Overcoming America's Skepticism about Religious Rationality

by Randi Rashkover

It was John Locke who, in his famous "A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration" said, "every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error."1 When it comes then to matters of religious belief, believers cannot help but brand other beliefs as heretical. Incapable of entertaining other positions with respect to their religious beliefs, believers are irrational in their religious beliefs. More significantly, Locke goes on to argue that the separation of church and state is premised upon this character of religious belief. If, he argues, believers are incapable of entertaining other believers' or non-believers' positions with respect to their cherished beliefs, then it would follow that believers cannot engage in any sort of public discourse surrounding these beliefs. It's just best then that believers leave their religion at the door of the house of public discourse. Public discourse, the basis of the social contract itself, presupposes the ability to engage in a rational conversation wherein I can hear the other's position. If I cannot so behave with my religious beliefs in hand, I best take off my religious hat when speaking publicly. Religion belongs at home because it is irrational.

That the relation between religion and public discourse in America is murky and confusing is, well, common knowledge. On the one hand, religion appears to be a much more powerful force in public discourse than Locke would have expected from a nation that claims to separate church and state. Not only does religious rhetoric decorate political speeches, it appears on our currency, it justifies and unjustifies wars and has mandated civil rights. Still, the Lockean profile of believers as irrational persists. Non-believers and liberal religionists both shy away from admitting religion a rightful place in public discourse. (While one might immediately understand a non-believer's hesitation to admit religion a voice in the public sector, one really has to wonder when liberal religionists are willing to leave their religion at home when voting on policy issues.) This tendency to dissociate religion and reason in America is partly a product of thorny relationship Americans have had with philosophy in general evident in America's pragmatist tradition. Still, the dismissal of religion as irrational exceeds the bounds of a pragmatist skepticism of metaphysical systems for James, Peirce and Dewey celebrated the labor of reason—and demanded that it be put to work and all identified and promoted forms of religious rationality. More importantly however, to dismiss religious belief as irrational is at once to deny the texts and traditions of the worlds' major religions as well as the pressing need to recover the these traditions' celebration of human reason as a vital aspect of the believer's worshipping life. In a time when religious belief is as much a powerful force in shaping events as it has ever been, we can no more luxuriate in a dismissal of religious belief as irrational. We must recover and attend to the reasoning funded by belief and showcase it as a call for a renewed strain of contemplation and inquiry in contemporary American discourse.

The list of religious texts that celebrate the role of human reason in the worshipping life would include of course, the Mahabarata, the Talmud, the Gospel of John, the Guide of the Perplexed, the Q’uran, the Summa Theologica and countless others. No list would be complete however without Augustine's Confessions and On Christian Doctrine. St. Augustine has long been credited with providing a basis for medieval Christian culture. Less acknowledged however is the revolution in religious reasoning effected by his work.2 Too frequently hailed as the great synthesizer between Greek and Christian theology, Augustine's theological revolution has more to do with his scriptural hermeneutics than it does with any strains of Neo-platonism apparent in his work. Augustine's On Christian Doctrine is a book about how to read. There we learn that the activity of reading explodes with philosophical, ethical and liturgical value. Reading conjoins the restlessness of theological desire and the search for meaning with the ethical introspection and transformation of self that defines the event of election or conversion. So conjoined, reading readies us religiously, philosophically and ethically for community. It helps us re-order the economy of our world away from a currency of self-interest and towards a charitable exchange with others who read together with us.

At heart On Christian Doctrine is a classic Augustinian refrain that human beings do not know how to rightly order our world and our loves. We love, Augustine never tires of saying, the wrong things. We love the temporal things that are to carry us to God rather than loving God through the temporal things that carry us. Our love is motivated by self-interest. We become mired in our own renderings of the world and our own economy of value. God becomes incarnate, Augustine asserts, to liberate us from this disordered appraisal of the world and the social paralysis that results therefrom. Through the incarnation the spiritual signifies itself in the material, thereby permitting the one to carry us to the other. God incarnate is God as Word—an authentic sign that teaches those who witness to it—those who 'hear' it or 'read' it, how the letter moves us towards the meaning. The incarnation is a semiotic instruction manual that illuminates how signs are sacramental opportunities for reading the transcendent in the temporal and material. If however signs function as opportunities to discern the transcendent in the temporal and appreciate the temporal as a carrier to the transcendent, then the incarnation has taught us nothing less than how to engage in authentic reading. Reading the Word and reading the testimony or performance of this reading (the Scripture) is to embark upon a journey to blessedness—the state of authentic loving within the divine economy.

