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Of Reason, The Gospel and Catholicity



Convocation Address
Roberts Wesleyan College
September, 1995

I: Reason

To know John Wesley is to know how nervous he was at the appearance of “enthusiasm” (or even at the mention of it). Enthusiasm, he insisted, was a form of fanaticism born of elevating experience above scripture. He denounced it and ever sought to distance himself from it. Warning his people against it in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he unhesitatingly labelled it “a daughter of pride”. “Give no place to a heated imagination”, he added immediately. (We must be sure to underline “heated” since Wesley’s appreciation of poetry would never find him disdaining imagination or the imaginative as such). He insisted on discernment with respect to “dreams, voices, impressions, visions, revelations”, for while they could be from God, they could also be from nature or even from the devil.

In the same Plain Account paragraph Wesley insisted we are equally at risk if we “despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge or human learning.” If “enthusiasm” (fanaticism) was by definition the elevation of experience above scripture, then “enthusiasm” was by extension the undervaluing of reason. “I advise you never to use the words `wisdom’, `reason’, or `knowledge’ by way of reproach. On the contrary, pray that you yourself may abound in them more and more. If you mean…false reasoning, say so; and throw away the chaff but not the wheat.” (Wesley was characteristically intolerant of anything that appeared to be an instance of “false reasoning”. In 1788, when he was 85 years old, his diary tells us he read logic on four consecutive mornings.) Words like “reason”, “rational”, “learned”, “knowledgeable” must never be used pejoratively, must never even be lightly esteemed. Such words must be used only to compliment, extol, praise; only, in short, to denote genuine accomplishment and merit.

Wesley knew that Christians delight to hear and heed the command of God. And the command to love God with the mind is just that: a command. Unnecessary ignorance is not God-honouring; neither is cavalier stupidity nor the obscurantism born of intellectual laziness nor the silly notion that reason has to be suppressed in order to make room for faith. In a tract, “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered”, Wesley denounced any and all who disparage reason: “Never more declaim in that wild, loose, ranting manner against this precious gift of God. Acknowledge `the candle of the Lord’, which he hath fixed in our souls for excellent purposes.”

We should remember that no Christian, and no Christian educational institution, is permitted to undervalue reason in view of the fact that the Incarnation is the foundation of all things Christian. When the fourth gospel affirms that the Word became flesh, the word it uses for “Word”, logos, also means rationality or intelligibility. The gospel-writer tells us that the entire creation has been fashioned through the Word, through the logos. Since the Word is God, the inner principle of God’s own mind, the logos, has been imprinted indelibly on the creation.

Science is possible only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic to the scientist’s mind and intelligible patterns in the physical world. Otherwise put, science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world, when the logos of God is the origin of this correlation. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a Christian, writes, “The Word is God’s agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men (sic), giving us access thereby to the rationality that is in the world.” Polkinghorne’s statement is illustrated by the fact that when mathematicians and physicists have compared notes, they have seen that the relations purely within human thinking (mathematics) reflect the pattern and structures in nature that scientific investigation (physics) uncovers. In other words, there is a correlation between the rationality of human thinking and the rationality imprinted indelibly in nature. Of course! All things — the creation, as well as the mind of the scientist investigating the creation — have been made through the logos, through that Word become flesh in Jesus Christ.

No Christian, and no Christian educational institution, then, can “lightly esteem” reason and celebrate the obscurantism deemed “realistic” in some academic quarters today.

At the same time when Wesley rightly insisted on the place of reason in the economy of grace he was not countenancing rationalism. Christians are always to be rational, never rationalistic.

While reason is the “handmaid” of faith, rationalism is a philosophy that by its nature precludes faith. Rationalism assumes that ultimate reality is accessible to reason; i.e., reason gains admission to reality and apprehends it. This assumption renders revelation superfluous; more to the point, it renders revelation a non-category, since reason is adequate to grasp the totality of reality and reason alone can. In other words, there is nothing that needs to be revealed and nothing that can be. Here reason is no longer a servant of faith but rather that which similarly renders faith a non-category. (In short, the gospel reveals the essence of humankind to be spirit, while reason subserves spirit; rationalism, on the other hand, assumes the essence of humankind to be reason, while spirit is a non-category. Wesley unhesitatingly insisted that what reason could grasp was related to what spirit knew as “painted fire” was related to fire itself.)

