Wednesday, October 11, 2006

De-Sanctifying Reason

Last night I started reading The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark. Stark started off as a sociologust specializing in cults. He turned his attention to a sociological investigation of the rise of Christianity, and since then he's been writing about the sociological impact of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular.

If it weren't for Stark's name on the cover, I would have been turned off -- it sounds like another apology for the "bourgeois" status quo. And I may conclude that it is. But for now, I'm hooked on the main thesis.

Stark argues that the concept of a personal God not only fueled Christian theology, but that science and capitalism grew out of the same inspiration. The key thought here seems to be that if God is a person -- and not an impersonal force or "being-ness" -- then God must be rational. But God is the creator of all things out of nothing. Therefore, reality must have a fundamentally rational structure and this structure is progressively revealed to us.

These assumptions grew out of the Greco-Roman assumption that reality is rational and the Jewish assumption that history is linear, with a beginning and perhaps an end. (I say perhaps because eschatology was not a dominant theme in ancient Judaism, although messianism is.) These two assumptions are combined in Christianity to yield the doctrine that human reason can progressively understand the structure of reality.

By contrast, Stark argues, the "Eastern" religions embraced a love of paradox and contradiction that prevented them from even wanting to investigate the essencee of the real. Judaism and Islam, he claims, treated all revelation as already over and done with, requiring only intepretation. And the Greeks, he notes, had both engineering grounded in experience and observation (trial and error), and metaphysical speculation, but they lacked the assumptions necessary for a theory informed by observation and observation informed by theory. That is, they had engineering and metaphysics, but because they were isolated, they did not have science. And Stark claims that Christian theology was the crucible in which science was formed.
This coheres with a few other things I've read about the origins of modern science (Pippin, Funkenstein, Dupre). But I need to sit down with a historian of science and see how well Stark's thesis stands up.

Stark's thesis suggests that we're badly amiss in thinking of the Enlightenment in terms of the triumph of reason over faith. It would be more accurate to say that the Enlightenment was a de-sanctification of reason (and also a "de-deification of nature," as Nietzsche puts it in Gay Science 109).

In future posts I will explore how the de-sanctification of reason makes possible, but also demands, the "rational critique of reason" that Adorno announces in Negative Dialectic.


Blogger dickie ticker said...

Not sure why a personal God has to be rational (logos), any more than an abstract being. Plotinus and others managed a perfectly rational system, with no hint of a personal God.

11:56 AM  

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