Since that truth is to be enjoyed which lives immutably, and since God the Trinity, the Author and Founder of the universe, cares for His creatures through that truth, the mind should be cleansed so that it is able to see that light to cling to it once it is seen. Let us consider this cleansing to be as a journey or voyage home. But we do not come to Him who is everywhere present by moving from place to place, but by good endeavor and good habits . . . How did he come except that 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' . . . as a cure.3

At the risk of oversimplification one can discern two essential rules of reading that we learn from the Word of God. First, one must accept the alterity and authority of the text. The text must be permitted to make a claim on one's understanding or interpretation of one's world. "It is necessary that we become meek through piety so that we do not contradict divine Scripture . . . but we should rather think and believe that which is written to be better and more true than anything which we could think of by ourselves, even when it is obscure."4 This is no simple-minded exhortation to a literal reading of the scriptures. Rather, to lend authority to the text is to permit the text to unhinge one potentially from the isolation of self-interest and self-perception. It is to stand before the text as a sacrament. We must, Augustine says, approach the Word with faith —faith in its redemptive possibility as a vehicle for transforming my affections and re-ordering my world. This requires us to make use of all the historical and linguistic resources we can muster to help us penetrate its meaning. “We walk by faith and not by sight,' and faith will stagger if the authority of the Divine Scriptures wavers."5

The second rule follows from the first. Never rest satisfied with my interpretation of the text but always seek new meaning. Reading relies on the restlessness of desire. If I am to approach the text sacramentally, I am to admit the limitations of my interpretation. The text will always overflow with interpretative possibilities and to rest satisfied with any one of mine is to betray the semi-otic instruction of the incarnation which teaches that the word or the interpretation is always a carrier towards the possibility of the love of one beyond myself. The sign is an opportunity for self-transcendence into community and away from the fixity of my self-interest. To abide by a finished interpretation is to finalize the 'sign' as the ultimate object of my love rather than that which the sign ceaselessly activates us to pursue.

Thus it may be understood that nothing should hold us on the road, for the Lord Himself, although He saw fit to become our road, did not wish to hold us upon it, but wishes that we pass on, lest we cling in infirmity to temporal things, even though He took them up and wore them for our salvation . . . the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine Providence for our salvation . . . We should use it, not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight like that in a road or in vehicles or in other instruments so that . . . we love those things by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried.6

Reading requires that we loosen the ties to our habits of understanding and remain open to and search out the horizon of new interpretations that may affect and alter our own.

To read the scriptures incarnationally is to participate in a curriculum of divine love or the process of conversion. Reading affords the time for a self-transcendence that leads to moral and communal reform. To read authentically is to read repentantly. Practiced in withdrawing from one's habitual interpretations of the text, readers gain a new perspective on these former readings—the stock material of their past perceptions of the world. Reading challenges these perspectives permitting one a glance at the monadic character of one's former orientation.

That piety which can do nothing except believe in and accede to the authority of the sacred books, will force him to lament his own situation . . . knowledge of a good hope thrusts a man not into boasting but into lamentation. This attitude causes him to ask with constant prayers for the consolation of divine assistance lest he fall into despair . . .7

Reading helps me to remember a past that had been shadowed in forget-fulness and in my remembering recognize the possibility for transforming my future. Faith leads Augustine says, to hope.

But, faith that leads to hope also leads to charity—the consummate re-ordering of my affections. When I read repentantly, I read with an openness to another's interpretation. No longer held captive to the limitations of my own perspective, I read the text waiting and readied for another's reading, for in fact, every other's reading. Reading repentantly prepares me for communication and community—for the love of the neighbor.

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.8

Finally, my reading not only readies me for community—preparing me to hear an other, but this same readiness acts as a sign or a sacrament for an other. My reading is an invitation or a call for your reading—a repetition of the incarnation that instructs you in the semiotics of the divine economy. I become a sacrament or an agency for your moral transformation—an opportunity for your encounter with the text. My reading readies me for and helps me to cultivate the fabric of community through time.

The nexus between scripture reading and community cultivation made transparent in On Christian Doctrine revolutionizes the meaning of culture and with it the meaning of the synthesis between knowledge, ethics and religious life. Culture, we learn is the activity wherein our ability for the self-critique characteristic of socratic reasoning meets with and exhausts itself in our moral transformation. Authentic reading motors a temporally experienced process of rational and communal cultivation. To read after God is to prepare ourselves for community discourse. This, for Augustine is the great contribution of Christian culture.

