Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive

The Idolatry of Rationalism

  • Jeremy Swanson,
Share this
"It is not sufficient for everyone to obey and to listen to the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. In order to propagate that message among the heathen, nay, in order to understand it as clearly and as fully as is humanly possible, one must also consider to what extent man could discern the outlines of that City if left to himself, to the proper exercise of his own powers."
-Leo Strauss, The City and Man

These words of prominent twentieth-century political philosopher Leo Strauss are a clear manifestation of his rationalistic spirit, of his rationalistic desiderata. But let's make this personal: I fear that the impure, unsubmissive, hidden corners of our hearts find a certain needfulness or security in the desiderata of Leo Strauss' rationalism. May the Holy Spirit be with us as we compare the spirit of these words of the man Leo Strauss with the Word, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May the Word of God pierce to the bone and marrow; may the contact not be mere external superficiality, mere "argument."

Let us begin, in humility before God, with the end of the above quotation: Strauss refers to "the proper exercise of his own [man's own] powers." What are these "powers" to which Strauss is referring? These powers are the powers of the human intellect, that is, the power of autonomous human reason. The Word does not speak of this thing "reason" if by "reason" is meant an independent capacity or faculty of the human creature that, if "properly exercised," allows one to ascend from mere opinion, convention, to genuine knowledge, or the "idea of the good." The human intellect, the human mind, "reason," is not something that stands alone, or even can stand alone, through its proper exercise. Rather, the thoughts and operations of the mind, of "reason," are tied to or flow out of the human heart. And what is the state of the human heart? "Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). A grave statement indeed, and one that justifies the judgment that followed in the flood. But perhaps now you will contend that this statement of utter gravity and hopelessness applies only to the unregenerate. That this hopelessness applies only to the unregenerate, I agree. That this gravity applies only to the unregenerate, I do not agree.

Consider the statement of God following the flood, after which only Noah, "a just man, perfect in his generations, who walked with God," and his family, remained on earth: "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21). But how could God say this after He had destroyed all the wicked, violent men of the earth, saving only just Noah and his family? Were not Noah and his family God's chosen, covenant people, set apart, separate from the world of violence that surrounded them?

Consider also Ezekiel 14:1: "Now some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me." Once again, here we have the chosen people of God, separate from the rest of the world, drawn out from among the nations of the earth. Not only are we here presented with the chosen people of God, but we are also presented with the elders of the chosen people of God, the best of the people of God. And what does the LORD say about the best of his chosen people? "And the Word of the LORD came to me, saying, 'Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity'" (Eze.14:2-3). What a tragedy we have here! God's chosen people: Idolaters, harlots! In the words of Isaiah: "Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward me is taught by the commandment of men" (Isa. 29:13). God's chosen people, and yet possessing wicked, hard, rebellious hearts! Therefore, God's chosen people, possessing the wisdom of God, the oracles of God, beyond any wisdom of man outside those oracles; and yet God's chosen people, blind (Isa. 29:9-10)! This does not bode well for Strauss' "proper exercise of his own powers" thesis, when even the chosen children of God are rebellious, wicked, idolatrous, blind. This does not bode well for Strauss' "proper exercise of his own powers" when even those to whom have been committed the explicit oracles of God, whose "reason" should be the most honed and "properly exercised," are called blind: "Pause and wonder! Blind yourselves and be blind!" (Isa. 29:9)

But immediately after these grave, just statements of God, He promises a cure for this blindness, for this blasphemy, for this hardness of heart: "Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden" (Isa. 29:14). What is the complete, full, absolute manifestation and culmination of this marvelous work and wonder that causes the wisdom of the wise men to perish and the understanding of the prudent men to be hidden? The answer is found in the Who, not the what, that is, in Jesus Christ: "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes" (Mt. 11:25).

So much for human wisdom. So much for "reason." So much for even the possibility of Strauss' "proper exercise of his own powers." But wait, you are contending that regeneration through Christ allows for or enables one to attain the "proper exercise of his own powers." You contend that since we have been born again, we are now able to exercise "reason" properly, in a holy manner. But let us examine the term "reason" as such, that is, "logos." This term is one taken from classical Greece, from Platonic philosophy. But are these the terms that the Word gives us? Are we redeemed in order to attain autonomy through autonomous human reason, through reason properly exercised? But there is no such thing as "autonomous human reason." There is only slavery — slavery to sin leading to death, or slavery to obedience leading to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). Strauss enjoys speaking of man's "highest possibilities." Perhaps you are also concerned with man's "highest possibilities." And well you should be. But let us remember that in Christianity, man's highest possibility is submission, slavery, obedience to God. This is true liberty. In contrast, the rationalistic spirit tells us that man's highest possibility is gaining as much clarity as possible through the native human intellect, that man's highest possibility is "discovering" as much as possible through autonomous human reason, that is, no submission to God, that is, slavery to sin, that is, at best (like the elders of Israel), begin driven by an idolatrous heart that blinds.

There is no simple, clean state of "objective rationality." This implies human autonomy in some capacity. This is impossible - there is only slavery to sin and the blindness of the wicked human heart or the liberty of taking up Christ's yoke which is good for a man to bear in his youth (Lam. 3:27, Mt. 11:29-30). There is only submission or rebellion. There is no liberation through "logos." There is only liberation through the Person Christ: "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their own craftiness,' and again, 'The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile'" (1 Cor. 3:18-20).

