Friday, October 28, 2005

Memo to Christianity Today: Context, Context, Context

Each issue of Christianity Today contains a page called "Reflections: Questions to Stir Heart and Mind" filled with quotations about a particular subject. November's subject is poetry. The following quotation caught my eye because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm teaching a class using Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth and it so beautifully illustrates the fact/value dichotomy she says is responsible for the marginalizing of Christian faith from the public square.
Reason is the prose by which we understand the real world; religion the poetry by which we try to give it a meaning that makes it psychologically and spiritually endurable. - Richard John Neuhaus, forward to Faith and the Life of the Intellect, edited by Curtis L. Hancock & Brendan Sweetman.
According to this quotation, reason is the means by which we arrive at factual knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, doesn't give us truth about the way things really are. Its role is limited to that of a coping mechanism by providing arbitrary values.

I was surprised when I read this since Neuhaus is the editor of First Things, an impressive journal that addresses the interface between faith and public policy. I went to Amazon's site, hoping that the book for which he wrote the forward was searchable online and, lo and behold, it is. As it turns out, this line is not representative of Neuhaus's own thought. Rather, it's part of his description and rejection of the artificial division between religion and rationality. Here's the sentence in its larger context:

That tragedy is a primary source, if not the primary source, of the bifurcation with which we are still living. It prepared the way for the dogmas of a more militantly secular Enlightenment, decreeing that faith and religion have no legitimate place in what counts as truly public reason and knowledge. Many Christians have, mistakenly I believe, been happy to go along with this bifurcation. What counts as public reason, meaning mainly "science" in one form or another, deals with the "isness" of things; religion and theology with the "oughtness" of things. Reason is the prose by which we understand the real world; religion the poetry by which we try to give it a meaning that makes it psychologically and spiritually endurable. As the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio observes, ancient philosophy aimed at wisdom and opened to wonder. Most of what is called modern philosophy, following the tragic bifurcation, despairs of wisdom and shuts the door on wonder (x).
The quote, therefore, is properly attributed to Neuhaus but taken as it is, isolated from its context, it leads the reader to believe that he is actually endorsing a view with which he is in stark disagreement. Not only that, inclusion of this quote could lead one to believe that Christianity Today is advocating such a view itself. The funny thing is that Total Truth received a CT Award of Merit for the best Christian book in the area of Christianity and Culture.

1 comment:

read with open eyes said...

C. S. Lewis made a distinction between "truth" and "meaning." He believed the two are discerned differently, and communicated to others differently. He said reason was the organ of truth, which is propositional. The Scriptures falls into this category. Lewis's essays, lectures, and sermons were designed to communicate truth. He said imagination was the organ of meaning, which is poetic and narrative. Lewis's works of fiction were designed to communicate meaning.
Even without the context your blog mentions, the quote wouldn't be so far off in Lewis's system.