Augustine's Confessions offers countless examples of the self-critical and moral character of reading. Most famous among them is of course Augustine's account of his conversion, 'tolle, lege, tolle, lege'. Augustine recounts the call from the children playing in the garden. The children's offering is a vehicle of grace —the text is made present before Augustine and he stops before it—attends to its authoritative presence and takes it for the horizon of redemptive possibilities that it affords.

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl, saying and repeating over and over again 'pick up and read, pick up and read . . . I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find.9

After halting, Augustine "hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit . . ."10 Standing before the text, Augustine sheds his mood and the darkness of his personal narrative and avails himself of the character and affect of the text. His past interpretations silenced, "it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart."11 Augustine reads the apostle Paul and self-critique morphs into a hope gifted through the new perspective of the text. Finally, as in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine's conversion with and through the text initiates him into the circle of hermeneutical charity or the community of readers whose interpretative humility and willingness to search the text inspires others to read. Augustine recounts,

With a face now at peace . . . I told everything to Alypius . . . He asked to see the text I had been reading. I showed him and he noticed a passage following that which I had read. I did not now how the text went on; but the continuation was 'Receive the person who is weak in faith'. Alypius applied this to himself, and he made that known to me. From there we went in to my mother and told her.12

Of course, Augustine's giving the text to Alypius is already foreshadowed by the prior gospel reading by Antony—a reading Augustine now hears—now authentically recalls as a gift. "For I had heard how Antony happened to be present at the gospel reading, and took it as an admonition addressed to himself when the words were read 'Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me' (Matt. 19:21)."13

Still, Antony's gospel reading is not the only reading that Augustine can, now that he is open to the interpretative activities of others, remember authentically. Augustine's conversion into reading reaches back as well to earlier accounts of reading, most noteworthy for our purposes here, an earlier reading by his friend Alypius. The event is detailed in the Confessions, vi. 12. Here we learn that Alypius was a student of Augustine. Alypius had suffered from a passion for the circus games. Augustine had been aware of Alypius's preoccupation and had meant for some time to offer the student some guidance but had, he says, "forgotten my intention to have a word with him . . ."14 One day, when Augustine was teaching, he continues,

I was sitting at the usual place and my pupils were present before me. He [Alypius] came in, greeted me, sat down and gave his attention to the subject under discussion. I was expounding a text that happened to be in my hands. While I was expounding it, it seemed opportune to use an illustration from the circus games which I used to make my point clear, and to make the matter clearer and more agreeable I was bitingly sarcastic about those captivated by this folly . . .15

The teacher's text presentation, we here see, does little to advance the learning of his students. "Forgetting" if you will, the redemptive possibilities of a text, Augustine reads instrumentally searching only "to make my point clear and to make the matter clearer." In the process he insensitively makes use of the example of those drawn to the circus unmindful of how such a caustic reference to the topic might poorly affect Alypius sitting in the lecture room. By contrast, Augustine recounts how his failed reading is offset by Alypius's own response to the text. Where Augustine remained aloof from the affects of the (unidentified) text, Alypius "took it to heart" and "on hearing those words he jumped out of the deep pit in which he was sinking by his own choice and where he was blinded by an astonishing pleasure."16 Whereas Augustine's reading remained mired in the myopic gaze of habitual reading, Alypius availed himself of the text's ability to challenge his common narrative. As a result, Alypius's authentic reading becomes instructive for his teacher. Alypius's giving over to his reading becomes a giving to read for the Augustine in chapter viii. As Brian Stock nicely articulates, "as narrator, Augustine's interest is focused on the act of reading as an agency of change, through which the student teaches his master . . ."17

Furthermore, as Stock has also noted, Alypius's "reading becomes the enactment of a secular sacrament . . ."18 Augustine's scriptural reading is preceded by a parallel secular reading. More importantly, Augustine only appreciates the character of Alypius's prior reading after he has read scripturally for it is only after having read scripturally that Augustine invites Alypius to read, again (in stark contrast to Augustine's failure to prompt or hear Alypius's earlier reading in vi. 12). Scriptural reading, in this instance helps illuminate the character of authentic reading and reasoning made possible through secular texts as well. That both Augustine and religionists will want to distinguish between the scriptural reading and non-scriptural reading does not negate the fact, here illustrated, that readers may experience a similar mode of reasoning and/or cultivation when reading both sacred and secular texts.