Rationalism assumes, in the second place, that reason is unimpaired. Yet Freud showed how reason is prone to become rationalization; i.e., the logic of the reasoning process perdures while reason(ing) subserves a motive of which the reasoner is entirely unaware. Marx showed us as much in the sphere of economics. So have contemporary sociologists of knowledge with their focus on the place of the reasoner’s social location. And before all of this so did the pastoral counsel of patristic writers. And so did the apostle Paul with his insistence on fallen humankind’s proclivity for “futile thinking”, futile, that is, with respect to its capacity for apprehending the truth of God and the truth of the human condition before God. Reason, together with the rest of the creation, has not been spared the ravages of the Fall. Reason needs the corrective of the gospel.


II: The Gospel

As was noted earlier, to speak of reason as fallen is not to say that reason is now illogical (if it were, reason would not be fallen reason so much as non-existent); it is rather to know that reason has a Fall-induced bias to rationalization. G.K. Chesterton remarked that mad people are not those who have lost their reason; mad people are those who have lost everything except their reason. “Everything” includes the gospel.

Where the gospel is “lost” (as it were) human reasoning no longer reflects the truth of ultimate reality; spiritual psychosis has set in. Since psychosis, by definition, is the loss of reality-testing, spiritual psychosis is the loss of testing with respect to ultimate reality: God, his truth, our inclusion in it. Then the gospel is necessary lest rational people are left with nothing more than reason! To say the same thing differently grace (grace-wrought faith) restores reason to reason’s integrity. Grace frees reason from reason’s diverse bondages to self-interest in the diverse contexts of race, class, money, gender, etc. To put it most concisely, the gospel releases reason from reason’s captivity to idolatry. The Christian educational institution has a witness here to render the world of education. This witness must never be blunted or hidden or minimized.

While we are speaking of the role of the Christian educational institution with respect to the world of learning I should like to make a plea for the richest humanism that has been part of higher education ever since the Renaissance. For centuries humanism was seen as an enemy of faith. It is an enemy of faith if humanism (that is, cultural riches and all that generates them) claims for itself humankind’s ultimate trust, love and hope. At the same time, cultural riches — not to be rejected, according to 1 Timothy 4 — are to be received with thanksgiving. In the same vein the book of Revelation maintains that the kings of the earth are going to bring their glory into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24).

Ever since the 18th century Enlightenment the glories of humanism have been regarded as somewhat less glorious. Humanism’s glories were diminished yet again by turn-of-the-century thinkers such as Freud and Marx. These men maintained that statements put forward as truth-claims are not that at all but rather are mere reflections of one’s psychological need to posit a benign world or of one’s need to defend one’s economic privilege. Perhaps the most telling tarnish arose through the philosophical postulate of positivism; namely, that the meaning of a statement was given by the process of verifying it (falsifying it) empirically. Any statement that could not be verified (falsified) empirically was deemed cognitively meaningless. Assertions arising from the humanities — e.g., ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics — were pronounced cognitively meaningless (because non-empirically testable), and then by extension simply meaningless. The acids of a positivistic outlook appeared to corrode the splendours of humanism yet again. I am persuaded that the church, through the church’s educational institutions, has a major role to play in restoring the glories of the very humanism that has, in a different era, postured itself as a rival to the faith of the church.

We do well to remember that even as 16th century Reformation thinkers and Renaissance thinkers came to see that they were in different orbits with respect to the human condition and the necessity, nature and means of the ultimate good, the giants of the Magisterial Reformation were educated first as humanists (the sole exception being Martin Luther). We do well to remember that the clergy of that era who were not trained first as humanists were able to operate acceptably as ecclesiastical functionaries but were unable to generate any leadership for church or society.

In a word, a Christian college knows that unless reason is upheld and venerated God is not honoured; a Christian college knows too that if reason alone is upheld then reason is deprived of that gospel which alone frees reason for reason’s integrity. And a Christian college has peculiar responsibility for preserving the humanities from the reductionisms and obscurantisms currently deemed “realistic” in some areas of academia.

