Think about it in these terms, with some emphasis added to further my point: Romans 1:18-21 Now the holy anger of God is disclosed from Heaven against the godlessness and evil of those men who render truth dumb and inoperative by their wickedness. It is not that they do not know the truth about God; indeed he has made it quite plain to them. For since the beginning of the world the invisible attributes of God, e.g. his eternal power and divinity, have been plainly discernible through things which he has made and which are commonly seen and known, thus leaving these men without a rag of excuse. They knew all the time that there is a God, yet they refused to acknowledge him as such, or to thank him for what he is or does. Thus they became fatuous in their argumentations, and plunged their silly minds still further into the dark.


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