Not only therefore is it mistaken to indict believers on charges of irrationality, it may even be the case that non-believers have much to learn about reasoning practices from believers themselves. It is worth reviewing the central insights afforded by scriptural reading as described above. First, scriptural reading illuminates the need persons have for common texts to read. One needn't assume a doctrine of universal sin to appreciate how persons need shared texts and or culture in order to facilitate communication. The more we let go of the enlightenment model's confidence in a shared anthropology and/or universal truths, the more we recognize that persons communicate successfully when they have recourse to a shared narrative or text around which to begin conversation. It may be that a text offers a merely superficial impression of common ground—that is, the text functions regulatively to bring communicators together. Not only needn't texts provide sources of completed agreement for readers, any agreement concerning the meaning of a text explodes in the course of parallel reading anyway. Shared texts are important only to the extent that they help participants begin the process of cultivating the possibility for understanding. Still, they are important for this purpose.

At the same time readers cannot allow these texts to become objectified. To permit the objectification of culture is to stifle the cultivation and moral transformation of any reader. Texts must not languish in the clarity of their set interpretations but must be stimuli for conversation. It is the conversation that arises around texts that challenges readers to review their prior positions and readies them to hear alternative positions. Seen from this perspective, written culture is the condition of the possibility of community discourse. Without written culture, persons remain insufficiently cultivated to engage in discourse. Written culture however only cultivates when it is read as the subject matter of conversation. Contrary to the position common to 19th century German idealism, written culture is not a residue of past truths, waiting to be agreed with or dismissed for it is not the purpose of culture to get reality right. Rather, written culture is an aid to human communication and sociality. As such, written culture need never be dismissed—it may always be permitted to endure and it may always be asked to change. Written culture is worth remembering and worth altering— both to the extent that it offers persons opportunities for individual and communal cultivation.

Third, scriptural reading described by Augustine illuminates a reasoning practice that is inextricable from moral cultivation. At once, Augustine's reasoning is distinguishable from a profile of reasoning as correspondence to truth or optics. On the other hand, Augustine's scriptural reasoning differs too from a Habermasian profile of reasoning as consensus formation—though, for obvious reasons it is closer to the latter than the former. Reasoning as it emerges out of reading does not make me right. Rather, reasoning helps me to identify the fallacies of my past—it behaves repentantly. As we have seen, it offers a curriculum for how to love—not a basis for seeing the world properly. As a result, this reasoning effectively contends with the difficulties surrounding communicative action and offers a technique that permits persons to mediate between their self-interests and the rational demands of communicative action. To assume, like Habermas, that persons are ready made for rational discourse is to overlook the countless examples of failed discourse and to accept the utopian portrait of rational beings perpetuated by the enlightenment thinkers. Reasoning that emerges out of reading provides a necessary underpinning for communicative discourse. The icing on the cake of course is the fact that a communicative discourse cultivated by reading practices becomes more than a glorified enactment of the social contract but a functional performance of the hermeneutics of charity whereby persons not only listen to one another's claims instrumentally in order to protect their own interests, but engage in an authentic and charitable listening to an other's position.

In his book The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen Carter celebrates Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as an example of how the separation of church and state functions when it is healthy.19 Separation of church and state does not, for Carter mean (as it did for Locke) that the public square is free from religion. Rather, the separation of church and state means the granting of full autonomy to believers—an autonomy that allows them to make use of their religious beliefs as a rational basis for their policy positions. Implicit in Carter's portrait of this autonomy is a faith in religious reasoning. What Carter leaves out however is a much needed portrait of how Martin Luther King reasoned out of the gospels and to his position on civil rights. Skepticism around the rationality of religious belief will not recede unless religionists become more public about their reasoning processes. By so doing, not only will they begin to offset a paralyzing and morally destructive stereotype about religion, they might even help non-believers identify a more successful mode of integrating reason and social cultivation.


1. John Locke, "Letter Concerning Religious Toleration", trans. William Popple.

2. Ever since Robert Markus's work, however, there has been a move in Augustinian studies to consider the hebraic/scriptural facets of Augustine's thought over and against the neo-platonic influence. Of help for this essay is R. A. Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 1996, Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Intepretation (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 1996 and Chad Pecknold, Transforming Postliberal Theology (London: T&T Clark), forthcoming 2005.

3.  Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (NY: Macmillan Publishing Company), 1958, p. 14.

4. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, p. 38-9.

5. Ibid. p. 31.

6. Ibid. p. 30.

7. Ibid. p. 39.

8. Ibid. p. 30.

9.  Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1991, p.


10. Augustine, Confessions, p. 153.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Augustine, Confessions, p. 99.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation (Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University), 1996, p. 78.

18.  Stock, Augustine the Reader, p. 81.

19.  Stephen Carter, Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (NY: Anchor Books), 1993, p. 228.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2005, Vol. 55,  No 2.