“I offered them Christ”, Wesley says over and over in summing up his daily ministry. The Christian college too must “offer them — the academic disciplines — Christ” as a crucial aspect of its mandate.


III: Catholicity

Lastly, I should like to refer to Wesley’s theological catholicity in urging a catholicity of education.

While Wesley was a lifelong Anglican (and never wanted to be anything else) he cherished the theological riches of the church catholic. As an Anglican he was informed immediately by the Anglican formularies: the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Edwardian Homilies. At the same time he was steeped in the literature of the Puritans. His love of the Puritans, however, did not impede his finding his eucharistic doctrine largely in the work of an Anglo-Catholic. And his appreciation of the latter never prevented him from positioning himself “but a hair’s breadth” from John Calvin with respect to justification. It would seem a huge distance from Calvin and Calvin’s emphasis on Reformed doctrine to Roman Catholic mystics of the counter-reformation, yet Wesley adopted eight Roman Catholic counter-reformation mystics for his Christian Library, the collection of readings he expected all Methodists to peruse. A child of the Western church, he nonetheless esteemed the Eastern. A child of modernity to the extent that he experimented with electro-convulsive treatments for severe depression, he yet knew Christian antiquity (Patristics) thoroughly. Always insisting on the need to expound Christian truth in the context of the thought-forms and social setting of his own era, he nevertheless judged novelty in theology to be heresy (as if the prophets and apostles could ever be improved upon!).

This is not to say that he was uncritical with respect to the tradition of the church catholic. Far from it. Yet he recognized its wisdom, balance, depth, and riches even as the unnormed norm of the gospel impelled him to assess it. (In the same way he was a lifelong monarchist; his being such, however, did not render him an uncritical devotee of all things royal. Concerning Queen Elizabeth I he wrote with no little discrimination, “As just and merciful as Nero and as good a Christian as Mahomet.”)

Today I am urging a comparable catholicity of learning; a catholicity of space (the literature of Latin America, philosophy from Germany, jazz from the U.S.A.), as well as a catholicity of time (C.S. Lewis pointed out that for every two modern books we read, we should read at least one from the mediaeval and ancient eras lest we come to think that the questions modernity poses are the only questions, or are even questions at all.)

Students can begin to appreciate all of this now; and if they do, they will find themselves profiting from it — and more importantly, relishing it and delighting in it long after their formal education is concluded.

I am not decrying specialization. Specialization is essential, both the specialization that selects an academic discipline for concentration as well as the intra-disciplinary specialization that focuses on a particular aspect. In an era of superficiality and mediocrity, no one can decry the specialization needed for academic and vocational sophistication, let alone mastery.

In all of this I remain grateful for those whose catholicity of learning has moved me and inspired me and encouraged me. Among such people I recall two exceedingly able American poets, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, the former an insurance company executive and the latter a physician to the dispossessed in slum-areas of New Jersey. We should aim at nothing less for ourselves.

Since a Christian college is called to attest the truth that in Jesus Christ “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), its sons and daughters ought never to reduce the scope of “all things”.


In 1734 John Wesley penned a tract, “The One Thing Needful”, in which he stated a theme that he would repeat tirelessly for the rest of his life: the one thing needful is “the renewal of our fallen nature”. The tract is a sustained insistence upon the necessity “to re-exchange the image of Satan for the image of God, bondage for freedom, sickness for health”. In the tract Wesley asserts that learning is “the fairest of the fruits of the earth.” His assertion here must be given its full weight, especially in view of those unlearned commentators who continue to think that the Wesleyan tradition undervalues learning.

Yet in the light of that Kingdom which cannot be shaken Wesley is correct in rating learning, “the fairest of the fruits of the earth”, as penultimate. While it “may sometimes be conducive to” the one thing needful, it is not the one thing needful itself. This lattermost will always be humankind’s re-creation at God’s hand.

The Christian college will ever acknowledge that the height of learning, while gloriously high (and deservedly so), is yet dwarfed by the fathomless depth of God’s grace.

Victor A. Shepherd
September 1995