Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reason and irrationality

I thought the Pope’s speech was an excellent defense of the place of reason and rationality in human inquiry. His observation regarding modern concepts of reason drawn from a synthesis of Platonism and empiricism and the danger they pose was however not new although it was timely and necessary. Addressed to academics at a German university he sought a rapproachment between scientific reason and theological inquiry, saying the breath of reason is not inimical to faith, especially the Christian faith. Of course there will always be a tension. Pure reason alone has its bounds; while faith transcends reason, paradoxically it should not be empty of reasonableness. The triune God of the Bible is after all, logos - word and reason. While Christians maintain that the trinity defies human reasoning, it is conceptually and theologically reasonable.

Anyway, Kantian philosophy aside, shifting the weight of one against the other (or reason vs revelation), or by insisting on a merely mathematical definition of scientificity, is not only questionable and inadequate, it would be a dangerous sell-out, a diminution of humanity. According to Pope Benedict it is,
… man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.

This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
However what also interested me was Pope Benedict XVI’s reading of Reformation history. Oddly enough he referred to confrontation with scholastic theology, but sidestepped the Reformers’ larger opposition to the medieval Church’s doctrinal perspectives on righteousness and salvation, and its institutional corruption. To my understanding that was the fundamental spur of the Reformation. Here's what the Pope said:
Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word.
I know he was merely making a reference to one aspect of the Reformation, but was it really a question of philosophical systems that kicked off Luther’s protest, I wonder? The 5 solas – Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria – underscore the principles and emphases behind the Reformation. Thanks to Luther, Calvin, et al, we are all the richer for it.

{Protestantism & Reformation (Links to Catholic Encyclopedia)}

On another note, I wonder if anyone noticed the irony in the current gathering Muslim protest at the Pope’s speech. Irony of ironies. In a message that appeals to rationality and reasonable faith, a large swathe of the Muslim world is taking 14th century quotes out of context and in typical fashion acting irrationally. By the looks of it, it’s taking on the storm of the Danish cartoons brouhaha. Even Pak Lah has joined the fray, expressing outrage while calling for retractions and apologies. Here we go again. God help us all!

Pope Benedict has always been known to be a careful academic with a deeper understanding of Islam than his predecessor. The Telegraph reports that the Pope does recognise the radical difference between the Islamic understanding of God and that of the Christians. In fact the online paper points to what the Pope wrote in 1996, that a multi-faith society "is not consistent with Islam's inner nature" because of the comprehensive thrust of the Quran.

But I do think the Pope did take a dig at Islam, possibly at the character of Allah, indirectly inquiring if Islam (going by Ibn Hazm’s logic) postulates a God who is both rational and good. Now, the question is: did the Pope make a blunder? Should the Pope apologize? Is there a need for it? Again, should reason abdicate in the face of irrationality? Was 911 an American conspiracy?


plurabella said...

a balanced post David, thanks.

Just wondering if the so-called 13th May Incident (1969) actually exists in current Malaysian history or has it been rewritten?

It went something like this if I recall, if you don't win the election, declare a Jihad, create chaos, kill some people and get your own way, my analysis entirely.

History repeats itself, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Take the words totally out of contest, threaten conflagration and get an apology. Anywhere else it would be called bullying.

Personally, I have great difficulty understanding those who threaten violence every time they dislike other people's opinions. But then that's just me.

David BC Tan said...

Hi and thanks for visiting.
About May 13, it's a blot in our history and it still has a mention in our history books. There was an issue recently when a textbook on etnic relationships presented a somewhat slanted view of history causing opposition parlimentarians to denounce it. (See
You may also want to visit
to get a better picture of the riots back in 1969.

"Anywhere else it would be called bullying"

I like the way you've put it! Every now and then some politicians in UMNO (primarily muslim malays belonging to the dominant component party in the govt) hope to score points with their constituencies by reminding the rest of us of May 13 - as if similar chaos would recur if they don't get their way. In 2004, during the UMNO general assembly, its deputy permanent chairman Badruddin Amiruldin, waved a book on May 13 during his speech and warned: "No other race has the right to question our privileges, our religion and our leader". Doing so would be tantamount to "stirring up a hornet's nest".
That sounds like a threat to me, and as you say, it's bullying.

plurabella said...

Thank you for those links, I'll be looking them up.

My husband is Chinese-Malaysian. He was in KL at the time.

Some years ago I came across The Death of a Democracy, written by John Slimming, an Observer journalist, who was in KL at that time. It was very sobering reading and affected me greatly, as has my husband's account of those days.

thanks for your response, I'll be visiting again.

The Hedonese said...

Great stuffs, again, David!

Faith is beyond reason, but not irrational. It seems to me that rationality is rooted in the eternal character and mind of God himself, therefore it is not something 'external' that He conforms to... and it is also not something He 'arbitrarily' chooses.