A rational faith

21 Mar

Yesterday I discovered, in an old paper I had written, a quote which really inspires me.
It’s a statement by Elton Trueblood, but unfortunately I haven’t recorded its source:

No vital Christianity is possible unless at least three aspects of it are developed. These three are the inner life of devotion, the outer life of service, and the intellectual life of rationality.

There are lots of fascinating things in this statement. The word ‘vital’ gives the hint that there can be Christianity without these things, but it will not be really alive. Vitality has both the sense of something being important, or significant, but also it has the sense of being crucial to our lives.
These three things are crucial if Christian faith (or, I would think, any kind of faith) is to be really alive and life-giving.
More than that, Trueblood speaks of these things being ‘developed’. That suggests we can have elements of these things, but they are not valued or worked on: we may ignore them, or place priority on one or two, while neglecting the others.
So much Christianity has one or two, but neglects the others: some is devout and intellectual, but lacks practical service. Some has devotion and service, but shuns real intellectual engagement. Some has intellectual rigour, and social service, but the inner life is impoverished. All three are crucial.
I’d like to offer my own perspective on the three, and the unity of  the three. (Yes, indeed, on the model of the trinity!)

The inner life of devotion is no easy thing to define. Too easily this is taken to mean prayers—saying prayers, doing ‘spiritual’ exercises. I have recently come to see that in fact they are at best (and often they are not) but a means to this end. The inner life of devotion is not about the performance of ‘spiritual’ exercises. It is more a gift than anything else. It is to be received rather than done.
What it does mean, for me, is about knowing the centre. Where is the centre of my being, the very ground and source of my life? To move towards knowing this, to ‘develop’ this sense of where I am and where I belong, this is the ‘inner life’. This centredness, this grounding, gives me a really crucial something which nothing else can give. It is not a thing, not an experience —that’s the mistake of so much ‘spirituality’ talk. It is the perpetual habit of knowing that there is a centre, and it is not me, not how I feel, not how I am doing: it is the eternal presence, the divine one. This is the source of my hope: my only hope. This centre is there, no matter how I feel and no matter how well or how badly I am doing. It is given. It gives. It is. So when things threaten, as often they do, to overwhelm me, to undermine my dreams, to take my abilities, to weaken my performance, I am tempted to think that I am lost, I am down the drain, finished. Not so. My centre is not dependent upon performance. It is. It is eternally. That is what the inner life of devotion means for me.
Next, Trueblood speaks of the ‘outer life of service’. I think this can mean more than acts of social care, missional engagement and so forth. I think it can mean the whole of one’s living, working, being a neighbour, a friend, a family member, as well as some specific activities of care or service for the less fortunate, or to support agencies, church groups, whatever.
But again, there is a real risk here of thinking that the ‘developed’ outer life of service is about performance. This is especially dangerous. Jesus warned about this, in Matthew 6. In his extended reflections in The True Wilderness, Harry Williams wrote very helpfully about the secret motivations of much Christian service. Williams saw the potential for self-service and self-gratification, in much ‘care’. He wrote of the dead hand of charity, which actually  can harm and  impoverish others, while it makes me feel such a superior Christian  for being so  kind.
In contrast, the genuine service we might hope to do is often about being there for others, but without words, without ‘competence’: that is, we are not really able to give anything much, except to be there, to give ourselves in friendship, presence, relationship. This is what can make a real difference.
At other times, though, service can require effective action, and sometimes courageous, demanding action to change things, to challenge unjust structures or processes.
But I have to say that unless this kind of activity, by groups and individuals, arises from the kind of grace which allows one simply to be there, maybe silently in the face of troubles, then it is likely to be driven by ideological agendas far more than by Christian service. To engage with these challenges requires a ‘developed’ sense of outer service, not just a strong activist spirit. No easy thing!
Finally, but perhaps most commonly neglected, is the intellectual life of rationality’.
I have found this to be the greatest challenge, in an activist church, practising individualist piety. We are, largely, anti-intellectual, or at best we keep our intellectual interests separate from our ‘faith’ life. I have tried for many years to find ways of helping students to see the dangers which arise, in all kinds of religious groups, when fervour is separated from reason, and is mistaken for ‘strong faith’.
The willingness to think is one of the most scarce capacities in our current situation. There is a great scarcity of critical thinking. We value the kind of thinking that ‘produces results’—that is, which helps us to know how to do things, and to do them better. We value the kind of thinking that will give us more things, more money, more ‘outcomes’. But we find it uncomfortable, or downright annoying, when someone asks questions about the values in these activities. We need the rational inquiry which involves self-criticism and moral challenge. In other posts I have written about the quest for truth. Most important for me is the quest for truthfulness.
This brings me, then, to add something to Trueblood’s statement. Not only do we need these three, but we need them in a way that holds them together. These three need to be one, mutually informing. A vital faith is one in which the interior life is shaped by the external life of service and by rational understanding. So too, rational understanding is empty without the interior life of devotion and the life of service. And the life of service is greatly limited unless it is shaped by rational understanding and by the inner depths of spiritual awareness. These three belong together, as they are in the divine community. And it is that divine life which makes it possible, at least in some measure, for Christianity to be vital: alive and life-giving.

4 thoughts on “A rational faith

  1. Frank, Isn’t rationality just an effect of modernity seeking to place the human at the centre? Why should we trust in that as supreme above (for example) narrative? Can’t there be a place for irrationality (from a human perspective) when God is involved?

  2. Dazza, I agree with your concern about modernity. But rationality is not the same as that. Maybe rationalism is, but rationality is simply a commitment to use our reason and to be guided by it in appropriate (but not exaggerated) ways. I think this means that reason, used appropriately, would make us self-critical, and more humble, rather than claiming to have a single, grand perspective on everything.
    Even to discuss rationality and modernity is to use our reason.
    We can’t do anything without rationality: the question is whether we allow our own reason to become the measure of all things. That is the mistake of the ‘modernist’ approach.
    But let us not abandon reasoning altogether. My point was precisely that where religious fervour is placed in opposition to reason, equally unhelpful results occur, sometimes even worse. (Witness my earlier posting about the madness of the Cult Davidian). Many religous groups celebrate irrationality.
    But Jesus spoke of us loving God with all our minds; I think we need an appropriate rationality – hand in hand with devotion and service. Would you accept that way of putting it?

  3. Critical Thinking

    At the risk of gutting the full intent of Frank’s thoughtful post on rational faith, this particular comment jumped out at me: The willingness to think is one of the most scarce capacities in our current situation. There is a…

  4. So modernity guides us to a rational scientific viewpoint but the Christian should be trying to live into a rationality guided by the ongoing story of the ancient biblical narratives… which take us to a very different place compared to our modern world (militarism, consumerism, etc). And when we get there we find (with Paul) that in the eyes of this world we are fools!

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