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Archive for April 19th, 2003

The Tether of Reason

Reason is an incredibly powerful tool. Aristotle, in his spare eloquence, noted that the highest form of human thinking, theoria, was akin to the divine. For Plotinus, our access to the divine One was through the intellect, the Nous. Christ himself was called Logos, the Word. But not even a millennium and a half of Hebrew language and history, in which the Word (dabar,) was, in part, a deed accomplished, could completely deplete Logos from its content of Hellenic rationality.

Furthermore, the Church’s foremost first-century missionary, the Apostle Paul, though of Jewish descent and upbringing, freely utilized the tools of Hellenic philosophy when it suited his evangelistic aims. And though there’s no evidence that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews had Plato’s Republic in mind, still the first chapter of that New Testament epistle resonates with something like Platonic ideas. By the middle and end of the second century, Christians were espousing Hellenic philosophy as a precursor, for the Gentiles, to the Gospel. But most clearly of all, in the great golden epoch of the patristic era, the fourth century, the Church explicitly made use of the terms and tools of Greek thought to grasp and guard the full implications of the Gospel which had given Her being.

However, concomitantly with this positive espousal of the best in human thought, came warnings of its dangers. Paul himself characterized the Gospel message as “foolishness” to the Greeks and reveled in the power of the Gospel to demolish arguments and take the strongholds arrayed against it. At the same time that Clement of Alexandria was idealizing his Christian “Gnostic,” Tertullian was asking what Jerusalem had to do with Athens. Alexandria, the intellectual center of the world of late antiquity, after all bred a certain Arius who developed the Christian world’s first rationalist theology, and in so doing almost destroyed both the Gospel and the Church. Some thirteen centuries later, Kant’s critical project could emphatically declare that God’s existence could neither be proven nor experienced. The faith for which Kant was making room was a purely rational one, in which God was a rational supposition, an ethical idea, no more. Little wonder that Nietzsche had Zarathustra proclaim, “God is dead.”

Part of the problem faced in this high regard for reason is its absolutization.

In the Platonic chariot of the soul, reason is the charioteer who takes the reins, guiding appetite and spiritedness to the divine knowledge of what most truly is. This, of course, is not an entirely worthless paradigm. Ours is an age of appetite, Plato’s licentious democratic society. We could do with some of reason’s application of the reins.

But in Christian understanding, there is, one might say, a fourth element: the heart. In Christian terms, the heart is a robust and complex entity, nothing like (or not much like, anyway) the anemic emotionalist smarminess we see everywhere from Valentine’s Day cards, reality shows, popular music, to Oprah. It is possible, it seems to me, to suppose in Christian terms that while Plato’s reason pulls the reins on flesh and will, it is the heart that encompasses these players. For Christians, the heart is where thoughts, emotions and will all interact, and it is the heart that shapes and forms these interactions. When our passions and desires, our stubbornness, or our rational workings jump the circle of our heart, our interior harmony is broken and we become enslaved with that which breaks free. We must exert ourselves, it seems to me, and encompass these aspects of our inner being by the heart.

But this is not something we may do on our own. After all, the heart is deceitful above all things. It is desperately wicked; who can know it? Only a purified heart can keep all things properly circumscribed. Only a heart filled by faith with grace, a heart in which dwells the Spirit of God, a heart which knows obedience, a heart which follows after Christ in discipleship, can know this accomplishment.

Many of us have our particular weaknesses and imbalances of heart. For some it is willfulness, the assertion of myself as myself over against another, the instinct for psychical survival; an instinct which exerts itself against even the longings of emotion and the dictates of reason. For others it is the emotions and the appetites, the sense of emptiness and longing which seeks filling, even seeking longing and emptiness for their own sake, allowing one’s self to be deafened to the calm of rationality and to submit one’s self to any and all experience even as far as fighting against one’s own self-assertion. For yet others it is the seduction of rationality, a rationality which takes the will and the emotions out of the arena of shared human existence into the airless ether of pure thought. Untethered, reason seeks its freedom from all things. Even the mighty physical force of gravity reason harnesses for its own ends and slings humans out from the earth into the void. Even moral principles fall prey to reason’s cunning, and reason can argue the wanton killing of the innocent for the convenience of the guilty.

These are our temptations. But all too often we do not face these testings full on. For their implications disturb us, and we prefer the illusion these things offer. In following willfulness to its own end we find that we have lost the very self we sought to assert, for the end of willfulness is the negation of the other. But in negating the other we lose ourselves and our will, for there no longer remains anything against which we may assert ourselves, let alone anything which may strengthen us in our despair. We cry, “I!” Into a depthless void which does not hear us nor care, and which swallows our cry–and us–wholly.

In our longing for the other, in our assertion of our emptiness, in the seeking of feeling and pleasure, we find that we lose ourselves not by asserting ourselves but by giving ourselves away; in being filled by the other we become that which fills us, whether sex or infatuation or taste. But this filling ultimately eludes us for it is a kind of suicide in reverse. We do not cast ourselves into the void, but assert in us a kind of void; a void that, in being filled, does not assume our true shape, but rather gives us the shape of that content with which we fill ourselves, and in so doing mars and destroys us.

In our attempts at rational mastery, at describing and controlling, the further we advance into reason’s center, the further we distance ourselves from the understanding we seek. Reason frames our experience, analyzes it, but can only do so by virtue of its own terms, its own structures. What it fails to recognize is that these structures themselves do not and cannot give us the content, the understanding we seek. Confronted with these anomalies, reason brackets them, places them in a corner and says, “Not reason.” And slowly reason empties our world of love, freedom, immortality, of God.

The heart’s energies in fighting these imbalances are not inveighed against them equally. When aided by reason and will, the powers of desire and emotion are somewhat readily seen as illusory. When the heart tries to fight these by the will alone, the will may be somewhat weakened and may begin to believe their ferocity to be something real. If it is a strong will, this mastery may not be so dearly bought. But even a weak will, the heart may strengthen by reason.

The recalcitrance of the will is a more bitter battle. The flesh asserts itself, aided by passion and emotion. The heart must call in the aid of reason in ever greater measure. Almost always this battle requires an external obedience for resolution and victory. Heart and mind pull the will into subjection to a spiritual authority, the Church.

But the most painful struggle of all, at least for me, is that of disordered reason. The first two battles of the heart are mostly ones of force. The battle of reason is one of subtlety and despair. The self-annihilation of stubbornness and passion are none too difficult to see. That of reason is much, much more difficult to discern. Reason, that great gift, promises so much, and can deliver almost as much. But ultimately it cannot deliver in full that which it proffers. It promises knowledge but left to itself gives vanity. That is to say, it guarantees contact with being but delivers emptiness. Unity brings exclusion. Knowledge leads to solipsism. Peace gives way to power. Love metastasized and becomes domination. Unfettered reason is a liar. “See,” reason says, “I give you humanity.” But when the curtain is drawn, we see that pluriform creature which is a patchwork of cadavers, the walking dead, the soulless living.

This is the great contradiction of reason: to truly know, to deliver on its promise, it must be tethered, it must surrender its structures to that which is greater than itself. This tethering of reason is finally the job of the heart. The Queen of the South went up to hear reason speak its wisdom. But behold one greater than reason has come and is in our midst.

The heart corrals these three great gifts of God, disordered though they are by sin, and offers them at the foot of the cross. These gifts–we ourselves–are then taken up, in the resurrection, into the divine energies. There will is fully itself, desire is filled, and reason at last knows. There the heart loves. And there is for us life and peace.

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