What is this wisdom of the Lord that is so inimical to the world, that the world calls foolishness? "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 110:10). Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind" (Jer.17:9-10). The fear of the LORD comes from the realization and experience of the fact that we are naked individuals before God who nevertheless cloak ourselves in deceit and wickedness. We cannot comprehend even our own deceit and wickedness. God does. What greater cause for fear and trembling is there than this? "I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind." This realization and experience of our attempt to cover our nakedness before God with the fig leaf of deceit before His most holy sight should drive us to a point of absolute despair, that is, the despair that gives up all attempts to self-redeem, that instead drives us to seek God with a broken heart and a contrite spirit (Ps. 34:18), that finally leads to the peace that passes all understanding and the joy of simple submission, obedience, and humility. "For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8).

This is the foolishness of Christ: Finding hope only in humility, in absolute submission. This is what the wisdom of the world denies as even a possibility. Rather, "It is not sufficient for everyone to obey and to listen to the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City." Rather, the "proper exercise of his own powers." But this is not the spirit of submission. This is the language of human autonomy. Human autonomy is nihilism, for it seeks to exalt itself in pride and separate itself from God. It makes no difference before our most holy God whether this language speaks with the vocabulary of universal, objective human reasonor with the vocabulary of contextual, relative human will. In fact, the spirit in which rational rationalists seek to so pridefully distinguish themselves from relativistic nihilists is not only a prideful spirit, but one that also cultivates profound self-deception. Before God, what is the difference between an autonomous human intellect and an autonomous human will? Are we as Christians, as God's chosen people, liberated in order to enjoy the "proper exercise" of our own "rational" powers (clever self-deceit!)? Are we liberated in order to enjoy the proper exercise of our own irrational powers (clever self-deceit!)? Or are we liberated to take up the foolish cross of Christ? Are we liberated in order to be "rational"? Are we liberated in order to be "irrational"? Or are we liberated in order to be humble, submissive, obedient? Just as our goal should not be to be "rational," so our goal should not be to be "irrational."

"But," you still contend, "obeying God is the height of rationality! And what's more, you can't even communicate with me unless you utilize reason!" But "these things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Cor. 2:13). "Reason" is nothing. All "reason" signifies is that some mental activity is going on, or that the attempt to intelligibly communicate something is occurring. But how do we gain true clarity, how do we truly communicate? Not through an independent faculty, but through the Holy Spirit, through relation with God, through simple submission and obedience. If we understand things in any other manner, we are blind, self-deceiving. And it is true that it is possible to presuppose the identity of obedience and reason, that is, we can simply assert that obedience equals reason. But let us be careful here! Let us be very careful! When our Lord commands us to obey, He says "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength"; He does not say "properly exercise your reason" or "be rational." He says "submit, obey the law I have given you.".When we start using different words, asserting that they have identical meanings with what the Word commands, oh on what treacherous ground we stand! We must consider the vocabulary, the language, the philosophy from whence these words come. From whence does the term "reason" come? From Greek philosophy. Is Greek philosophy, is any philosophy a morally neutral, clean endeavor? Is the philosopher able to somehow ascend from "mere opinion" to "genuine knowledge"? Consider again 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 and Jeremiah 17:9. Remember that the heart informs the mind. If the heart hates God, is philosophy "discovery," or is it a creation of the world in its own image, that is, a reflection of the idol within the philosopher? But even more than that, being Christians, do we even engage in philosophy as such (classical Greek philosophy), that is, the attempt to, through "reason," discover eternal Platonic forms or the "idea of the good," seeing it for what it "truly and eternally is"? Is Christianity a relationship with abstract, universal principles? Can this even be called a relationship? How can we have a relationship with things (forms) or a thing ("the idea of the good")? Is not the Christian relationship one with the Person Jesus Christ, one of communing in the Spirit? Is this not life, being drawn nearer and nearer to our Savior as He purifies us in His faithful love? Is not the utter nullification of passing through the impersonal, mechanistic gears of Platonic forms death? How can there be Spirit, Life, Love, if the Christian "life" merely entails properly intellectually positioning oneself with a fixed system of cold, impartial, universal abstractions? No, we are not told to be "rational." We are told by our loving Father to be as children - obedient, humble, in awe of His majesty and grace, communing with Him in the Spirit, trusting in His providence, hoping for life more abundantly, loving Him. May God in His grace grant us this joyful, abundant Life. May we not, like the elders of the children of Israel, set up in our hearts idols that make us fall into iniquity; and if we have set up in our hearts such idols, may our God destroy them.

For then comes hope: "For by one suffering He has perfected forever those who are being perfected" (Heb. 10:14). We are perfect, yet being perfected; justified yet, in need of sanctification; redeemed, yet unfaithful. Therefore "let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23). Let us hold fast to Jesus Christ, He alone our only hope! "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:13). Being in need of sanctification, let us embrace His purification of our hearts: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:5-6). Yes, let us embrace His chastening, let us humbly submit when He reveals an idol within (already the self-deceit is lifting when this happens!), for "no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Heb. 12:11). Let us embrace this lifelong purification and enjoy the "peaceable fruit of righteousness" that it bears. Let us continue to submit, not only in the sense of simple obedience, but also in the sense of humbly accepting His chastisement, or the conviction that we have not been submissive and obedient, that we lack the purity (autonomy?) we thought we had - and let us see this unsettling conviction as redemptive, embracing it, not trying to again hide the once hidden self-deceit that has been made manifest by God's grace! This is the most difficult kind of submission (indeed it is impossible without the grace of God), but it entails such life! This submission yields the "peaceable fruit of righteousness," true love, which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7). Submitting, seeking God with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, let us look forward in hope to the final rest that awaits us after we have, for a lifetime, clung to no One save Christ, after we have cast "aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us," and have "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1).

  • Jeremy Swanson

Jeremy Swanson holds a B.A. in political science from Hillsdale College. He can be reached at [email protected].

More by Jeremy Swanson