Friday, March 9, 2012


I got an email question from a student about some of our discussion of the six themes I've chosen to focus on throughout the semester (Reason, Revelation, Authority, Freedom, Survival and Gender), and I thought it might be helpful to post my response here, since others may have similar questions. This student specifically asked about how I view or define "reason," and how my definition of reason relates to the ways in which we've been exploring reason as a class theme.

I do want to be somewhat open-ended in the approach to the six themes. This involves acknowledging that there may be different ways of defining Revelation, Reason, Authority, Freedom, Survival and Gender Roles. Liberal theists, for example, have generally looked to history itself and broad historical processes as a way by which God reveals godself. In discussing Native American history in class, I discussed two possible ways of understanding the problem of survival in looking at Native American history. From a European American viewpoint, what has been at stake in the course of American history has been the survival of a people or peoples -- Native Americans themselves. From a Native viewpoint, what has been at stake is the survival of the planet. These are examples of how the way any one of those six concepts is defined can depend on who we're asking to define it and what the context is.

At its most basic, I see reason as the faculty we use to create meaning, to arrange facts into meaningful narratives.

However, different cultures "allow" different fact sets into their reasoning exercises. So, for example, Western science has historically excluded huge, broad fact sets from reasoning activity: the subjective, the emotional, the spiritual. Western science has historically allowed observable, reproducible, physical/material facts only as part of the reasoning process, and has labeled everything else "irrational."

We've already seen a different approach to reason used by fundamentalists, called (in Marsden) "Scottish Common Sense Realism." Fundamentalists insisted on deductive reasoning alone -- generalizing from observable phenomena. They rejected inductive reasoning,which would allow hypothetical or speculative extrapolation from observable facts. (This was their basis for rejecting the Theory of Evolution, for instance.) On the other hand, they accepted scriptural accounts of miracles as eye witness accounts, and therefore allowable data. Marsden has pointed out that Fundamentalists did not reject reason per se, they rejected only a particular form of scientific rationalism.

The same principle applies when considering the role of reason in Native American culture. Traditional Native American spirituality has often been stereotyped or romanticized as "mystical" and "irrational." In our class discussion yesterday, one characterization that was offered was the Native American spiritual practices were designed to "transcend the rational mind." But that characterization, I think, assumes certain things about the nature of reason. And it also doesn't really square with my understanding of how Native Americans engage in spiritual practices.

For example, the vision quest was cited as an example of a practice that involves breaking out of or transcending reason through fasting, isolation, etc. But in Native American practice, once a person has experienced a vision as part of a vision quest, the process is not finished until that individual returns to the community and describes his or her vision to a spiritual leader, who then helps them properly interpret the vision and integrate the vision into the community's understanding of itself. That interpretive process is a reasoning/rational process. It's a use of the reasoning faculty to make sense of data -- in this case, the data being a vision or a dream. Native Americans are not, in this case, behaving "irrationally." Their experience with revelation is integrated using reason, and the two things, revelation and reason, are not seen as mutually exclusive phenomena.

Reason and revelation are seen as mutually exclusive in our culture only because the dominant view of reason in our culture has been defined by a scientific worldview that excludes certain sorts of data -- like visions or dreams -- from its accounting of reality.

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