Friday, January 11, 2013

Rationalism Brings Me Out in a Rash

I remember once, about nine years ago now, sitting in a philosophy class given by Timothy Mooney, a philosophy lecturer in University College Dublin. He was an entertaining and chatty lecturer, much given to digressions and asides. (A lecture without digressions is a pretty dismal prospect.)

During one of these digressions, he was expressing his pleasure that UCD had reformed its division of term times into one that made more sense. "There is something about the human mind" he said (I wasn't tape-recording the lecture so these are not his exact words), "that takes pleasure in things that are logical, that make sense."

Is there indeed? I've always remembered his words because as soon as I heard them, they sent my mental wheels spinning. I was conscious of no such tendency as he described in my own mind. In fact, I knew I had precisely the opposite attitude-- that I took pleasure in everything that was not rationalized, standardized, efficient or convenient.

At the same time, he was obviously onto something, because so many people do seem to fit his description. I have met plenty of people who actually seem to be pained by anachronistic laws or petty inconveniences or unnecessary social conventions. I'm talking about the kind of people who get upset when someone refers to an "ATM machine" or "PIN number", or who disapprove of judges wearing wigs and gowns, or who seem personally aggrieved if they discover you took the longer route rather than the shorter one.

Take, for instance, one of my favourite writers, the recently deceased Keith Waterhouse. He was well-known for founding the (imaginary) Association for the Annihilation of the Abberant Apostrophe. Like Lynn Truss of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame, he was tortured by the sight of "it's" in places where "its" should have been.

All that sort of thing seems not only intolerably whiny and pedantic to me, but rather life-hating. All correct spelling is the same, but spelling mistakes show a luxuriant and tropical and bewitching diversity. I would rather (a thousand times over) a poorly spelled, ungrammatical sign written in thick black marker on a piece of brown cardoard than a laminated, profesionally designed notice with perfect spelling and grammar.

In a shop close to where I live, some years ago, there was a handwritten sign that read: "Nice to handle, nice to hold, if you break it, considerate it sold." Would the world be a better and more enjoyable place if there were no signs like that?

All of this occurred to me because I was browsing through The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, a late-twentieth-century polemic about the decline of liberal education and general open-mindedness in America. Bloom spreads his philosophical net wide, invoking all the great names of the tradition. I found myself musing on the fact that I have no desire at all to read (or even read about) the works of Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon or Spinoza. Even if I was stranded on a desert island with nothing to read but them, I think I would not read them. Rationalism and the Enlightenment seem soul-annihilatingly dull to me.

"Aha!", a reader may cry, "that is because you are a religious freak in flight from reality! You admit it yourself now!"

But even when I was an atheist I despised rationalism. I didn't have to believe in the soul or the supernatural to prefer the Imperial system of measurements to the metric system, or to find monarchy more admirable than republicanism, or to consider chivalry between men and women far more appealing than egalitarianism, or to love every sort of nationalism and dislike every sort of internationalism. Nor did I appreciate those who defended old institutions like monarchy and chivalry on the grounds that they were rational. I liked them because they were not rational; not actually irrational, but decidedly non-rational.

Of course, rationality is essential in some situations. An ambulance driver who decides to take the scenic route to the hospital when his patient needs a blood transfusion ASAP is not to be admired for his eccentricity. A crew performing safety checks on an airplane should not choose that moment to indulge their taste for whimsicality.

But once we pass beyond activities where life and limb, peace of mind, justice or some other equally grave matter is at stake, I lose my appreciation of rationalism pretty quickly.

Who would want to live in a Perspex society, where every institution and regulation and custom and practice was perfectly transparent to reason? Where every historical accident, every prejudice, every absurdity, every unnecessary inconvenience, every taboo had been smoothed away?

Of course, a Christian-- especially a Catholic Christian-- has the advantage of agreeing with his God about this.

Whatever else you might accuse Him of, the Christian God can never be compared to the Supreme Being of Robespierre or the Cosmic Clockmaker of many of the Founding Fathers of America or the bland Deity of the Unitarians.

The Christian God is a God who likes things done a very particular way and who doesn't feel especially obliged to explain why. From choosing Israel as His chosen people, to the use of the sacraments to dispense His grace, to overriding the laws of nature when it suits Him, the Christian God is an unmitigated outrage to Rational Religion.

I wonder how much of Christianity's appeal-- of the spiritual nourishment and refreshment it affords-- lies precisely in those things that seem a stumbling block and foolishness to the rationalist mind?

Why does God wait for us to pray to Him, rather than just giving us what we need straight away? He just does. Why would he miraculously cure one terminally ill person and not another? Its a mystery. Why did Christ choose only men for his disciples and why does His Church ordain only men to the priesthood? I don't know; God knows. Why are there four Gospels? There just are. Why does Christ come to us in the Eucharist rather than directly, in a disembodied and utterly transcendental way? Because such is God's will.

But how awful if He was not like this, after all!

I hope nobody who reads this will think I am preaching obscurantism, or even fideism (that is, sheer faith without any reference to reason-- an attitude condemned by the First Vatican Council, by the way). I think religious belief is entirely reasonable and entirely rational, in the true sense of "rational". The teachings of the Catholic Church satisfy not only my spirit but my intellect.

No, I have here been repudating not rationality, but rationalism-- and rationalism in the shallowest sense, the sort of rationalism that hates mystery, contingency, eccentricity and particularity.

And one of the things I like most about the Catholic faith is that it has no place for that kind of pallid rationalism.

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