Rationalism & the Story (1)


Supernaturalism offends their rational minds, so they ditch it. But they do not stop to ask whether faith is reasonable in another way, whether religion - properly understood as faith - has a rationality of its own that makes sense on another level of human experience. And makes sense of all human experience - as a whole - in the end.


They do not consider the possibility that without the particular rationality that faith supplies, human experience neither makes sense at all, nor, indeed, can be wisely or even rationally lived.  


The dilemma of our times is that in purifying human thought of supernaturalism and all those elements that made religion - and especially Christianity - suffocating to the human mind, heart and spirit - we have also lost sight of faith as a tool that is necessary to human creativity in any and every form. Indeed, faith that is necessary for us to function well as human beings at all. Without faith, we cannot be humane.    


Those who are dissatisfied with, or disenchanted by, religion set out to find an alternative framework for thought, as a foundation, guide and goal for individual lives and social development. Religion was dumped because it was unscientific, impossible to believe, irrational, non-sense. To a varying extent, the freethinkers, atheists, rationalists and humanists made the human being, human experience, and the cosmos as observed, explored, catalogued, analysed and examined by human minds - the ground of reality. In this world-view, a particular form of rationalism - empirical materialism - became the measure of everything.


Coupled with this was the insistence that data be objective - outside the individual human being - devaluing of data derived from internal suggestion. From within. Such data persistently dismissed, reduced and dis-empowered.   Unless wholly subservient to the prevailing ethos.

In these two directions, they fractured their own minds, splintered human knowledge and forced each person to place their trust in one splinter or another, or in none of them at all.


They claim that it is wise and rational to believe only what you can see and hear and smell and touch - what is tangible and external - what can be demonstrated - what can be subjected to exhaustive testing and to peer review. In ordinary speech, they talk of believing only what they can see or touch. In more learned journals, they speak of studies, papers, experiments and peer review. Whether an experiment can be replicated or not. And at one level they are right to do so. But what they then do is refuse to recognise the data that emerges from the other layers of their own experience - the trends, patterns and repeated longings and impulses that are the echoes from the abyss of their own subconscious. All this is discounted, because we are only now beginning to learn how to read it.  


And having done so, having taken another god, they find that the religion that remains is only an outward form - a moral code or rule of life, or liturgy or ethical framework. And there is value in such things. We need them. Some find them comforting and supporting, and die defending them. But by themselves these are only the outward form. Not the life. That’s the point. These things lack power. Creative power. Transformative power. Redemptive power. And that is what faith - holistic faith - supplies. The power.


Because in ditching the supernaturalism, they have also, at some stage, ditched the story. Devalued the story. The shape of it, the context and form of it, and the details of it, all of which are important. They may have studied the stories, even analysed them exhaustively in a form-critical sense, but they have not valued them as stories, only as fragments that might give us clues to the way in which people in the past considered their history, or related to other elements of their culture.


I have come across the story of the place in the forest in several different contexts. It is quoted by the Jewish novelist Elie Wiesel as he re-imagines the spiritual landscape created by the Nazi Holocaust and by the Progressive Jewish theologian and teacher, Albert Friedlander, as he reflects on his journeys of reconciliation with Germany and the Germans in the late 1980s. But it is also quoted by Sam Keen in a thoughtful response to the “Death of God” movement in the 1960s. His book, “To a Dancing God”, published in 1970, reflects on the new spiritual landscape created by a culture that can no longer imagine a God in whom it is possible or even desirable to believe. He sees storytelling as a means of witnessing to truths which – for the health of humanity – must not be lost, but which cannot be discovered or passed on in any other way.


More than forty years later, I wonder if we are any closer to dealing seriously with what Keen identifies as “the momentous change in the self-consciousness of Western man” lying behind the “Death of God” metaphor. While much has been written about the crisis in faith afflicting post-modern, post-Christian Western society and new, largely lay-led movements have infiltrated a greater freedom and creativity into the British churches, our ways of worshipping, praying, relating, working and witnessing still reflect a profound resistance to the fact that the “metaphysical matrix” or “spiritual ecology” of life has changed in our life-time.


The great “meta-narratives” which once located us within society and our society within the cosmos and the cosmos within the spiritual “overworld” no longer satisfy. The new metaphor which reflects our experience is “the happening”, writes Keen, “Nature and history are governed by chance and probability. Luck is the only god, and crossing the fingers or knocking on wood is the only liturgy appropriate to a happenstance world. One thing happens after another, and, although there are causes for events, there are no reasons. Nowhere in nature or history does the modern intellectual find evidence of a guiding mind which gives coherence to what is still, erroneously, called the uni-verse. If history tells a tale, it is the tale of the idiot. It is up to the individual to give his own life meaning by creating a project to which he may give himself.”[1]

[1]Keen, pp. 94-95.

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