The Christian Concept of Rationality

From Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (1989), page 63-64:

The Christian tradition of rationality takes as its starting point not any alleged self-evident truths. Its starting point is events in which God made himself known to men and women in particular circumstances — to Abraham and Moses, to the long succession of prophets, and to the first apostles and witnesses who saw and heard and touched the incarnate Word of God himself, Jesus of Nazareth. These are all happenings within the world of secular events, the world which is investigated by the natural and human sciences. These revelations were always addressed to men and women in particular contexts and called for specific responses within and appropriate to those contexts. The community which responded to this call and challenge had to make sense of and cope with the ever changing circumstances of their ongoing history in the light of what had been revealed to them in the original events. The originally given revelation had to be continually reappropriated and reinterpreted in the light of new situations. It had to be tested to see whether it could continue to provide coherence and meaning for new experience. It was tested almost to the breaking point, especially in the experience of the destruction of the Jewish state and the long exile. That testing in turn provided the background through which the shattering experience which the first disciples had in the sequence of events leading up to Good Friday could be re-understood within the terms of the original revelation. Continually through the centuries the community seeks to find coherence, meaning, and hope in the events, sometimes apparently meaningless and chaotic events, through which it lives. As we have seen in looking at the work of science, so here the argument is necessarily circular. The believer starts from the faith that reality is rational, that a coherent purpose can be discerned in experience. The struggle is to prove that faith true in circumstances which seem to call it in question. The effort is always a rational effort, an effort to find rational meaning in apparently irrational events through the pattern given in the original revelation. So the tradition is being continually reshaped and reappropriated in the struggle to cope with ongoing experience.

Like every living tradition, it is always threatened with the possibility of disintegration. It has to be sustained in its integrity by the intellectual vigor and practical courage with which its members seek to be faithful to it — not by repeating past formulas but by courageously restating the tradition in the light of new experience. Like the tradition of rationality in the natural sciences, it has to be protected against aberrations. It cannot afford the luxury of chasing every maverick idea that turns up. It requires a discipline which has to be enforced not by any centralized authority but by the discernment of the whole body of its adherents. It makes universal claims, but coexits with other traditions of rational argument which make rival claims to universal validity. There is no neutral judgment seat from which these rival claims can be adjudicated. As I have said earlier, there is no form of rationality which is independent of all socially embodied traditions of rationality and which can therefore judge them all.

Clearly it is such a claim to universal judgment that is embodied in the often expressed idea that all claims to revealed truths must be judged by the canons of reason. There are no canons of reason which are not part of a socially embodied tradition of rational debate. . . .

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