Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Victory of Reason: A Meta Review

THE VICTORY OF REASON: HOW CHRISTIANITY LED TO FREEDOM, CAPITALISM, AND WESTERN SUCCESS by Rodney Stark, Random House, 2005, 281pp., reviewed by Jon Meacham in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, Sunday, December 25, 2005.

I must admit that reading this review gave me the impression that neither the reviewer or the author of the book have the right understanding of the relation of reason to Xtianity. Meacham (the managing editor of Newsweek) writes that, “Following in the Judaic tradition of valuing human reason, Christians treasure the mind as a gift of God, and the faithful are called to use his gifts to the fullest, to fail to do so is a sin.” I think he basically liked Stark’s book-- but thinks that he lacks “humility” for the way in which he puts down other religions for not depending on reason as much as Xtianity does. Here he quotes Stark: “While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”
Meacham himself says, “Stark is right to argue that the idea that Christianity is incompatible with reason, a line of thought running from Celsus in the late second century to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, does not withstand historical scrutiny.” We shall see about that. Stark also makes the claim, in his words, that “ the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of Scripture and revelation.”
Here are some quotes from the “church fathers” I looked up-- to see how they “praised” reason. Here is Paul taking about those who depend on reason: “The more they called themselves philosophers the more stupid they grew.” “The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” In his book, “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason”, Charles Freeman shows that Paul condemned “any philosophy that concerned itself with finding truth in the material world.” He was anti-science.
The early father Tertullian said he believed in Xtianity because “it was absurd”-- so it had to be true because only God could make it make sense. There are examples from Augustine as well, who gets the credit for subjecting “reason to faith and authority,” according to Freeman, and thus helping to “undermine the classical tradition of rational thought.”
Xtianity was always, and still is, hostile to reason and science as opposed to dogma and authority. Meachem really gets it wrong about Augustine,for example, when he writes, that he argued “for the significance not only of reason but of free will-- the idea that people have it within their power to choose to accept God and follow his commandments [this is actually the Pelagian heresy that Augustine fought against] in the hope of attaining everlasting life.”
Augustine really said we are only free to do sin. We cannot accept God unless he gives us Grace and makes us, as it were, choose Him. “If this gift of God,” Augustine said, “by which the will is set free, did not precede the act of the will, it would be given in accordance with the will’s merits, and would not be grace which is certainly given as a free gift.” So much for people having it within their power to choose God. Anyone who says “Understand, so that you may believe; believe, so that you may understand’-- is no friend to reason.
Martin Luther was another great friend of reason. He said, “All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in his Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false.” Luther should know.
So much for Meacham and Stark. Stick with the Enlightenment and look for our upcoming full review of Freeman’s book.
[This has since been published in the Sept/Oct 2006 print edition of Political Affairs.]
[This review is also on this blog[Thomas Riggins' Blog]-- type 'freeman' into the search box.]

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs Online.

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